Close this search box.

Small horticultural businesses struggle against climate issues and retail giants

There are currently calls to make Bunnings part of the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct with the aim of fairer deals for growers.

The horticulture industry is the third largest agricultural industry in Australia. Most growers are small family-run farms with the majority of Australia’s produce grown in Victoria and New South Wales. However, challenges posed by unpredictable weather and shifting shopping trends have been exacerbated by higher product prices and reduced market variation.

An estimated 2.26 billion plants were sold by production nurseries in 2022/23 indicating that the demand for nursery products remains high despite Australia’s current cost-of-living crisis.

“There’s never been more enthusiasm for buying plants than there has been post-COVID and we’d like to see that continue,” Chief Executive Officer of Greenlife Industries Australia (GIA),  the national body representing commercial plant growers in all states and territories across Australia, Joanna Cave tells upstart.

This has been immensely profitable for big businesses like Bunnings. In 2023, the hardware and garden retailer reported a $18.5 billion revenue, an increase of 4.4 percent and plants remain the second largest volume of products sold. However, growers reported selling plants to Bunnings at a loss as their requests to increase prices were refused despite costs going up across the board. Growers also reported that Bunnings would reduce the number of plants they purchased if they raised concerns with the retailer.

GIA have called on the government to include Bunnings in the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct, which already includes plants, flowers, and gardening equipment in their definition of groceries.

“We have 20 percent of growers suppling Bunnings selling at a loss, that’s a completely unsustainable situation,” Cave says.

“It’s such a one-sided arrangement at the moment, you know you’ve got Bunnings, 507 stores, 58,000 staff, $19 billion a year and you have the grower, there’s no intermediary.”

Bunnings maintains an estimated 70 percent national market share, which is more than Coles and Woolworths combined. The remainder of the market includes Mitre 10, IKEA, garden centres, supermarkets, greenlife markets, and lifestyle stores.

“If you’re in the business of growing plants commercially…you have to supply Bunnings really,” Cave says.

Grow trays at Otway Greening Nursery. Image supplied.

The retail supply chain accounted for 42 percent of total plant sales making it the dominant sales channel, followed by sales to the landscape sector, other wholesale nurseries, and primary industries.

Currently, greenlife growers are the only horticulture sector not protected by a code. In 2023 the government announced the Senate Select Committee on Supermarket Prices to review competition regulation, price setting practices, and market power of major retailers.

Cave says she was surprised by the “overwhelming support” from the general public for their campaign, given that Bunnings was named the most trusted brand in 2023.

“There are lots and lots of examples where Bunnings has to alter its business model to fit with government regulations and we know it could cope with this one,” she says.

Pete Broughton from Ironstone Park Nursery tells upstart that big brands hold an advantage when it comes to product prices.

“The bigger you are the better bargaining power you have with products and there’s no difference in the nursery industry,” he says.

Ironstone Park Nursery in Heathcote Victoria specialises in native plants. Broughton says there’s always challenges in a nursery particularly given the lack of space in new housing developments for residents to establish gardens.

“Most of these new estates are very small so they don’t have a lot of room to grow plants at all. You’ve probably got a few yuccas in the front yard and a succulent in a pot at the back door and that’s the garden,” he says.

Broughton also said that people don’t really have the time to garden anymore. Down to Earth’s Production Nursery Data Capture Report found that 60-70 percent of businesses surveyed identified severe weather, biosecurity, and labour shortages as major impacts to their businesses.

Mike and Wendy Robinson-Koss have owned Otway Greening Nursery for the last 30 years. Most of their customers are either private or Landcare groups. However, over the years Mike has found he needed to diversify his customer base.

“You have to be flexible financially and management wise,” he says.

This was particularly important during the droughts in the 2000s which posed a challenge for Mike who relied on rainwater to irrigate his nursery.

“It was around 2006 or seven and for two years I ran out of water…I needed to get smarter as to how to cope with those climatic changes,” he says.

Mike and Wendy Robinson-Koss pictured at their nursery Otway Greening Nursery. Image supplied.

Otway Greening Nursery grow plants Indigenous to the Otway region and propagates most of these from locally collected seeds. However, for Robinson-Koss, unpredictable and changing weather conditions mean this process and the plants people choose for their gardens is constantly changing.

“Seed collecting is very variable depending on rainfall and temperatures, so I have to be on my toes every year,” he says.

This instability is creating an uncertain future for growers and nurseries alike, which may only worsen if Bunnings’ control continues.

Robinson-Koss says “we have to be smarter now in the species that we suggest and grow”.

This ensures plants survive in a warming climate and recommends a planting ratio that could improve gardens in the future.

“There’s this thing called the 60-30-10, the revegetation project should have 60 percent Indigenous and locally collected seed, the 30 percent is an Indigenous species but collected from a drier climate…and then the 10 percent is totally non-Indigenous but native plants from a drier region,” he says.

It is not just the unpredictable climate that is posing a challenge for growers, GIA CEO Joanna Cave says the government is looking to introduce further financial strain on greenlife growers.

“The Biosecurity Protection Levy which proposes a new charge that only growers will pay…to assist the government [to] fund more management of biosecurity threats in Australia,” she says.

“The industry already contributes to that fund so it’s an extra charge potentially right at the moment where there’s a cost-of-living crisis and businesses are sort of struggling.”

Cave says there would be job losses and impacts for customers if greenlife growers continue to shut down due to the increased costs.

“Most of them are regional employers so there would be job losses. Production nurseries are going up for sale but are not being sold as ongoing businesses,” she says. “They are sold for land.”

Another issue is that there’s also no export market for plants.

“It’s almost impossible to import plants so if growers go out of business it’s either because they can’t make it work with Bunnings or because the levy is just one charge too many for them.

Caves warns that if things are to continue this way, the growers’ challenges will be passed on to consumers.

“In the end the public will suffer because there will be less choice [and] plants will be more expensive.”


Article: Tia Clarkson-Pascoe is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @tia_pascoe

Photo: Victorian plant nursery. Image by author.

Related Articles

Editor's Picks