When news of the Coronavirus began to spread in March, Tom and Lola Spears of Nokomis Gift and Garden wondered what they were going to do.
“We have a very short season,” Lola said. “If we don’t make it in the spring, we won’t make it.”
She added that in mid-March, they heard stores may have to close their doors to the public in order to help get the virus under control. Their friend and lawyer, Trent West, looked into the exemptions, and their shop could stay open due to an agricultural exemption because of their greenhouses.
“We were going to have to be there anyway because we started the greenhouses in February,” she said.
That plan lasted for about a week before the governor announced a plan to close garden centers, which would affect their wholesale business as well.
“That was just a punch in the gut,” Spears said.
The couple, who have connections all over the state, began making phone calls to their customers, while state representatives lobbied the governor on behalf of plant sellers.
“We were fortunate that we could stay open the entire time,” she said. “We just had to diversify and be creative. We did everything we could to be accessible to our customers.”
That included social distancing, curbside service, taking orders on the phone and through Facebook messenger and home delivery among other things.
Initially, she said they laid off their staff as she worried for their safety.
“No one knew how this virus spread, so we sent everyone home,” she said. “That was fine until it became too much for Tom and me to do by ourselves. Our employees started calling that they wanted to come back, and we let them with masks and gloves and continued to do social distancing. Our employees are all top notch. Everyone chipped right in and did a wonderful job.”
Spears said at the time of the pandemic that their greenhouses were packed, and she worried how they would be able to move all the plants. But in the end, it proved to be a good year for the couple, as home gardening became more popular than before.
For example, in a typical year, she grows four flats of brussel sprouts and ends up throwing three of the four flats away. This year, she planted them four different times.
“We turned our vegetable greenhouse over four times and were still transporting plants on the first of May,” she said. “That’s unheard of.”
She added they had customers come from all over the area and that many of their wholesale customers found the same to be true.
“We think that people just wanted to be outside and they needed something to focus on,” she said. “A garden is something they could do in their own backyards.”
Another factor could be that produce was often hard to find in grocery stores and customers wanted to make sure they had access to it, so they decided to grow it themselves.
“We had a tremendous vegetable season,” she said. “It was like my vegetables were the new toilet paper. Everyone wanted to make sure they had enough.”
By Mother’s Day, their flowers arrived, and the only problem they ran into was finding access to additional plants when they ran out. She said she wishes they could have kept product a little longer.
But they did what they could to help local customers in a very unusual time. Spears said she took a call from one elderly couple around the first of April who wanted to shop for some plants. However, the wife had just finished her chemotherapy treatments and the husband was a diabetic, and they were concerned about the virus. Spears offered to let them shop by themselves in her greenhouse, keeping watch by the door so other customers couldn’t enter while they shopped.
“They were happy, and it made my day that I could help them,” she said.
Spears said it was a phenomenal spring for their business, and she hopes many of the new customers will return next year.
“We were creative and did what we had to do. We made a lot of new friends,” Spears said. “In a lot of negative, we managed to find a lot of positive.”