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Thursday, August 17, 2017 Vol. 81 No. 4

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Cover Story
A Bountiful Harvest
| Jennifer Polanz
>> Published Date: 7/30/2014
Right now all across the U.S., food gardeners—whether it’s their first time or 100th time—are enjoying the bounties of their harvest. They might even be thinking about canning and freezing to keep their hard-earned harvest lasting through the winter.

We’ve been seeing this resurgence for a while, but a recent special report from the National Gardening Association (NGA) confirmed food gardening is at the highest level since more than a decade ago. It’s good news as we look across the horticulture landscape and sales for annuals, foliage and cut flowers are either declining or flat (though perennials and potted plants remain strong points).

However, when it comes to all things edibles, it seems we just can’t get enough. According to the NGA report “Garden to Table: A 5-Year Look at Food Gardening in America,” spending on food gardening has increased 43% in the past five years.

Who’s Gardening?
For more than 35 years, Bruce Butterfield has been the Market Research Director for NGA, and he shared some of his insight from conducting this study. For instance, the study shows Millennials—those ages 18-34—are the fastest growing segment of food gardeners. But he tempers that statistic with a few others.

Millennials are the kids of the Baby Boomers, he notes, adding a couple more stats recently published in New York Times Magazine: 20% of young adults 18-34 are living at home with their parents. Another more telling statistic is that 50% of young adults are still getting money from their parents. “Financially, Millennials are struggling,” Bruce concludes.

There are a variety of factors involved in that, not the least of which is the mountain of student loan debt Millennials are accruing. According to a study from The Project on Student Debt, 71% of those graduating in 2012 held student loan debt, with the average being $29,400. Couple that with unemployment and lower earning potentials thanks to the recession and things start to get rough. This generation, while bigger than the Baby Boomers, is slower to marry (the median age for marriage is now the highest in modern history at 29 for men and 27 for women), citing lack of financial stability. That lack of financial stability is also a barrier toward home ownership; just 36% of Millennials own a home, the lowest level for the under-35 crowd since 1982.

Why all the deets on this generation? They’re the biggest opportunity—just not right this second. In other words, Millennials love to food garden, but their challenges can range from money to space and lack of knowledge. These are important items to note when putting together marketing pieces and product selections.

Other growth areas include gardeners in urban centers (up 29% in the past five years) and households participating in community gardens (up 200% over five years). Also, households with children increased participation in food gardening 25%, according to the NGA study, making families an important area of focus.

Identifying the Opportunities

Gary Jones, chief horticulturist at Armstrong Garden Centers, says the Millennial homeowners, and men especially, seem to be their fastest growing demographics. “Millennials love to cook,” he adds. “Make the connection of homegrown herbs and veggies to cooking and mixed drinks. Millennials seem to love multi-tasking plants, of which edibles are the most obvious.”

His team made it easier for customers by creating posters like “Tomatoes for Specific Uses” and “Peppers for Specific Uses.” “This seemed to answer a lot of questions and inspire experimentation,” Gary says.

Each of the growth areas presents challenges and opportunities. For example, gardeners in urban centers require very specific products and varieties that work in small spaces (and we’ve got a roundup of new products that help in small spaces on page 36). In relation to community gardens, you’ve got gardeners traveling distances to garden, which present new opportunities for products that make gardening on the go easier. With children, there are a vast array of products and opportunities out there to keep kids interested with child-themed gardening products and starter kits. Although, if your garden involves dirt, it’ll probably keep a kid interested.

Bruce adds there are several opportunities for small space gardening and community gardening that involve irrigation to reduce the need for constant watering. He also notes that Proven Winners has done a great job inspiring flower gardeners with its Idea Book, full of colorful ways customers can put together their varieties in the landscape and for hanging baskets and mixed containers. He suggests the same could be done with edibles to show customers how containers can be planted or tips for succession planting with greens. “If that’s their first garden, they don’t even know what they don’t know,” he says. Also, display gardens in the retail environment, even if it’s just an EarthBox, are a great way to help gardeners understand what they’re buying.

