US (PA): Greenhouse supply snags hit at key moment for industry

Greenhouse operators are having trouble getting supplies as they prepare for a year that’s all about keeping their pandemic boom going. Plants themselves seem to be plentiful enough, but pots and soil media are in tight supply because of labor and other issues, said Brian Sullivan, director of sales at Massachusetts-based Griffin Greenhouse Supplies.

Steve Garman, owner of Briar Rose Greenhouses in East Earl, has secured most of his production materials for 2022, but he’s still waiting for 6-inch and 4 1/2-inch round pots. “Before all this, we just always called our salesperson, and the stuff just showed up. We never thought about all the things involved with getting the product to us,” Garman said.

Garman and Sullivan spoke during a panel discussion at Penn State Extension’s Greenhouse Growers Day on Jan. 27 at Shady Maple. Slow shipments, backorders and rising prices are hitting greenhouses at what would be an inconvenient time any year, but especially this year. Americans, spending an increased amount of time at home, have rediscovered an interest in gardening. They’ve swelled greenhouses’ customer base by 20 million people in the past two years, Sullivan said. But as growers gear up for the critical spring sales season, greenhouse supply companies are dealing with labor shortages and high prices for plastic resin and transportation.

Sullivan was used to calling up a distributor and getting his orders in two or three days. Now, one manufacturer has a lead time of 400 days on some products. Prices for those items aren’t guaranteed until shipment, creating uncertainty for companies like Sullivan’s. The tight market has also cost growers their ability to negotiate with suppliers on price, said Tim Powell, owner of Powell's Greenhouse in Mickleton, New Jersey.

To be prepared, Powell has already brought in all of his soil mix and pots for 2022 and has placed orders for next year. “That’s unheard of. I mean, we’ve never done anything like that before, and now we’re just lucky to get the material,” he said. Adding to the complexity, Sullivan said growers of ornamentals and vegetable seedlings are competing for peat — a common potting mix ingredient — with the up-and-coming cannabis industry.

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