By P.J. Heller
Mulch and soil sales, that skyrocketed during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, may have dropped to pre-pandemic levels or below at the end of the major selling season in May and June 2021.
Coming out of 2020 with sales increases of 20 percent to 40 percent, there had been predictions of a significant 15 percent to 20 percent rise in 2021 over the previous year.
“It started out gangbusters at the first of the  season. By March, April and into May, the season looked very good. Starting late May and June it tailed off significantly. We don’t know where our current high season sales will land,” said Robert LaGasse, executive director of the Mulch & Soil Council.
“We were looking at a very promising increase at the start of the year over 2020,” he said. “Now it looks like it will be more like 2020 and maybe not a significant increase.”
Sales could be flat, or they might rise 3 percent to 8 percent, which is normal in most years. Sixty percent of industry shipments occur from March to June, the high season for sales.
“We don’t know, yet” LaGasse said of the sales figures for 2021. “The rise was sharp, and the drop-off was sudden. We don’t know whether the pipeline was full, if retailers were ordering early expecting demand and then when the demand dropped off, they were overstocked, in which case they’ll catch up and orders will start again.
“There’s a lot of ifs and maybes that we don’t know yet, but we are surveying our members to determine the impact of the market shift,” he added.
The drop in sales appears to coincide with the U.S. opening back up as pandemic-weary Americans began traveling again, shunning face masks, returning to work and gathering in large groups.
LaGasse agreed, noting that when people were no longer forced to stay home and could get out and travel, “their time priorities shifted.
“Their intense gardening may have gone back to normal gardening,” he suggested. “There’s a reason they might decrease from what they were doing last year simply because last year was so unusual and they were forced to stay home.”
Another factor which he said might have impacted sales this year could be abnormal weather, with extremely high temperatures blanketing much of the West. In June, at least 11 states reported triple digit temperatures.
“For some reason, people don’t like gardening in 95-degree heat,” LaGasse said.
Wildfires and resulting poor air quality could also be factors in the drop in gardening. As of Aug. 12, there were at least 104 large fires burning across 14 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Those fires have burned more than 2.4 million acres.
“There’s no way to tell how much that unusual heat and air pollution is affecting [mulch and soil] sales and keeping people from doing what they were doing last year,” LaGasse said.
Those issues and numerous others – from supply chain problems to labor concerns and the ongoing issue of trucks and drivers -- are sure to take center stage when the Mulch & Soil Council hosts its 50th annual meeting, scheduled for Sept. 21-23 at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN.
In 2020, the council held a hybrid meeting, offering both a virtual and on-site event. Although it expected most people to opt for the virtual event, the vast majority (85) attended the meeting at the Hyatt Grand Cypress in Orlando, FL, where protocols required people to wear face masks and to social distance. The council was one of the few green industry organizations that held an in-person gathering last year, LaGasse noted.
This year, there are no mandatory mask or social distancing protocols in place at the hotel, unlike last year’s meeting in Florida.
“If the Peabody protocols remain the same for our meeting, that is what we will do. But if somebody wants to wear a mask, we’re certainly not going to tell them they can’t,” LaGasse said.
He downplayed concerns that people might be reluctant to travel and to gather in hotel conference rooms, noting that the conference was expected to attract about 175 people and was almost sold out.
He said the conference was an opportunity for members to meet and discuss “everything that’s going on in the industry.”
“It is about getting together in the safest way at an incredible and very safe location to get out of the coronavirus confinement we have experienced for more than a year,” the council said on its website. “It is the opportunity for those who are comfortable traveling to meet with other industry people who are likewise comfortable in making a careful effort to interact with other industry members.”
“They’ll have the ability to see people and sit down with people who understand what they’re going through, the nature of their business, compare notes on what’s happening labor-wise, trucking-wise, supply chain-wise. . . It’s important,” LaGasse said. The full agenda for the meeting can be found here: https://mulchandsoilcouncil.org/meetings.php.
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