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‘I just want to survive’: Canadian greenhouses struggling with economic reality of COVID-19

Golden Acre Home and Garden centre owner Nick Zannis at his facility in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 14, 2020, amid a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Nick Zannis is thankful his greenhouse established online sales five years ago, now that the retail world has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The doors of Golden Acre Home and Garden in Calgary are allowed to be open as an essential service in Alberta, but there are ample warnings about social distancing.

A steady stream of customers, many of them wearing face masks, walk through the store even though spring bedding plants aren’t ready and the selection of seeds and flowers is somewhat limited.

Zannis said having an online presence puts his greenhouse on less shaky ground than many others.

The business has sent products to as far away as Nunavut and Nova Scotia in recent years but will be focusing primarily on the Calgary market now.

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Online orders are up by 2,000 per cent from a year ago, Zannis said. But it’s not a gold mine.

“It’s very expensive to operate. Now you have to pay somebody to go and do the shopping,” he said.

“But the online store has kind of kept us afloat … We’re just trying to survive, honestly. I just want to survive this year.”

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Edmonton greenhouse sees spike in green thumbs amid COVID-19 pandemic – Apr 16, 2020

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In addition to Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia and Quebec have designated garden centres as an essential service. Other provinces, including Ontario, have forced them to keep their doors closed.

“We are allowed to offer pickup at the curb, so we are doing that,” said Mary Reid, owner of Green Thumb Gardening Centre in Nepean, Ont.

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“A customer would either phone or email us what their order is, then we’d get it ready and say you can come and get it.”

Reid said she has basically had to start online orders from scratch but isn’t able to do e-commerce.

She hopes gardeners will still be keen to shop when restrictions are eased.

“It’s not a pretty picture at all … it depends on how far into lockdown we get.”

The executive director of the Canadian Garden Council, the national umbrella body for provincial and national garden organizations, said there’s been a huge increase in the number of Canadians who want to start gardening.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: With community garden season cancelled, members worry about food security

Michel Gauthier said it’s a struggle for centres that have to stay closed.

“A lot of growers and greenhouses are having issues. Right now, there’s a big movement to say horticultural products are essential and should be essential for the well-being of people,” he said.

“We’re saying … if we want people to have that gardening experience and spend some time in their garden, then they need to have access to the material and access the product.”

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Don Vanderwerf said it’s almost like business as usual at his Kel-Lake Greenhouses in Kelowna, B.C.

Demand for seeds, soil and vegetables has been strong, he said.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 sparks spike in home gardening in B.C.' COVID-19 sparks spike in home gardening in B.C.
COVID-19 sparks spike in home gardening in B.C – Apr 14, 2020

Peak gardening season begins in three weeks to a month. Vanderwerf said products will be spread out on benches and into the parking lot at his site.

Still, Vanderwerf is expecting a financial hit. He’s already losing business in flower baskets for hotels and restaurants.

“We’ll be down a bit. But I feel fortunate that I’m not owning a restaurant or a pub, because they’re hurting.”

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