Gardens Growing in Thorny Economy

Facing rising food and gas prices, many shoppers are taking the local foods movement to a new level. Several nonprofit groups and produce industry experts say that there has been a noticeable uptick in the popularity of gardening recently both the backyard hobby variety, and in more urban settings, where community gardens are bringing together like-minded consumers focused on sustainability issues.

Facing rising food and gas prices, many shoppers are taking the local foods movement to a new level. Several nonprofit groups and produce industry experts say that there has been a noticeable uptick in the popularity of gardening recently — both the backyard hobby variety, and in more urban settings, where community gardens are bringing together like-minded consumers focused on sustainability issues.

For example, seed and plant sales have increased in the past year for Seattle Tilth, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization founded in 1978 that is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable community through gardening.

“We've had record-breaking edible plant sales at Seattle Tilth year after year, but our big annual sale earlier [in May] was off the charts,” said Karen Luetjen, executive director of Seattle Tilth.

“Plant buyers, many of whom were first-time visitors to our sale, cited economic reasons and the feeling that this was the year to finally start their own gardens. Word of mouth brought many to our sale, which suggests that people are really talking with one another more about food costs, food safety concerns and the fun of gardening.”

Seattle Tilth offers gardening classes, which are filling more quickly than ever, Luetjen said. Interest in urban chicken-raising has also taken off, and those classes have filled up as well.

The small scale of these operations poses little threat to produce department managers. But the trend could present a potential opportunity for these managers, depending on the demographics served by their stores.

“The urban gardener is never going to compete with the variety and the experience of a produce department,” noted Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

“The urban gardener is probably a lot like me — [someone] who has three tomato plants, a row of corn and so on, which is more of a hobby than anything else. But, retailers who understand [their] demographic and the needs of the customer are going to expand their merchandising strategy in their produce department to include seeds.”

If the demographics call for seed and plant offerings, retailers generally take no risk in making the choice to merchandise them, according to Bruce Butterfield, market research director, National Gardening Association, South Burlington, Vt.

“The interesting thing about many of the seeds that are sold in retail locations is that they're sold on consignment,” Butterfield said.

“The retailer takes absolutely no risk. He takes his profit off the packets that are sold, and those that aren't sold get shipped back to the supplier at the end of the gardening season.”

Rising food prices may be playing a role in this budding trend. According to West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group, a food industry consulting firm., total retail produce prices were up 4.9% in March 2008 compared with a year earlier. Avocados led with a whopping 20.1% increase in average retail price. Melons came in second with a 13.2% increase, while the price of onions increased 11.7%, tomatoes 2.5% and cucumbers 1.7%.

Butterfield said there is a predictable correlation among steep food price increases, difficult economic times and increased interest in gardening.

“We've kind of seen this before,” Butterfield told SN.

He explained that during the last official U.S. recession, in 2001-2002, annual sales of seeds, gardening equipment and other supplies spiked to $1.5 billion, a peak that the industry has failed to reach since then. In 2007, however, gardening industry sales reached $1.4 billion, a 22% increase over 2006.

“While the $1.4 billion sounds like a lot of money, the average spent on a household with a vegetable garden last year was only $58,” Butterfield said. “So, on a per household basis it's a fairly low amount of money to spend.”

Ironically, growing their own fruits and vegetables probably costs shoppers more than buying them from a supermarket.

“I think there's this aura of saving money, but if you start adding up all of those things that go into putting those tomatoes on the table, it probably costs you at least what you'd [spend] at a green market or a supermarket,” Butterfield said.

Christie agreed. “My husband actually figured out how much a tomato cost to grow in the backyard garden vs. getting it at the grocery store, and I can tell you, it's a heck of a lot more to grow it in your own backyard,” she said.

There are probably a number of other factors that prompt people to take up the hobby when times are tough, she noted.

“Personally, I think it's that return to that nesting instinct. When we're stressed, we have a tendency to go back to what makes us feel comfortable. The localvore movement and the sustainability movement that we've seen gather more steam in the U.S. — that's already been very much a part of the business environment around the world. Those types of movements are kind of inspiring people to go back to what they know.”

Butterfield agreed that a combination of factors seems to be behind the increased interest in gardening.

“I think part of it is people feeling like, ‘Well, I can't do anything about gas prices or food costs, but I can feel good about doing something for myself like planting a few vegetables,’” Butterfield said.

“There's also this whole ‘buy local’ and ‘slow food’ initiative right now, and I also think there's been more emphasis lately on eating fruits and vegetables. There's also been, especially now, less spent on food away from home, and more spent on food at home. So I think it's a combination of all those things.”

Other factors may include concerns about food safety and how the food was grown, according to one retailer.

“I think increased awareness among consumers about food safety has caused many to be more mindful about where their food comes from,” said Diana Crane, spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets, Seattle.

“When you have your own garden, you know how the food was grown and with what fertilizers and pesticides. Rising food costs are another reason for some shoppers to look — perhaps in their own backyard — for a less expensive source of fresh produce. Interest in gardening may also be related to rising fuel costs that are changing the travel and vacation plans of many consumers and causing them to develop more at-home interests.”

PCC Markets has been selling seeds and organic plant starts from a supplier called Rent's Due Ranch, Stanwood, Wash., out of its grocery department since March, Crane said.

“We've had a really late spring, with really cold weather and late frosts right through April and into May, so sales have not been at a level where we can judge yet if they'll be stronger than last year,” Crane added.

While gardening may become an enjoyable pastime for many shoppers with backyards, the urban community gardens that have been taking root on some city rooftops and in vacant lots will take a lot of dedication to keep going.

“Urban gardens are some of the roughest environments for plants to survive,” Butterfield said. “You have little sunlight with all these tall buildings; you don't have much soil, because it's all been graded over at some point in time; and you have a lot of air pollution.”

Grand Rapids, Michigan-based retailer Meijer recently began carrying a new line of vegetable and fruit pre-potted plants called Urban Gardener from Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses, Kalamazoo, Mich. The Urban Gardener line was created specifically with urban dwellers in mind, allowing them to grow a mini-crop of vegetables and fruits in the smallest of spaces, including balconies, porches and windows. The 100% USDA-certified organic line is available in the garden centers of Meijer supercenter retail stores throughout the Midwestern United States.

The Urban Gardener line features a wide selection of organically grown fruits and vegetables that can grow and thrive in confined spaces, including 22 varieties of cucumbers, peas, eggplants, peppers, pumpkins, strawberries and tomatoes. The plants — available for sale with fruit or vegetables already growing on the vines — are housed in an easy-growing 10.5-inch-square pot. An accompanying trellis encourages and supports the growth of the plants, allowing them to crawl upward in small spaces. To ensure that the plant continues to grow and thrive under organic conditions, organic fertilizer is recommended, which Meijer also now sells.

While Julia Stewart, spokeswoman for the PMA, agreed with Butterfield about the obstacles involved with urban gardening, she added that she believes that no matter what the reasons for escalated interest in urban gardening, consumers will come out of this trend with a greater appreciation for the process of growing fruits and vegetables.

“I think there are a couple of diverging trends coming together,” Stewart said.

“One of them is, as the Baby Boomers age, they're looking to get back to their roots and the things that they think they remember from when they were young. At the same time, you have the up-and-coming Generation Xers, feeling almighty and all-powerful, thinking that since food prices are going up, I'm just going to grow my own. But I think what they're all going to find is that at the end of the day, they'll have a new appreciation of how difficult it really is to grow fruits and vegetables and provide a consistent high-quality crop, and for what it takes to put food on the tables these days.”