Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ornamental Marketplace

I believe greenhouse bedding plant growers and garden center proprietors were in a bit of a panic mode last year, as the sagging economy seemed to loom disastrous for the upcoming ornament season. Much to everyone’s surprise, last year the consumer spent more on ornamentals than most expected. It was not a total loss.

This year so far seems to look quite positive. We gauge our opinion on the type of products ordered by our customers. Ornamental flower seed is running ahead of last year. This tells me that growers are trying to be a little more aggressive with greenhouse plant production. Our plug & liner business is running ahead nicely as well, and that seems quite positive too.

We as a company tend to specialize with the mid size to smaller ornamental grower. Most of our customers are growers and direct retailers. From the products being ordered this season, I think this spring is going to be a good one for those that sell direct to the consumer. For the bigger wholesale grower who is forced to deal with the big boxes, the jury is still out.

I believe the smaller direct retailer can do much more for the consumer than the big boxes. First of all, the level of expertise and technical support will always be greater. The smaller direct retailer also can provide more unique products, as the big boxes do not vary much from the tried and true; those products they know will have a following.

The smaller direct grower can and should have a closer relationship with their customers, making the buying experience one of total satisfaction. I believe the knowledgeable gardener looks to the standalone garden center for quality products and expert advice. That’s a leg up in my opinion.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hats off to our friend Ted

Back in my early years with the Harris Seeds Company, I was the catalog and advertising manager. With a whole bunch of motivation and inspiration as the result of my new position in the seed business, with camera in hand, I would often venture out to the fields for flower and vegetable photo sessions. During most of those summer weekends, I would routinely encounter Ted Superak, one of the most prolific plant breeders our company has ever known. Ted worked tirelessly in his workshop and in vegetable trials, from dawn to dusk. Dedication like his was not common elsewhere, but the fruits of his labor have filled the Harris catalog with many new varieties over his tenure as plant breeding specialist.

Multipik, Superpik and Supersett summer squashes, as well as many zucchini types, are evidence of his fine work. Carnival, Royal Ace and Flying Saucer are additional squash varieties that he has introduced.

Perhaps his greatest single accomplishment up until now has been his outstanding work with pumpkin breeding. Through his plant breeding efforts, Ted had single handedly made the Harris pumpkin program the most successful in the world. He has been responsible for introducing the very first line-up of powdery mildew tolerant hybrid pumpkins to grower across the land. Magic Lantern, Gladiator, Mystic plus and many, many more can be credited to our friend Ted.

Ted is a very unassuming and humble man, with the type of integrity that has made the seed business what it is today. We need more men and women like Ted.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Proactive… not reactive… makes sense!

Diane Eggert, president of the Farmers' Market Federation of New York, is the point person for a recently submitted grant on food safety and food handling. The Harris Seeds Company will be supporting the process and will have an employee from our company joining the committee that will guide the direction of this program. In addition to Cornell University that has been at the educational forefront of this project, committee members will include direct market farmers, food safety inspectors, health department officials, and other industry associates.

Food borne illnesses associated with vegetable production can be devastating to agriculture. If such illnesses were to occur to the local direct vegetable marketers in New York, or any other state for that matter, the financial losses would be staggering. Consumer confidence in the grow local…sell fresh phenomenon that is sweeping the nation could come to a sudden halt, driving customers back to the chain stores in peak selling seasons. Being proactive and not reactive at this point makes perfectly good sense.

If this grant gets awarded this summer, The Food Safety Prevention for Farm Direct Marketing Project will study the project in depth and eventually bring these issues to direct marketers across the state with the assistance of Cooperative Extension. This process will ensure that direct market growers will deliver quality food that is safe for the consumer. As the project progresses this fall, we will provide you with timely updates.

If you would like to read more, please go to the following link:


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Trial by Jury in the Vegetable Seed Business

The “trial” in the vegetable seed business occurs when we plant new and existing vegetable varieties in the field for evaluation. Product experts within our company are the folks on the “jury”.

Vegetable trials each year take place in many locations. In the back of our building here in Rochester, New York, we have many raised beds where we evaluate new introductions for greens and root crops. In a neighboring county, we employ the services of a vegetable seed research farm. Here we are looking at sweet corn, peppers and tomatoes, squash and many other species. Our two sales people often locate vegetable trials with some of their customers. Our pumpkin trial each year is grown and cared for by a grower just east of here. Grower trials are very important as the grower is one who is helping us make valuable product decisions. In addition, in the heat of August, we take a swing through the Midwest each year to visit trial grounds in Illinois and Wisconsin.

There are many criteria we consider for making product decisions on possible new additions to our catalogs. As with sweet corn, we are looking at the following characteristics: plant height, ear height off the ground, plant color, hush color, husk tip cover, ear length, kernel row count, tip fill, disease resistance, days to maturity and eating quality. Eating quality has risen to the top of the chart, as the consumer has now come to expect it.

We like to see some improvements with possible new introductions. As with peppers, disease resistance, size, shape and fruit wall thickness are very important. Each species will have a specific set of criteria we use for evaluation. Detailed notes are taken and returned to the plant breeders for their consideration.

The process is very expensive time consuming, but in the end, we will have made good product decisions for our customers. We ultimately deliver better varieties to growers across the USA.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The California Pack Trials

Now what on earth can this mean? Well, “Pack” refers to a type of container that is used to grow annuals and perennials in a greenhouse environment. “Trial” refers to the process where these ornamentals are grown to maturity for observation and evaluation…thus "Pack Trials".

