Top revenue crop in Pa. likely to be nursery plants

Suburban land care is a multibillion-dollar `green industry'

May 12, 2002|By Bob Fernandez | Bob Fernandez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - The nation is going plant crazy.

This year - even with a drought - the largest revenue crop in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and about 10 other states is likely to be nursery products such as begonias, pansies, petunias, azaleas, other annuals and perennials, and shade trees.

And that is only part of the economic story unfolding in the back yard, a growing number of agricultural economists and trade organizations say.

With the nation in the grip of quickening suburbanization and heavily influenced by the consumer behavior of plant-passionate female baby boomers, suburban land care and gardening is a multibillion-dollar industry that can be considered one of the largest U.S. farm sectors.

`Green industry'

The economists and trade organizations have coined the term "green industry" to describe the collection of businesses that include nurseries; retail stores that sell flowers and backyard goods; and landscapers, tree trimmers, and lawn-fertilizing firms.

"I've heard people say the largest crop in the U.S. is sod, because it's everywhere," said Linda Hutton, chief of the environmental, economics and demographics branch of the National Agriculture Statistics Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Flowers, potted plants and grasses "are valid crops" because they generate sales, use land, need fertilizers and drive economic activity, she said.

As a nation, "we're converting agricultural land into a different type of agricultural land," said George W. Hamilton Jr., senior turf-grass lecturer at Pennsylvania State University. "If you didn't put turf grass or ornamental shrubs out in front of your yard, what would you put?"

The green industry produces at least $50 billion in economic output in the United States, is expanding up to 7 percent a year, and puts 1.6 million people to work, according to various trade and economic estimates. The federal government said that landscaping and horticultural employment grew at double the rate of overall employment through the 1990s.

States such as Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Illinois have studied the green industry at the state level and found its output substantial.

Penn State report

Last year, Penn State researchers reported that the green industry contributed $3.3 billion to Pennsylvania's economy and employed 107,000 people directly or through spin-off services, such as trucking or banking. It is the second-largest farm sector in Pennsylvania after the dairy industry, they said.

The study was partially funded by $25,000 from the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association, but the professors who did the work said the funding had no influence on the findings, and that their research was independent.

In New Jersey, vegetables - including corn and tomatoes - are no longer the leading farm product, according to state statistics. For several years, nursery crops have been the largest revenue producer. Many nurseries and greenhouses are in a flower belt in south New Jersey's Cumberland County.

"It seems to be an expanding market. Every time we turn around we wonder where it all goes," said Denny Blew, chief operating officer of the 100-employee Centerton Nursery Inc. in Bridgeton, Pa. "People in the U.S. have moved beyond the state of necessities and now they are into the mode of wants."

The Centerton Nursery has about 2 million square feet of greenhouse space, and sells flowers and shrubs with brand names such as Hasslefree rose, Trophytaker Daylily, and BlewLabel Perennial.

Dealing with drought

The East Coast drought has worried nursery operators and landscapers, who say homeowners are likely to delay some backyard projects and purchases this year. Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have implemented water-use restrictions.

But in Pennsylvania, the landscaping trade association, aided by the report showing the green industry's $3.3 billion contribution to the state's economy, has taken steps to minimize them. An early draft of the state's water restrictions said homeowners and landscapers could use only handheld garden hoses to water newly seeded lawns or newly planted trees and shrubs. After lobbying by the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association, the state included sprinklers, too.

Different parts of the nation are experiencing the green industry in different ways.

In the Northeast, local and state governments have passed zoning requirements that force developers to extensively landscape properties in many instances. Toll Bros. Inc., one of the nation's largest home builders, operates its own tree nurseries in Lambertville, N.J., and Haymarket, Va., to help meet those requirements.

On the West Coast, Oregon has emerged as a nursery powerhouse because of its superb topsoil and amenable climate. From the Midwest, Michigan exports truckloads of pansies and petunias.

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