November/December – 2003
Author: Christine Paul
The hydroponic retail industry has played an important role in the industry’s development, a wellspring for many of today’s commercial growers, and a supply network for many home gardeners who want to grow their own pesticide-free vegetables using water-efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. However, hydroponic retailers need to change some of their business practices if they are to play an ongoing role in the future development of this economically important industry.
Hydroponic retailers need to change their language succeed in attracting genuine home gardeners. This and some of their business practices if they are to was the message delivered by Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) Vice President and Managing Editor of PH&G, Steven Carruthers, at the recent hydroponic retail workshops held in Adelaide and Perth. The workshops, the first in a nationwide series, were sponsored by the AHGA, which plans to introduce a National Code of Conduct and a Retail Industry Development Plan for hydroponic retail members.
The need for change
In the first part of his workshop presentation, Mr Carruthers traced the evolving face of the hydroponic retail industry in Australia. He said that in just over a decade, the market had grown from a handful of outlets to more than 400 specialist stores Australia-wide at its peak in the late 1990’s.
“In the early days, store owners focused on the home garden market, but as the retail industry grew, it became obvious it was also attracting a large cannabis-growing market,” said Mr Carruthers. “To a large extent, early SA and ACT legislation decriminalising cannabis for personal use, and rapidly evolving hydroponics technology worldwide, contributed to the explosion of stores, ” he added.
Today, Mr Carruthers estimates there are less than 200 specialist hydroponic stores Australia-wide with combined sales of around $120 million per annum at the retail counter. He attributes this market down-sizing to bad retail management practices and a changing legislative environment. “Hydroponic retailers are shop fronts to the industry, and they need to change their language and some of their business practices if they want to attract genuine home gardeners,” he said.
Mr Carruthers added that new legislation in SA, which makes it a serious offence to grow cannabis plants hydroponically, and WA where it will soon become an offence to ‘knowingly’ sell equipment that will be used to grow cannabis, is a serious wake-up call for all hydroponic retailers to change their business practices if they want to avoid further restrictive legislation.
“For the retail industry to grow and prosper, it needs to dissociate from its cannabis culture and promote its products and services to genuine home gardeners,” he said. “Changing the public’s perception of the hydroponic retail market won’t happen overnight, but the first step forward is through industry self-regulation,” he added.
Retail Industry Code of Conduct
Referring to key points in the SA Proposal to License Hydroponic Equipment Retailers (Report of the Review Panel: Executive Summary and Recommendations – January 2002), and the minutes of the Legislative Council of Western Australia Hansard (10/09/03), Mr Carruthers said both documents make it clear legislators in SA and WA want the hydroponic retail industry to work within a Code of Conduct.
“It’s something governments throughout Australia want to see – that is, industries developing Codes of Practice that minimise government regulations and administration costs,” said Mr Carruthers. “Not to develop a Code of Conduct in the hydroponic retail industry is to invite further legislation and business restrictions that could ultimately spell the demise of the hydroponic retail sector in this country,” he said.
The first item in the Code of Conduct proposed by the AHGA requires hydroponic retailers to undertake appropriate training and certification in the correct use, handling and storage of all chemical products, including pesticides and herbicides. Mr Carruthers warned retailers that the industry anticipates tightening of Federal and State legislation on the sale, handling and storage of agricultural chemicals that can be used to make explosives or for acts of bioterrorism, as well as compromise homegrown food safety and the environment.
“In the near future, we are likely to see new legislation that requires a permit and user identification to buy and sell agricultural chemicals, and industry members from growers to retailers will need to be certified in their safe handling and storage;not only because of terrorist threats, but also because of Occupational, Health and Safety issues,” said Mr Carruthers.
Mr Robin Moseby from Soladome Hydroponics was one of several retailers who welcomed the idea of training and certification in farm chemical safety. Currently, Mr Moseby is working on a suitable pathway for retailer training, which will be tied to units of competency under the National Training Scheme. He is planning a half-day course, which all retail staff are encouraged to attend, and which will offer a brief outline of farm chemical safety for a nominal cost. This will be followed by a full-day course, which all retail staff are encouraged to attend, but mandatory for supervisory staff, store managers, and store owners. This will complete the minimum certification required at a cost of around $250 per person. Mr Moseby suggested that the AHGA could provide valuable input to existing materials for further courses that can count towards a suitable diploma in hydroponic/horticultural management. It is envisaged that once a National course has been developed, it could be delivered to retailers in other States by other Registered Training Organisations under a licence arrangement for the use of the materials developed.
