Greenhouses face deadline to keep products fresh

Most should be OK if stay-at-home order is lifted in May.
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Koetsier’s Greenhouse in Grand Rapids is gearing up for customers on May 1 provided the stay-home order is lifted. Courtesy Bonnie Koetsier

Mike Koetsier is optimistic — for now — despite his business suffering financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Koetsier, the owner of Koetsier’s Greenhouse in Grand Rapids, estimated he has lost 20% of his sales, which under normal circumstances would derive from the opening of his seasonal business’ 40,000-square-foot retail space from either the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April until June.

However, because of the pandemic, which has resulted in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order closing all nonessential businesses until April 30, he hasn’t been able to officially open his operation to the public.

Although Koetsier’s business is behind its scheduled opening time frame, he is confident he’ll open his business in May — barring another extension of the governor’s executive order.

“I am hopeful that we can open at least in some form on May 1, whether it is curbside only or limited customers, but we can’t go much longer than May 15,” he said. “If we can’t open and do some sort of high-volume worth of sales, that is going to be a problem. Everything we have for sale is perishable. If we go into June it gets too warm in the greenhouse and we can’t control the temperature. We have a later crop that we normally sell in June, which is fine, but our early crop, we would probably start dumping some of that and we don’t want to do that.”

Koetsier’s greenhouse is a retail garden center where an estimated 90,000 individuals visit seasonally. Products include flats of flowers and bulbs, potted arrangements, herbs, and fruits and vegetables.

In an effort to keep his hopes alive for a May 1 opening, Koetsier has lowered the temperature in the growing space of his greenhouse. He normally sets the temperature inside his 60,000-square-foot growing space to between 67 and 72 degrees. Now, the temperature inside the growing space is between 58 and 65 degrees.

“We’ve turned down our temperature to slow the growing of everything and we are running our plants extremely dry,” he said. “We try not to let anything wilt, but we’ll write down just before we water it again and then we only give it a little bit just to keep it from growing too fast in the greenhouse. They grow much faster in the greenhouse than outside. If we cannot control that, then at some point it will be unsellable. So, we are trying to control things that way. Luckily, April is usually quite cold so there are only a few plants we can sell (right now.) The biggest thing is pansies.”

Because the pansies grew rapidly in his greenhouse, Koetsier said he gave away the first crop to frontline workers such as registered nurses, doctors, police officers and EMTs earlier this month. 

The pandemic also has affected the production crew and people who would have worked the retail end of the operation, totaling about 40 employees.

“We sent most of our staff home when this first started just to try and keep everyone safe,” he said. “So, we’ve been operating with just our family. Since my kids are out of school, they’ve been helping because we are all quarantined together anyway. They are doing the work that some of our normal employees would be doing. Luckily, my employees can file for unemployment. A lot of my workers depend on this job, although it’s a seasonal job, as part of their income.”

Although the Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order extends to April 30 and includes greenhouses, there are farming advocates who are imploring the Whitmer administration to amend the executive order to exclude farm-related businesses. One of those advocates is the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“While farms can grow plants for food or ornamental purposes, there isn’t a clear and consistent interpretation of their ability to sell these same plants,” MFB said in a statement. “These businesses are currently brimming with flowering plants, nursery stock and vegetable plants. If these farms miss their primary window of opportunity to sell products to customers, growers and their employees could face an entire year without income. The lack of sales could also result in a high level of product loss.”

Whether greenhouses are allowed to reopen in April or on May 1, Koetsier said he will ensure that his consumers take precautions when they are in his store.

“We are taking measures that if and when we do open that this is going to be a safe place to shop,” he said. “Whether it be curbside, we will be offering some deliveries as well, and we will be taking safety measures. We have wide aisles so people can social distance, as well as exhaust fans and the roof … will be open so there will always be fresh air.”

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