Ron van der Zalm, one of the owners of Colonial Florists family business, is anticipating a good spring.
That was not the case last year, as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s many successful family greenhouse businesses were suddenly threatened by the arrival of COVID-19.
What had been a thriving local industry was struggling on two levels, waiting and hoping essential seasonal workers would be allowed into the country, to help them as they geared up to their traditional peak season, and then learning that many orders were cancelled.
Thankfully, says van der Zalm, the second-generation grower now working with the third generation, he is anticipating this year to be different.
“We’ve been through it. We’re not being caught off-guard, and we’re prepared for it,” he says. “We know how to handle it.”
Last year, growers scrambled to sell what they could, many at road-side stands that locals quickly and enthusiastically supported.
For Colonial, which sells rooted cuttings to other greenhouses to grow on, and also wholesale flowering annuals, geraniums, herbs, succulents and house plants, May is their key month for sales, but the busy planting time leading up to that is now.
Last year, van der Zalm says, he had orders cancelled, with greenhouses and garden centres unsure what to expect.
This year, he says, other growers will also have a better idea of what to expect.
Some, especially those with cut flower and Easter plants, may be building on the success of those road-side stands, and many growers and garden centres have learned to promote their products on their websites and through social media, and online sales.
“Last year, sales for March and April were terrible, and we had to dump a lot of product. But May turned out pretty good. That saved us.”
Flowers, he says, “go hand-in-hand with gardening, landscaping, and other attempts to beautify your homes.” Many people staying at home with time on their hands during the first lock-down last spring got into home improvements in a way they hadn’t before, helping with sales of flowers and plants.
“We dodged a bullet last year. The bottom line wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t the disaster it could have been.”
With greenhouses on Broadway Avenue in the Port Weller area, and on Concession 7, vanderZalm says learning to sell flowers during a pandemic, as rules changed “day by day, week by week,” was a challenge, but one take-away from last spring, “is there will always be curbside. Growers are now set up for it, and people will continue to buy flowers that way.”
Although some of the third-generation kids sold a few plants curbside for Colonial, he didn’t push it, instead focusing on his wholesale customers. But many of them, local garden centres and other greenhouses, benefited from curbside sales. He doesn’t intend to try it this year, but others are in a good position to repeat that success, he says.
Inside the Colonial greenhouses, much has evolved from last year. “Everyone has to do so much more. There is still a lot of risk. Our employees are always sanitizing, we’re offsetting our lunch times, and two people sit at a table for six. It’s a totally different environment.”
Where people plant on lines, there is plexiglass between them, he says, and there is plexiglass between beds where the offshore workers sleep.
The first wave of offshore workers came in early January to work in greenhouses. They spent their two weeks quarantining, and since mid-January, have been able to work, says van der Zalm.
Colonial’s offshore workers come from Mexico, and most have arrived without issues. They need two negative COVID tests before they leave their home country, one before they can make plane reservations, and then a second two days before departure.
Although the current travel restrictions don’t apply to essential workers, says vanderZalm, those who haven’t left yet are finding it harder to get flights, because many have been cancelled.
He has had two of his 31 workers he was expecting to be here by now unable to travel due to insufficient paperwork, and another two because of positive test results.
In past years, stand-by workers would be waiting at the airport, willing and anxious to replace anyone who couldn’t travel, but that is not the case this year, with the extra steps required of them. Colonial is trying to replace them with local agency workers, also not a great solution, with some concern for the extra risk.
The Mexican workers who arrive must quarantine for two weeks, and those who travel in the same group can quarantine together.
If groups arrive a few days apart, they require different accommodations. That means spreading them out, or if necessary, renting space from other farmers, or putting them up in hotels, he says.
While the offshore workers are in quarantine, he has one employee who takes their shopping lists, and orders online. After his son picks up the orders, she sorts them out.
Once the offshore workers finish the quarantine, a small bus takes four people at a time to shop. Until that time, they are not able to leave the premises.
“They were going stir crazy, watching Netflix and playing video games. They are really anxious to get to work. They want to work,” he says.
“It’s mentally exhausting, but we can still work. There are other businesses that are shut down, and that’s much worse. This is a lot of work, but we’re keeping our business moving along.”
At this point, peak time for the greenhouse, he has 75 people employed, including the 31 offshore workers, which may only be 27 this year, “and we haven’t had any issues. Everyone is very respectful of the rules. We have frequent meetings to talk about COVID, and everybody is doing their part. Last year was hard, with so many fears. We all feel a lot better about it this year.”
Van der Zalm adds, “we thank them all the time for being here. We need them to get through this with us.”
However, with the number of cases in the community, “we know we can’t let down our guard. We take things day by day. We feel like we’re doing our part, and we can get through this together.”