In relation to items in the proposed Code of Conduct which prohibit products linked to cannabis cultivation being sold or advertised by member retailers, Mr Carruthers pointed to comments made by Mr Simon O’Brien (Lib) in the WA Parliament, which highlight bad practices in the industry. After viewing a retail product catalogue called The Growers Bible, the Shadow Minister for DrugStrategy said it refers to undetectable growing systems.
“Why would people need an undetectable growing system made to look like a refrigerator?” he questioned. “The catalogue is quite hilarious, ” he added, “in some ways because of the way its authors try to make it absolutely clear that they are appealing to cannabis growers, while at the same time desperately trying to disguise the fact. It is a curious contradiction, ” he said.
Mr Carruthers said the main threat to the SA and WA hydroponic retail industry is further restrictive legislation. He pointed to remarks made by Mr O’Brien in the WA Parliament about retail ‘cowboys’ who have no place in the industry, and deserve no consideration. “If the WA Liberals win government at the next State election, watch out for changes he initiates if nothing has changed,” warned Mr Carruthers.
“WA Labor may wait like the South Australian Government, but eventually more action will be taken in both States if hydroponic retailers do not take urgent action to reform their business practices, and dissociate from the cannabis culture.”
Retail Industry Development Plan
The second part of the workshop focused on common areas where a national network of hydroponic retail outlets could benefit the industry, home gardeners and the community, at the same time helping to turn around the public’s perception of the retail industry. Mr Carruthers told retailers that few organi-sations can succeed without a plan, and he recommended that retailers develop a Retail Industry Development Plan to take the industry into the future.
“A Retail Industry Development Plan could look at the concept of an annual ‘National Garden Safe Day’, for example, where a national network of hydroponic stores become collection points for garden chemicals, including unused pesticides, insecticides, and other out-of-date garden products.” Mr Carruthers said that many home gardeners are water wasters and major contributors to groundwater contamination in urban environments.
“One day they will pass a law banning lawns that are an unnecessary waste of water in this country,” he said. “It’s all very well pointing the finger at commercial growers polluting the groundwater as a consequence of fertiliser run-off;what about the tonnes of fertilisers and pesticides used on gardens in urban Australia, ” he added. “Hydroponic retailers can play an important role to educate the gardening public about water conservation strategies and safe gardening practices that don’t pollute the environment,” he said.
Mr Carruthers pointed to other issues where hydroponic retailers could take a leading role, such as collecting HID lamps which contain sodium and mercury, and plastic containers used to bottle nutrient products. He forecast that the day is rapidly approaching where manufacturers, retailers and consumers will need to pay an environmental levy to dispose of their waste packaging.
Mr Carruthers said that such industry initiatives are not difficult to plan and implement. Water conservation, groundwater contamination and pesticide use are issues that resonate with home gardeners and consumers more than ever. “Hydroponic retailers can play an important role to draw attention to these environmental issues, which are opportunities to turn around the public’s perception of the hydroponic retail industry,” he said
During the Adelaide and Perth workshops, and the rest of the planned workshops in capital cities around Australia, the message is loud and clear – it’s time for hydroponic retailers to re-evaluate some of their business practices and present a clean image of their industry.
“There is a large number of hydroponic retailers who supply a genuine home garden market, and I’m optimistic that these retailers will carry the industry forward to play an important role in the future development of urban agriculture using water-efficient and environmentally friendly growing technologies, ” said Mr Carruthers.
At the conclusion of the workshop, retailers were encouraged to adopt the proposed AHGA Code of Conduct, and to convey this and a Retail Industry Development Plan to their Parliamentarians at the earliest possible opportunity to demonstrate they are serious about reforming their industry. Ω
PH&G November/December 2003 / Issue 73