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Green Industry Going Strong In Midst of Drought
On the heels of a dry April planting season, there is one bright spot in the economic picture for agriculture: the "green industry."

The greenhouse, nursery and turf growers who produce plants for landscapes don't face the same problems as farmers who labor with cows and plows. Comprising the fastest growing segment of Georgia's agricultural economy, they can survive more than drought.

"It's one of the few industries that does well in recession and in drought," said Paul Thomas, an Extension Service horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Retail Sales Increase

Sales have increased about 4 percent per year nationally. However, Georgia sales have grown 9 percent to 13 percent in these past few dry years.

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Photo: Faith Peppers

Even during a drought, Georgia garden retailers have seen higher-than-average sales increases.
Thomas explained that people want to keep their homes and businesses beautiful. "When homeowners have something die in their landscape, they seem to immediately go buy something else to replace it," he said.

As drought gripped the state over the past two years, ornamental sales rose. This year's mild spring created a longer growing season, too, and a longer time for retailers to sell plants.

"Georgia plant sales in March and April increased 25 to 35 percent over last year's figures," Thomas said. "And last year was a good year. That's a very large increase in sales for any kind of business."

The only complaints about the longer season and higher sales come from greenhouse workers. "They are hot," Thomas said.

Greenhouse temperatures have been as high as 120 degrees in May and June for the past few years. "Most growers now shut the greenhouses down in July and August," he said. "It's just too hot."

Water? No Problem

The lack of water that plagues row-crop farmers isn't a big problem for greenhouse growers.

"In the greenhouse trade, the drought hasn't been a problem at all, because greenhouses are very water-efficient," Thomas said. "Greenhouses use fewer gallons of water per dollar of crop grown than any other area of agriculture."

Most owners use water from their own deep wells. "It's controlled, precise watering, and some use high-tech systems," Thomas said. "But it's water-intensive agriculture."

No Crying in Nurseries

Like their greenhouse counterparts, nursery growers haven't suffered much.

"The container growers have been hardly affected," said UGA Extension horticulturist Jim Midcap. "Field nurseries have been dry, but almost all have irrigation."

Most nurseries are in the midst of planting now.

"In the field tree nurseries, they decide what to grow three or four years in advance, and they just have to live with them," Midcap said. "They hope they make the right decisions. The trees they're planting now will be for sale three years down the road."

The demand for nursery products has been at record highs for the past few years. Many nurseries have expanded. Sales were good in the fall and spring, and supplies are short. That usually equals better prices for the growers.

"I was visiting with a grower yesterday who was having to go to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to buy plants," Midcap said. "The ones that are suffering are those who are planting in the ground and sure could use some rain to get the plants established."

Right now, Georgia growers are selling all they can grow. However, the drought does have landscapers more interested in planting drought-tolerant plants.

No Sad Sod Yet

Sod and turf producers aren't benefitting as much. But they aren't suffering yet, either.

"Sales have been good and about normal for this time of year," said Gil Landry, a UGA Extension turf specialist. "Growers are concerned about water restrictions impacting sales, and irrigation is critical now in their production systems because of low rainfall, thus increasing this cost."

The drought hasn't cost sod producers any sizeable crop losses. But the season isn't over.

"Low rainfall in the winter has caused some late-season installation problems if people didn't water," Landry said.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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