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COVID-19 prunes garden centre operations

For now Manitoba’s garden centres are closed to the public when normally their business would be ramping up

Manitoba’s nearly 100 garden centres are closed to the public to slow the spread of COVID-19, leaving people wondering how they’re going to get tomatoes and other transplantable vegetables, flowers, trees and shrubs this spring.

There likely will be ways, but as of press time, garden centres weren’t an option unless customers ordered online or by telephone and then picked up items “curbside” or had them delivered.

Manitoba’s chief public health officer ordered non-essential businesses closed to the public between April 1 and 14.

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Businesses that provide food — wholesale or by retail sale — are allowed to be open to the public, including grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, butcher shops and bakeries.

Hardware and liquor stores are also allowed to be open.

Since transplantable vegetables will eventually become food, the Manitoba Nursery Landscape Association (MNLA) argues garden markets should be considered “essential” too.

The Manitoba government wasn’t able to clarify by press time why market gardens are not on the critical business list, although an official said the matter was being looked at.

Why it matters: Manitoba greenhouse and garden centres earn 70 to 80 per cent of their annual revenue from spring sales. Regulations aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 blocks them from dealing directly with the public until at least April 14 when the rule may be extended, ended or modified.

Presumably Manitoba’s major greenhouse operators will be allowed to deliver vegetable and flower transplants to grocery stores, as well as other traditional ‘big-box’ retailers, where they will be sold to the public, as in the past. Those operations are open now and deemed essential. But the Manitoba government hasn’t confirmed that.

In fact, currently companies such as Canadian Tire, Home Depot and Rona are selling garden supplies now — seeds, soil and pots — while garden centres are on the sidelines, MNLA executive director Rob Officer said in an interview April 7. That’s unfair, he added.

Last week the MNLA asked the Manitoba government for clarification. An Emergency Measure Organization email in response said in part: “At this time, nursery and garden centres are not included on the critical services list included with the public health orders. Therefore, all centres are required to close to the public. However, that does not prevent them from operating online and providing their products by delivery or pickup methods.”

The MNLA hopes garden centres can resume more normal sales to the public during what will soon be their busiest time of the year, Officer said.

“Speaking to one of our members this week, their sales were five per cent of what they would do on average in that week,” he said.

“Ideally what we’re looking for is by May 1, which we think is a reasonable time, are they allowed to actually sell their product? I know some of them are looking at how they would adapt, whether it’s online sales or delivery et cetera.”

But that won’t be easy either, Officer said, noting it requires lots of telephone lines and retraining staff in a very short time.

Greenhouses are full of growing plants now and there’s a short selling window for millions of dollars of perishable product, Officer said.

“Our crop on the bench dollar figure is just shy of $1 million and if we were forced to stay closed to the public until June 15, we will experience a 75 per cent loss in annual revenue,” Chad Labbe, vice—president of Shelmerdine’s Garden Centre in Winnipeg said in a news release April 1.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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