With the coronavirus quickly becoming a new normal, home gardening is taking off, as more and more Americans start to grow their own fruits and vegetables. But in Michigan, many stores have been barred from selling seeds, soils, plants, and other gardening supplies.
Last week, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered all stores larger than 50,000-square feet to cordon off their garden centers and plant nurseries, blocking customers from shopping in those sections through April 30. “If you’re not buying food or medicine or other essential items, you should not be going to the store,” Whitmer said when announcing her order.
The shutdown follows an executive order from last month that’s been widely interpreted by many in the industry as banning greenhouses, independent garden centers, and plant nurseries from selling to the public, as part of a larger crackdown on activities deemed “not necessary to sustain or protect life.” (Curiously, the state’s list of “not necessary” items doesn’t include lottery tickets and liquor, which stores can continue to sell.)
During a press conference on Monday, the governor readily conceded that her executive orders have led to “confusion,” with residents “just trying to figure out why you can buy a lottery ticket and not seeds.” “I recognize that there a lot of passionate gardeners in Michigan and I’ve heard from a lot of you,” she added. “Right now, my immediate concern is to try and keep everyone in Michigan safe.”
Undoubtedly, Michigan is in crisis: The state topped 28,000 confirmed novel coronavirus cases Wednesday, while COVID-19 has killed at least 1,921 people. Like other executives, the governor has broad authority to act during emergencies. But those actions can’t be arbitrary and irrational; they must have a “real and substantial relation” to protect public health.
Simply put, “permitting grocery stores to sell vegetables, fruits, and herbs, but prohibiting nurseries and greenhouses from selling plants so that Michiganders can grow their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs does not make sense.”
If anything, the order to shut down retail sales from garden centers, greenhouses, and plant nurseries could actually be counterproductive. After all, if people can’t buy seeds and plants to grow their own fruit and vegetables, then they can only get fresh produce from grocery stores and supermarkets, which would make those already packed places even more crowded.
Tellingly, Michigan’s diktat is far outside the norm. Nearly all other states allow garden centers and the like to stay open, though a handful have restricted in-store sales. Recognizing their importance to the economy, greenhouses and plant nurseries have been expressly declared “essential businesses” in states as disparate as Illinois and North Carolina.
In fact, the day before Gov. Whitmer announced her order, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz affirmed that garden centers and plant nurseries are “critical sectors,” a decision that reversed his earlier order to shut them down. Now those businesses can reopen, so long as they abide by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s guidance for social distancing.
Make no mistake: Michigan’s ban on selling plants imposed steep costs, with many workers and small business owners fearing for their livelihoods. According to the Michigan Farm Bureau, the state’s gardening industry employs over 9,000 workers, and generates up to $700 million in sales each year.
Moreover, the retail plant industry is highly seasonal. Between mid-March and Memorial Day, greenhouses and garden centers typically earn 60 to 80% of their total sales. As the owner of one greenhouse in Michigan told Crain’s Detroit Business, “We do all of our business in about eight weekends. Our whole year is 16 days. So when the governor shuts us off, she pretty much destroys my business.”