I wrote an article last year about the 2003 National Floriculture Forum (NFF) and wanted to give people an update on this year’s forum. By way of background, NFF is a conference of academic and industry professionals who belong to the American Society of Horticultural Science’s working groups for education and research in the area of floricultural crops. The groups get together to discuss current issues and problems and brainstorm future research needs. Usually, the conference also gives people a chance to see different areas of the United States and commercial production facilities in those areas as well.
The 2004 NFF was held February 20-22 in Miami, Fla., at Fairchild Tropical Garden and included tours of South Florida production and processing facilities. The American Floral Endowment is the primary sponsor of the forum; additional sponsors included Deglas Greenhouses, GPN, H.E. Anderson, Lambert Peat Moss, Ludy Greenhouses, Micro Grow Greenhouse Systems, P.L. Light Systems and Wadsworth Control Systems.
Each year, the forum has a different theme or concept behind the meeting, this year’s theme was “Making the Connection between the Industry and the Consumer… What is the message we’re sending?” The reason for the subject is that we are currently enjoying the fruits of many years of marketing and promotion for flowers, and gardening’s popularity has never been higher. Good news, eh? However, the problem as I see it is that while we promote the product beautifully, we need a lot of work on promoting the industry that produces it.
Our production nurseries are coming under fire for chemical use, water and nutrient run off, higher production costs and a perception by the public that while flowers are great, nurseries are bad. Wherever nurseries and suburban communities brush up against each other the nursery is perceived as a threat to public health. Put a person in a spray suit in the nursery and watch the litigations fly. It doesn’t seem to matter that our chemicals are far less toxic than in the past or our water use and fertilizer practices are proactive; the public just doesn’t get that in order to have flowers, someone has to grow them, and to grow them you need to use chemicals.
What are we doing to change the public’s view of how we grow flowers? Are we facing the same future as our partners in the food crop industry? Will your children be buying finished petunias grown in Chile or some other offshore location? I worry that our production industry needs to focus on its image, so the concept behind this year’s forum was to see what was out there in terms of efforts aimed at changing our image.
The first day of the forum was a tour of a variety of south Florida facilities. The first stop was hosted by the Association of Floral Importers of Florida and took the group to USA Bouquet, a major flower processing facility located next to the Miami airport. The sheer mass of material being processed in the Miami area is something that is impossible to see in any other location, and the group toured coolers and bouquet assembly lines. Seeing Costa Color and Costa Foliage is another unique-to-Florida experience. Production at these facilities is totally different than in other states, and again, the sheer size of production and how production is managed was an eye opener for visitors from the North. We also stopped at Kerry’s Bromeliads for a tour of orchid and bromeliad production. Innovative production ideas and some new marketing concepts really made a great tour.
We had a great panel of speakers, I felt really lucky to have the input we did for a good variety of sources. John Gaydos, from Proven Winners (PW) spoke on marketing to the Á public, which included, what I thought was, a very innovative approach to Master Gardeners; PW has a special program for these invaluable volunteers across the United States that brings them on board to trial new crops and give the company feedback. The Master Gardener program is the single most underused tool for getting the word out to the rest of the public about how our industry is changing to be proactive in terms of the environment. Master Gardeners are, in essence, professional gardeners; they are, as a rule, well educated, engaged in teaching the public and rabid plant lovers. In short, they are the best word-of-mouth way to reach the plant consuming public on the importance of local production and keep our production nursery vital in the public eye.
The University of Florida’s Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator, Tom Wichman, also spoke about Florida’s program as an example of how much work this group does in a given year. For 2003, the Florida Master Gardener Program reported nearly 4,000 active volunteers, generating more than 300,000 volunteer hours on the phone with the general public and completing volunteer garden related projects in their communities. The number of general public contacts was more than 700,000 in one year, and that is person-to-person contact! How much would that be worth in marketing dollars? This is the kind of communication our industry needs to tap into if we are going to maintain a positive image with the average consumer.
Mike Maunder, Director of Fairchild Gardens, was a fantastic host and gave an excellent overview of how botanic gardens can be engaged to help get information out. Maunder stressed that the linkage between industry and botanic gardens needs to be kept dynamic so that botanic gardens can help educate the public about key issues. Botanic gardens are not only places to educate on image-related issues, they have a role in germplasm for new crops and display new plant material. Additionally, they are also the perfect setting for environmental debate and learning, as they deal with thousands of people each year, and can help to educate consumers about the realities of environment and our industry.
The America in Bloom program was presented for city-wide promotion of the beauty of flowers, this program has been very successful across the United States and offers us another platform to interact with the public and get the name of your business into the general public. This is such a strong program for growers as well as retailers to use to promote good will in the community, and it creates opportunities for more good press for your business. Being proactive is the best way to avoid becoming reactive!
My favorite presentation at the conference was from Tom Harger of Crompton Corporation. I asked Tom to present how the chemical industry is working to improve its image in America. His presentation was incredible, and it both shocked the group and underlined the problems of getting a good image for the chemical industry. Think about it: If we have image problems as an industry, what must it be like to be a chemical producer when the public wants to believe that chemicals are never needed? The bulk of ignorance about improvements in chemical efficacy, reduction in toxicity and alternatives to chemicals is daunting. How do you deal with the public about chemicals? Do you reinforce how far we have come form the days of DDT, or do you support their fears of what is essential to both flower and food production in the world today? I know I have been guilty of sidestepping this issue in the past with consumers, and I think we need to educate not obfuscate the fact that some chemicals are necessary in almost every aspect of our lives.
There were many more excellent speakers at NFF, and I want to thank them all for their time and information. I really believe we need to have a chance for researchers from around the United States to get together and compare notes. Our sponsors also were fantastic as well, as the operations that took the time to allow us into their nurseries and teach us about what they do. It was a great experience.
So what is the message we are sending? Well, we seem to be telling the public that flowers and plants are good, but we are hiding what is needed to produce this material. Because we hide our production industry from the public, it remains a target; we need to change that, and all of us need to play a role in educating the public on what we do. If you are a grower facing urban expansion; start inviting Master Gardeners to your operation; explain how you produce plants; emphasize how you are working to reduce impacts on the environment and the surrounding public areas; underline your efforts to raise the quality of life for your community. The higher your profile as an addition to the beauty of your area, the less likely you are to face problems down the line. We have an existing machine that is doing an awesome job of promoting flowers and flowering plants; we have a bewildering array of new crops to keep the gardening public interested. However, to protect your business, the bulk of making sure people see you in a positive light remains on the shoulders of the nursery owner. Work with your state and national organizations to build PR for growers. I think, as a national industry, we are still not doing enough.
This year’s forum addressed how to send a positive message to our end consumer.