Every year, many of the flower breeding companies from the USA and overseas come together in California to display their products to visiting seed and plant distributors like Harris Seeds. Ornamental varieties from seed and from cuttings, both new and existing, are grown in various greenhouses up and down coastal California. The object is to have everything in full flower for observations purposes. A group of us from Harris Seeds will be visiting each of these greenhouses in April, and it is always a very special experience.

Two of the most spectacular presentations are from the Pan American Seed Company in Santa Paula and Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy, California. Pan Am is the trend setter in the industry as they explore and educate other seed companies on all aspects of marketing flowers to the consumer. Many of their plant introductions have won the coveted All American Selections award. Their displays of flowering annuals are stunning.

Goldsmith probably has the most dramatic presentation, with over an acre of breath-taking, colorful flowers in bloom that radiate throughout the greenhouse… It’s a jaw-dropper! Goldsmith has been a prolific plant breeding company over the years, with many of their introductions gracing the gardens of America today.

Unfortunately, these product presentations are not open to the public, so we will do our best to take all sorts of photos and pass them on to you when we return.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A very special Sweet Corn program

Our vegetable seed manager, Mark Willis, and I will be working with sweet corn plant breeder Dr. David McKenzie this summer to bring a very special sweet corn program to the Rochester area. Dave is an old friend that originally worked for Harris Seeds back in the 1980s.

Dave has developed a very unique brand of sweet corn called Mirai, which means taste of the future in Japanese. Out of this program came a variety known as the desert corn, or Mirai 003. We call it Mr. Mini Mirai and it is truly fantastic. We sent a box of it last year to a friend in Indiana to have his family and friends sample. It had been sitting in a cooler for over a week, and when our friend tried it, he said it was the best tasting corn he had ever eaten!

We will be selecting some local growers around Rochester to get some of this corn planted. We will be shipping in samples early this summer to have restaurants try it out with their customers. We are fairly convinced that once we get it to the tables of local Rochester residents, it will be a huge hit. It is already very big on the West Coast.

To learn more about this variety, see page 27 of our 2010 Professional Vegetable Growers’ Catalog. You will also find it on page 20 of our current home garden catalog or on our web site.

This will be fun! Please stay tuned...

Monday, March 8, 2010

A much needed expense…

In the early 1900s, the Harris Seeds set the standard by being first company in America to test seeds for acceptable germination and print the results on every package of seed sold. This quality control practice has been part of our business for over 100 years.

Typically, every lot of seed that comes through our door will have a sample drawn and it is sent to our germination lab for testing. Thousands of these quality control tests are conducted on various seed lots every year.

Fifty or 100 seeds are counted out and placed on a moistened blotter and stored in air tight plastic containers, or in specific germination chambers. Either light or darkness is required for proper germination. After a specific amount of time, germination counts begin. After the final count on any of the tests, a percent for germination is established. Weak seedlings are not considered in the final count.

There are two standards in the country for acceptable germination. Federal standards for acceptable germination were created some time ago, and all seed companies must comply with these regulations. Harris Seeds standards for acceptable germination have always much higher than the federal standards, as we believe it is essential for providing a high quality product.

In the event that a seed lot does not meet our standard for acceptable germination, the lot will get rejected and returned to the supplier for replacement.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rake hay while the sun shines…

And so it is with seed companies too. Most seed companies are very seasonal, depending on only a few months in the year to make their profits. For the Harris Seeds Company, sales begin to trickle in during the fall months, but not nearly enough to make our company profitable.

The sales season really spikes right after the Christmas holidays. Orders from home gardeners and professional growers start to pour in at that time. The order pattern stays peaked right through April and then it will slow down. By the time May arrives, home garden orders have virtually disappeared but we do a fair amount of professional grower business that month. Starting in June, we begin to lose money, and right on through the fall. Most of our overhead expenses remain, and during this time, we have virtually no revenue.

During the summer months, we are very busy in the marketing department. Catalog production begins in May and continues right through the fall, with our home garden catalog being the last one to get published in December.

Summer and early fall months are also filled with flower and vegetable trial evaluations. Countless hours of observations are made on potential new flower and vegetable varieties. It has always been our practice to first observe flower and vegetable varieties in the greenhouse and in the field before we consider them for inclusion in our product line. If they do not perform and live up to our expectations, they do not make it into our catalogs. Participating in the variety selection process is probably the most interesting and rewarding part of the seed business for me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Those Wonderful Gardeners!

Allow me to take a diversion this day, and move on to a subject that it clearly the most important – the gardener – the customer.

I have often said that it is my belief that as a defined group of individuals within our society, gardeners seem to have a leg up on others. I have known many over the years, including my father, and when I recount who they are and what they have stood for, it seems to me that as a group of individuals, they tend to be honest and caring folks… what more could America want? Gardening is a most wholesome activity, and it draws in those that truly appreciate the process for what it is. Yes, I am not na├»ve, as they are always a few bad apples in the barrel, but if we had to sort groups of individuals for what they did and rank them, gardeners would be right up there at the top of the list.

To illustrate my point, allow me to share a very short letter with you. It came to my desk last season, unsigned. I read it and shed a heartfelt tear for this man. I shall let you be the judge:

“This will be my last order from you. I am now 88 years old and have been buying seeds from you since I came home from WW11 in 1946. I will be starting these seeds for my daughter’s family and my son’s family. I will be living in a senior’s citizen’s home. Maybe I can help their gardener.”