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March 31, 2010   Email to Friend 

BLOOMING SUCCESS: Landscape Adds Value To Your Home
By Debra Davis

Mac Higginbotham, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Division, talks with Southern Growers Vice President Bill Cook.
Spring brings an opportunity for homeowners to add beauty and value to their property, compliments of Alabama's greenhouse, nursery and sod producers.

"When warm weather arrives, people naturally are eager to get outside," said Alabama Farmers Federation Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Division Director Mac Higginbotham. "One of the most popular ways to stretch after a long winter is working in your yard. When you do, it presents an opportunity to add to your home's aesthetic value and to its bottom line."

For homeowners looking at how to best invest money theses days, statistics prove spending it on plants and landscaping is a wise venture.

According to Dr. Charlie Hall at Texas A&M University, landscaping is the only home improvement that generates a greater than one-dollar return for every dollar spent.

"Renovating a kitchen gives a 93-cent return for every dollar spent," Higginbotham said, quoting Hall's research. "Renovating a bathroom gives a 90-cent return for every dollar spent, and adding a backyard swimming pool will only generate a 60-cent return for every dollar spent. But landscaping alone can increase the dollar return anywhere from $1.06 to $1.15."

Higginbotham said simply adding a color bed to a landscape can generate a 4-to-1 return for each dollar spent.

"In other words, investing $250 in color this spring will generate an instant $1,000 return on the perceived value of your home," he said.

And those who produce the plants, flowers, shrubs, trees and grass to beautify a lawn are eager for homeowners to dig in and try it. After decades of steady growth, some of the state's greenhouse, nursery and sod farmers say they saw business decline as much as 40 percent when the housing market went bust.

"The green industry has really suffered with the downturn in the economy," Higginbotham said. "It is closely tied to the growth in the housing market and in the growth of businesses and industries as well. Any time a new home or business is built, the finishing touch is always the landscape."

Unfortunately, when the housing market began to fall in 2007, so did profits for many farmers who depend on plants and sod as their crop.

The green industry itself is important to the state's economy, accounting for total cash receipts of $256 million in 2008, down almost $10 million from previous year.

Bill Cook, vice president of Southern Growers, has been in the greenhouse, nursery and landscape business for 37 years. The company has 10 acres of greenhouses and 90 acres of nursery fields along with two retail garden centers in Montgomery. He served nine years on the Federation's Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod State Committee, including two years as chairman. He said until last year, his business had always experienced steady growth.

"We first saw business start to decline around November 2007," Cook said, "and it really hasn't improved substantially since then. We've taken measures to slow our production, and we're always looking for ways to cut costs.

"This downturn hit us on the commercial market when new construction slowed. It hit us in the retail business too because people were spending less. In all, our wholesale plant business is down considerably since the fall of 2007."

Things aren't much better farther south for Oliver Washington III who operates Shore Acres Plant Farm with his son Oliver Washington IV in Theodore near Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile County.

The senior Washington has operated the business for 32 years, starting with a roadside business his father and grandfather once owned. In all, he's been in the plant business nearly 50 years. It now includes seven and a-half acres of heated, gutter-connected greenhouses and nearly 40 acres of outside field production. The Washingtons also operate a small retail business on the farm.

"Until 2009, our business had always experienced a steady increase in sales," said Oliver Washington III. "That's when we felt a big drop in our overall sales. Everyone was concerned where the bottom was for this recession. Hopefully, we've hit bottom and have started to turn things around. We're optimistic that 2010 will be better."

Still, the lessons from the economic downturn have forced both Cook and Washington to look at the way they do business. Both say they have worked to cut costs and manage expenses more efficiently. For Washington, he's considering adding more automation to reduce labor costs. Cook says his business has taken some of the less energy-efficient greenhouses out of production to cut expenses.

Sod farmers like Richard Holladay were hit hard, too, when the housing market declined.

"Our sod business is down probably 35 percent," said Holladay who operates the farm with his father, Ronnie and his brother, Lane. Relative newcomers to the business, the Holladays expanded their traditional row-crop, timber and cattle farm in 2005 to include 20 acres of sod. The sod farm grew to 400 acres in just five years.

"When we bought the acreage that included the sod farm, we saw it as an opportunity to diversify our farm into a growth area," Holladay said. "And it really was a good decision for us." In 2007, a severe drought brought its own challenges to the sod farm. In 2008, things looked more promising, but the real challenge hit in 2009 when the housing market dropped, he said. However, most cities and towns have ordinances that require lawns to be sodded and landscaped, he said. So when the market does pick up, he'll be ready.

"I would like for consumers to be aware of where they buy their sod or any green material," Holladay said. "If it's grown locally, then you know it can survive in our environment and that it's fresh. You're also helping out an Alabama farmer when you buy plants and sod that are produced here."

Higginbotham recommends using an Alabama Certified Landscape Professional when selecting plants for your home or when searching for a landscape contractor.

Like the farmers he works with around the state, Higginbotham said he's optimistic 2010 will be better for greenhouse, nursery and sod farmers.

"As more people renovate their homes, we want them to remember one of the best investments they can make in their home is actually outside the four walls they live in," he said. "Landscaping not only adds beauty, it adds real value in dollars and cents to your home."



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