In this article, Must Have Perennials likes to shine a spotlight on one of its long-time partners, Emerald Coast Growers. Emerald Coast is a major wholesale supplier of young plants to growers throughout North America, specializing in ornamental grasses, perennials, and select annuals. David Babikow started Emerald Coast in 1991, at a growing facility in Pensacola, Florida. In later years, Emerald Coast also opened a satellite growing facility in Lancaster, PA.
The Must Have Perennials licensee network ensures their varieties make it to the retail space in fine form.
We had the opportunity to sit down and speak with VP Al Mueller and Marketing Manager John Friel to get an inside look at Emerald Coast’s operations.
- Congratulations on Emerald Coast Growers recently celebrating its 30th anniversary. What do you credit EGC’s success with?
Thank you! We pride ourselves on having two important things: great employees and their independence. These elements have led to much of their success. Good employees can make or break a company and we work with people who have great ideas and know how to find great new products. This allows the owners to do what they do best, which is developing relationships throughout their industry.
We’ve remained independent for over 30 years, and we have a long-standing reputation in the industry as a trusted, family-owned business. We work hard to be a customer and broker friendly. The Babikow family has been in horticulture since the 1800s and current owner is very hands-on. We also take pride in providing exceptional customer service. If our customers have a problem, we have a problem.
- John, your writing forms the basis for much of Emerald’s Coast’s distinctive voice within the industry. Dr. Allan Armitage has called you “the best writer in horticulture.” Can you tell us about your journey through horticulture?
I got my start in the industry many years ago, as a truck driver at Green Leaf Enterprises in Lancaster, PA. While working in horticulture, I enrolled in some college writing classes, which led me to writing for local media outlets, and then columns in industry trade publications. At the same time, I continued working in most areas of the horticulture industry, eventually landing in sales and marketing. I joined Emerald Coast Growers as Marketing Manager about 10 years ago. From a marketing perspective, I think it’s important to remember that people have an emotional connection to their plants. Writing and messaging that celebrates that connection really seems to resonate with our audience.
- You have production facilities in Florida and PA. How does this help set Emerald Coast apart from other growers?
Emerald Coast was started in Pensacola in 1991, with a focus on ornamental grasses. The panhandle climate there is perfectly suited for grass production, so the location was a natural fit. When we added the growing facility in Pennsylvania, it allowed us to diversify our product line. We’re able to work with more cool season grasses and perennials that are better suited to a wider range of climate conditions. In addition, this makes it easier to reach our customers in the north with lower transportation costs.
- What are some of the challenges you’ve contended with in the past 2 years?
We’ve dealt with quite a few over the course of the pandemic. Labor was a big issue, and we dealt with staffing shortages but never needed to lay anyone off. We dedicated a lot of time and resources to employee safety and staffing bounced back the following year. Transportation and logistics continue to be big challenges as freight companies are feeling these effects too. At our Florida facility we changed the shipping point and consolidated facilities for better product flow. So far, it’s been very successful. Like everyone else, we’re dealing with supply chain issues and inflation affecting fertilizer, soil, and plastics. We’ve been streamlining processes and finding ways to increase our efficiency in response. The past two years bear out what old-timers have always said, “hard times are good times for this industry.” It may be the case that this inflationary period continues that trend, hopefully our industry weathers that well.
- You’ve invested in R&D infrastructure recently, how has that impacted your business?
We recently built an R&D facility in Florida to aid in our approaches to plant production. One reason breeders come to us is our proven record of selecting successful new varieties and quickly getting them into propagation and production. We also have active trial gardens in Florida and Pennsylvania. They make a great showcase for visitors and are great for marketing. These facilities attract breeders and put us in position to be first to get pot trials, indoors and outdoors.
- EGC is known for your work in ornamental grasses, how has the incorporation of other perennials helped your growth?
It’s true that we’re known as “the grass guys” but we also saw that there was high customer demand for bread-and-butter perennials. In the late 90s we expanded our product line to include perennials, selling directly to brokers. Production really took off by the mid-2000s, and with that increase in demand, perennials now make up 35% of our business. Grass demand has also consistently increased as consumers continue to see the benefits of adding grass as accent marks in gardens.
- What Must Have Perennials varieties have been strong performers in your product line?
Those bread-and-butter varieties always sell well for us – inexpensive and reliable. Sun-loving plants always do well, and Geranium Rozanne is one of those staple plants. Buddleja ‘Butterfly Gold’ is a real gem and has also been performing well. The new Hellebores you gave us for trialing are starting to get a lot of interest from our trial garden visitors as well.
- What sorts of opportunities do you see in store for the industry as we look to the future?
Our industry gained a lot of new garden consumers during the pandemic, young people especially. We need to retain the interest of these new customers and provide products that fit their needs and interests, like sustainability.
Must Have Perennials is proud to partner with the team at Emerald Coast Growers to bring great perennial products to market. For more information, resources, and availability, visit Emerald Coast’s website.
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