The re-opening of the garden centers in the UK, as well as in several countries, is a big relief for many. Also for Israeli young plant grower Hishtil. As for most in the industry, March has been a challenging month for them with growers throwing away many plants and therefore cancelling their herb and ornamental plug orders in advance or even during production. The herbs and the ornamentals in particular were hit hard. The demand for the grafted vegetable seedlings, on the contrary, was high, with a demand even surpassing supply. Fortunately, the orders for herb plugs, and particularly their organic ones, are on the rise again, but challenges are still there, Eyal Inbar, Export Sales Manager at Hishtil explains how they dealt and are still dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Reat Haza, Maya Avni and Eyal Inbar at the IPM Essen 2020.
Drop in demand
Histhil is specialized in the propagation of organic and conventional herb plugs and grafted vegetable plant seedlings, but they also propagate other patio plants and perennials. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the demand for the plugs dropped with the perennials and patio plants taking the biggest hit. "With the garden centers forced to close their doors, the demand more or less stopped."
Also the demand for herb plugs was affected as many are next to the supermarkets are sold at garden centers. "The UK is a big market for us. We send millions of plugs to this country, where they are being grown by the growers and sold at the many different garden centers this country has. Since the lock-down in this as well as other countries, garden centers had to close their doors and the cancellation of the orders started, "In advance of the production of the plugs and even during the production of the plugs, we received cancellations." Fortunately, some garden centers in other countries were allowed to remain open and the growers supplying the supermarkets continued to order which prevented the demand for herb plugs to drop as low as that for the ornamental. And the outlook is positive. The first orders from the UK started to come in again 3 weeks ago and since then, orders have been increasing gradually from different countries. "We are noticing that garden centers are gradually allowed to open their doors and as the UK's garden centers are now allowed to open as well, we hope and expect it to increase even further and particularly for the organic herbs."
Production process of the herb plugs, Clockwise: Motherstock area herbs, the sticking machines, rooting area, and a plug developing roots. Click here for a peek inside Hishtil's facility in Afula
Increase in demand for grafted vegetables
The demand for the grafted vegetable seedlings increased, even that much that it surpassed the supply. "For Hishtil, the grafted vegetable plant season runs from February till mid May. Since the start of the crisis, we immediately contacted our growers and asked them if they would cancel them or not. In this way, we would know if we would start producing the plugs for waste or not. And almost all our growers told us they would not. On top of that, we received more requests from mail order companies. We usually produce a little extra, but this year, we could not meet this demand."
Grafted vegetables. Click here for more information on the hishtil's grafted vegetables.
Freight space and working COVID-19 responsible
In addition to the cancellation of orders and the fact that they could not prepare for the increase in demand for their grafted vegetable seedlings, they had and still have to deal with additional challenges like the increased freight costs and the COVID-19 safety regulations at the farm. "As there are no flights with passengers entering the country, costs for transporting the cuttings increased significantly - and sometimes even doubled."
And as work had to continue at their facility in Israel, a country that is now gradually lifting the lockdown, procedures at the production site and in the office had to be adjusted as well. "We work from home as much as possible and in the office and on site, we made shifts to enable social distancing. And of course, we make sure that we comply with all sanitation regulations."
Inbar has good hopes for the coming weeks as orders are increasing gradually. "Even though we supply plugs year round spring is still our peak season. However, as the COVID-19 situation forces people to stay home more, we expect more people to cook at home and therefore use more home-grown herbs." And the trend for the organic products seems to continue as well. "So far, we see the demand for organic herbs increasing." And fortunately, Hishtil invested many years in producing these kind of herbs, which has proven to be a challenging task.