Technology is a large piece of the puzzle we haven’t mentioned yet. Electronic devices aren’t just for today’s youth anymore—they have become ingrained into daily life for most generations.

“Integrating technology into gardening to further an individual’s understanding and appreciation for our environment while developing life skills is definitely on the rise,” says Nichole Rothaupt, director of commerce and social media at NGA. “For example, plant monitoring systems that help to identify what the plants need (water, sunlight, nutrients, etc.), apps that can be used in outdoor classrooms and more exploration of alternative growing methods such as aquaponics, hydroponics, aeroponics, etc.”

Bruce says, too, garden centers could consider creating apps—or at least more functional digital offerings—to help gardeners with the very specific varieties, pests, diseases and climate information that pertains to their area, rather than customers Googling general information that may not be applicable to their location.

What’s Hot in Edibles?
So let’s get specific. What are these food gardeners growing? Well, the good news for everyone’s health is that vegetables rule. Of the 42 million households that grew some type of food in 2013, 76% grew vegetables, according to the NGA study. In fact, veggie gardening participation increased 19% over the past five years. Herb gardening also remains strong as the second most popular edibles gardening. Nearly half of all food gardeners had herbs last year and participation grew 43% over the past five years.

One trend that retailers can capitalize on is fruits and berries. Based on the NGA study, growing berries is the food gardening activity that’s seen the largest increase in participation over all types of food gardening in the past five years: 71% growth from 2008 to 2013, with the most growth coming from Millennials.

Blueberries in particular are being singled out as the most preferred berry in the country, with strawberries right behind it. The U.S. has seen a 300% increase in the blueberry consumption over the past decade, according to statistics from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

Gary Jones at Armstrong says his biggest surprise this year was the continued growth of blueberry sales, and he saw the highest growth overall with herbs and berries.

That translates into opportunities with recipes, tastings and more in-store activities to encourage berry sales. Going back to the Blueberry Council statistics, they asked how people prefer to eat blueberries. The answers varied, but the most popular way (49%) was in smoothies. Making smoothies in the garden center with fresh blueberries would be refreshing, fun and an educational experience for customers of all ages.

Where to Go for More
First off, the NGA study cited in this story is available for free download at www.garden.org. There are a great many more statistics that could pertain to your business that haven’t been addressed in this article. Also, NGA has a wide variety of resources on its site, including a unique partnership with Carson Daly, one of the hosts of the “Today Show” on NBC. Carson has taken up the mantle of kids gardening in the effort of getting a garden in every school across the nation. His goal, according to the KidsGardening website: “to get a garden in every school in hopes of teaching our children about better, healthier food options and also to teach children who come from insecure homes what foods will help end their hunger and let them grow. This is something I am truly passionate about, but is not something I can do on my own. I need your help.” He created a fundraising page on www.CrowdRise.com/Carson to raise money for the efforts. But he’s not the only one—others in our industry have created CrowdRise.com fundraising pages to go to the same cause, as well.

And finally, First Lady Michelle Obama has helped the food gardening movement with an initiative of her own called Let’s Move! There’s a website for the initiative that includes gardening topics, nutrition and healthy activities. You can find it at www.letsmove.gov.

Top 10 Veggies for Containers
Nearly half of all people gardening use containers when veggie gardening, according to a recent study done by the National Gardening Association. It’s a great way to get gardeners of all knowledge levels and space constraints involved in food gardening. So here are the Top 10 veggies for containers in no particular order, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden:

Getting The Next Generation Involved
What can garden centers do to help get the next generation involved? There are lots of ways, like partnering with local schools, daycares and youth organizations (think Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts, among others) to create a life-long love of food gardening. The National Gardening Association has created the resource KidsGardening.org for this very purpose. There are grants, free lesson plans and activities for kids to use gardening as a way to live healthier lives and learn about the world around us. To date, the organization has given more than 10,000 grants reaching $2 million. Retailers can become involved with custom programs, grant sponsorship, turnkey giving services, joint marketing, content licensing, co-branding products, product development and media events. GP

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