Recently, one of my clients had major problems with unrooted poinsettia cuttings from an offshore supplier. Losses occurred within the first day as lower leaves turned yellow then dropped off, and Botrytis moved into the stem. Shipments were arriving very warm (above 65° F) with melted ice packs. Why did this grower have major problems from a reputable cutting supplier? Did other growers have problems?
This type of situation sparks a favorite rant of mine — putting your trust, crops and livelihood in the hands of a few suppliers shipping from far away. You are told that propagators can safely supply a wide range of unrooted, ornamental cuttings, anything from angelonia to verbena. The price may be right, but can you trust your supplier?
Supplying good unrooted cuttings from offshore to a wide range of customers is no easy task. Offshore locations are chosen based on cheap labor, favorable environment and, hopefully, good shipping channels. But let’s look at the key problems that can occur with offshore production. First, cheap labor does not necessarily mean educated, trained workers. It takes a tremendous amount of training to get the process correct from start to finish. And it is not enough to get the process correct one week; you have to get it right every week, year after year.
Production locations need documented procedures and protocols to follow, and these should be the best they can be. That means constantly looking to upgrade your procedures and protocols. You do this by conducting research, listening to customer complaints and keeping up with your competition. If they develop an advanced shipping method, you should be doing the same thing.
You could grow the best stock plants, take the best cuttings, be disease and insect-free, and mess up everything with sloppy handling, packaging and shipping. That’s months of work down the drain in a matter of minutes or hours.
Vegetative cuttings can bruise easily when too many are held in the cutter’s hand at a time, roughly put into bags or squashed into the box. Botrytis can then move in, along with Erwinia. Ethylene production increases with leaf or stem damage as well, resulting in yellow leaves and slower rooting.
Most vegetative cuttings need to be cooled down to 50° F as soon as possible and kept at that temperature until they reach the final customer. That means getting them into a cooler as soon as possible at the production location, packaging them with ice packs in the box and shipping them quickly. Once they arrive at U.S. Customs, a broker needs to pick them up fast, repack them with ice and get them onto a truck. Any interruption in this process will result in more ethylene production, more disease problems and loss of cuttings.
Everyone knows that the warmer the shipping temperature, the more ethylene is produced and the more damage you will see. When the weather is hot, like it was this summer, it is imperative that boxes do not get above 60° F. You know that Fed Ex does not ship in temperature-controlled vehicles, and they take no responsibility for weather conditions. So, who is responsible for temperature control during shipping? The cutting supplier.
I haven’t even talked about cutting quality yet. When you are in the business of supplying unrooted cuttings, you should have well-established quality standards that are always followed no matter what. So, why do growers sometimes receive very small, thin poinsettia cuttings? Could it be that the production forecast for stock plants was off? Could it be that the weather conditions did not allow stock plants to produce thicker cuttings? I don’t know, but I would like to.
First, train, train, train! Training workers is a never-ending job. You cannot assume people will follow the procedures and protocols you set up; you must have quality checks in place and follow them. If your specs call for cuttings to be a certain thickness, number of leaves or length, don’t send anything unless it meets those standards. Growers can understand when demand exceeds supply; just let them know ahead of time rather than at the last minute. That way, they can find replacements and not be left with shortages.
Second, protect those cuttings at all costs. Remember, vegetative cuttings are a highly perishable product. Proper handling, packaging and temperature control are a must. If you are not cooling properly through the whole shipping channel, fix the problem. Don’t just blame the airlines, Fed Ex or the weather.
Third, admit your mistakes and shortfalls and fix them. Growers are putting their livelihoods in your hands. Stay in touch with your customers, and not just through your brokers. Figure on the following ratio: For every customer that actually calls in a complaint, there are probably 10 more who have the same problem but haven’t called it in. These people will probably switch suppliers the next time. That’s lost business that could take another 1-3 years to regain. With my clients, I always encourage them to contact their brokers or suppliers right away with any problems and get credit or replacements. But in the middle of the season, it is hard to get replacements in a timely manner. So, do the job right each time. Your customers are depending on you!