By Erika Webb
Usually it's now, not July, when fern growers begin to sweat. They watch the weather forecasts and try to will away freezing temperatures.
They also work just about around the clock to fill orders for the biggest flower day of the year -- Valentine's Day.
So far this year E.P. Richardson Ferneries owners Ann and Pete Richardson are enjoying a mild, if not busy, winter. But it's not over 'til it's over.
It's been 20 years since the Storm of the Century barreled through the central and eastern states in March, dropping temperatures to below freezing and unpleasantly surprising even the most seasoned farmers.
Resilience has been the name of the game for agriculturists in Pierson and surrounding areas since the pioneer days. Harsh freezes in the late 1800s all but wiped out citrus crops and prompted a game change, resulting in a multimillion dollar industry -- fern growing.
But life rarely supplies that colorful final page with "the end" happily scrawled in golden letters.
Two individuals top Pierson fern grower Pete Richardson's (expletive) list. They are Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart, but not necessarily in that order.
"I like Bill better than I like Martha," Mr. Richardson said.
But not much.
Back in the early 1990s when NAFTA was on the table, Mr. Richardson had a lot to say over beers around the campfire. NAFTA had him worried, really worried. Many of his young friends didn't really understand his concerns.
What was the big deal?
The economy was pretty good. New cars, new houses and obtaining the loans to get the stuff to elevate one's status among 30-something aged peers were the tasks at hand.
What was the worst that could happen?
Well, for starters, $6 a day labor in Costa Rica, Belize and Guatemala.
The rest of that story has become history.
For local fern growers, add three hurricanes. Throw in online floral arrangement ordering. Then ice the cake with trends like "roundy moundies" -- that's where Martha Stewart comes in.
"The style of arrangements has changed, more flowers less greenery," Ms. Richardson said.
Mr. Richardson said the popular "small airy, compact arrangements" have diminished Valentine's Day business more than any other culprit. That's why Martha has to, well, never mind.
"One of the other things that's hurt our whole industry ... you won't hear it from the florists as much as you'll hear it from a loud mouth like myself ... is online ordering," Mr. Richardson said. "Used to, florists made 100 percent of the money. Now it's 70 percent."
That trickles down to growers, like the Richardsons who serve eight wholesalers and 96 florists with what has evolved into a multi-species inventory, driven by consumer demands for more variety.
"Everything has changed so much," Mr. Richardson said. "Leatherleaf was 80 to 90 percent of my business. Now it's 40 percent of my business."
Ferns like the Aurelia and Robellini, for example, "are more colorful and take the place of flowers a little bit," Mr. Richardson said.
Another, the aspidistra, is dramatic-looking enough to add flare to floral arrangements or to stand on its own.
"You have to go with the demand," he said.
So now E.P. Richardson Ferneries grows 30 or 40 different kinds of greens, as opposed to just the three original ferns -- Leatherleaf, plumosa and tree fern -- that sustained them in earlier years. And whether planted in the ground or placed on a shelf, added inventory equals money spent.
But the Richardsons agreed, it's imperative to "stay with the trends" to survive.
They now sell a complete line of western greens they have to buy from outside of Florida.
"We don't want to, but we have to stay with the market," Mr. Richardson said. "There used to be five kinds of beer you could buy. Now there are 45."
Earlier in the week the Richardsons' son Phillip was on the road with his dad, filling orders from Orlando to Tampa and Clearwater. Back at the fernery it was seven days a week until Valentine's Day, Ms. Richardson said. And Mother's Day is hot on its heels.
Asked if Phillip or daughter Tiffany will join the fern business, the couple groaned simultaneously. They'd rather see their kids go to college, try other things.
"Our industry is shrinking so fast," Ms. Richardson said.
Mr. and Mrs. Richardson both are easygoing people who share a sense of humor. They roll with punches. They endure.
Back in 2006, as land values skyrocketed, Mr. Richardson was quoted in a Tampa Tribune article: "I'm going to stop planting ferns and start planting Yankees. They grow better."
But again things change.
"Aint plantin' no Yankees," Mr. Richardson told Hometown News.
"We were over 400 growers strong in 1984," Mr. Richardson said. "Now, in the tri-county -- Lake, Putnam and Volusia -- shipping industry, we're in the mid-50s."
"High 60s," Ms. Richardson corrected.
So they laugh. They diversify. And they never forget to be grateful.
"The weather has been cooperative and that makes for a great growing season," Ms. Richardson said. "The workers definitely appreciate it."
E.P. Richardson Ferneries currently employs 10 full-time people to harvest and package the fern, down from 19 seven years ago before the economy plunged.
"We keep a small crew because we want to keep them year-round," Ms. Richardson said.
"Most people look at ferns as simply the decorative greens that provide background for cut flowers," she added. "But to a fern grower and our workers it's our livelihood. There are a lot of sleepless nights and tons of time put into farming. We take pride in what we do."
Is Pierson still considered the fern capital of the world?
"Yeah, we're holding on to that title proudly. That's all we got since Chipper retired from the Braves," Mr. Richardson said.