Recession, budget cutbacks and even a slow recovery can affect businesses in ways we don’t often anticipate, and in 1992 – 20 years ago – the nursery industry was experiencing some pretty challenging times. Much like today. What we didn’t expect to suffer, however, was the effect the recession of that time had on nursery inspections. Grumble as we might, ag inspectors were – and are – a necessary element in the effort to produce and ship clean, disease- and pest-free plants. Cutbacks threatened that link in the chain, and here’s a report from the Nov. 15, 1992, issue of American Nurseryman that seems a little prescient.

Nursery Industry Feels Threatened By Inspection Cutbacks

States’ budgetary woes have trickled down to the nursery industry, where many fear severe ramifications.

One of the areas in which the stagnant economy and revenue shortfalls have forced states to consider cutbacks is agricultural inspection. While many in the industry recognize that all types of businesses must share the pain of belt-tightening during tough economic times, others warn that failing to inspect horticultural goods sufficiently could prove more costly than the price of maintaining inspection budgets.

Growers in Ohio already have felt the pinch. They contend that, eventually, a reduction in the number of inspectors will create inspection backlogs. In Ohio, this is particularly significant because an increasing volume of industry sales there are to Canada, which requires imports to have phytosanitary certificates before crossing the border. (For state-to-state trade, inspectors check nursery goods for compliance with pest cleanliness requirements, quality standards, and proper identification.)

In a state with more than 17,000 acres of nursery stock, Ohio employs seven field inspectors and two supervisors. Another position is vacant and is reportedly unlikely to be filled. The state has more than 4,000 nursery licenses, according to Bill Stalter, executive director of the Ohio Nurserymen’s Association.

“We had a meeting with the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture and brought up the concern [that the vacancy would jeopardize] timely inspections,” reports Stalter. “As a result, the department approved overtime for a couple of inspectors.”

In Michigan, laments Richard Seely, president and chief executive officer of the state’s Nursery and Landscape Association, “So many cutbacks have been made in the Department of Agriculture’s pesticide and plant management [programs] that retail-lot inspectors have been completely cut out of the budget, and there are currently not enough field inspectors to … even do an adequate job.”

Arizona has mulled an even more severe cash-saving move: eliminating the state’s border inspection stations altogether.

In a draft contingency plan that calls for reorganization of the state’s Plant Services Division, Arizona signals a willingness to move from a program of preventive pest maintenance to one of eradication after the fact.

Writing in Southwest Horticulture magazine, Dr. Chris A. Martin, an Arizona State University urban horticulturist, contends the contingency plan represents “a precarious policy shift.”

He argues that, whatever its price, Arizona’s border-inspection system has been cost-effective. “Arizona’s current freedom from pest problems such as fire ants, citrus canker, red scale, et cetera, which infect many other states across the southern United States, is due primarily to preventive management practice, spearheaded by the border inspection stations.”

According to a Wholesale Nursery Growers of America newsletter, US nurserymen were not always convinced that strong inspection programs work to their advantage. The newsletter lays that debate to rest, listing tangible benefits inspection programs provide:

  • Protecting growers and crops from exotic pests.
  • Disseminating useful information on pest identification and control.
  • Facilitating the marketing of plants to other states, regions and countries.
  • Protecting consumers from poor-quality, insect-infested and diseased plants.

If you’re uncertain whether inspection programs in your state are at risk, contact your state association.