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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Toledoan's orchid plan yet to reach full flower


Larry Ohlman has 50,000 orchids and big dreams.

The president of Ohlman Farm & Greenhouse Inc., on Hill Avenue, hopes to sell orchids to chain stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot, and Kroger Co., competing in a market that Florida greenhouses own.

For a year, Mr. Ohlman has been buying young orchid plants from Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States, raising them to maturity, and selling them to 15 to 20 retailers such as The Andersons Inc. general stores, Ken's Flower Shops, and Whiteford Road Greenhouse.

The fourth-generation owner of the more than 100-year-old greenhouse, Mr. Ohlman is no stranger to selling to chain stores. His firm is a primary supplier of bedding plants to Lowe's approximately 65 Ohio stores.

Orchids have the potential to be more lucrative than bedding plants, according to Mr. Ohlman and horticultural experts with Ohio State University and its extension service.

Sales of orchid houseplants have increased rapidly in recent years, jumping to $100 million in 2001 from $89 million in 2000 and $80 million the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By dollar value, only poinsettias had higher sales.

Ohio and Michigan, however, were low on the agriculture department's list of top potted-orchid-producing states. California is first with $41 million in sales in 2001, followed by Florida with $27 million. Michigan had $267,000 and Ohio had $79,000.

That's because the southern states have far lower energy bills and labor costs, said Ron Ciesinski, who has operated Taylor Orchids north of Monroe in Frenchtown Township for 40 years.

He said he sells 8,000 to 10,000 orchids a year, ranging from $15 to $100 at retail. Florist shops buy from him, but chain stores, which typically aren't as fussy, do not.

β€œI can't compete with the prices they sell them for,” Mr. Ciesinski said.

As orchids have become more popular, he has had to lower his prices.

Stacy Anderson, an orchid grower at Marcal Growers Inc., in Kissimmee, Fla., which produces 25,000 orchids a year, suggested little hope for northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan growers to compete.

Proponents of growing orchids locally have said higher heating costs in area greenhouses could be similar to the higher shipping costs southern greenhouses pay to get plants to the Midwest. But Ms. Anderson said shipping costs from Toledo to Columbus are comparable to shipping from Orlando, Fla., to Columbus.

β€œIt's going to be really, really tough,” she said.

The one advantage area greenhouses hold, she said, is the Christmas and Valentine's Day market. Orchids need the weather to turn cooler before they bloom, and that doesn't happen - without air conditioning - in the South until later in the season.

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