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Plant vendors survive amid crunch, fickle trends

With rapt attention, 30-year-old Sudir cleaned the leaves of the plants in the neatly arrayed pots in his flower garden. The garden is home to hundreds of species of ornamental plants, and Sudir takes good care of them all, watering and spraying them regularly with pesticide.

A little later, a prospective buyer came to his garden to take a look at the flowering plants.

Sudir, a resident of Baturraden and the owner of an ornamental plant stall named Mekar Sari, is one such vendor visitors will find along the way to the Baturraden tourist destination in Banyumas regency, Central Java. These stalls are located about 2 kilometers from the tourist site and are part of Baturraden's natural tourism attractions.

Sudir told The Jakarta Post that he had been running the business at the same spot for about four years, renting the adjacent plot of land to have space for his flower pots.

""I rent the land at Rp 2 million a year,"" he said, adding that he had over 150 species of ornamental plants on the plot. Some of these he planted himself while the others, he had bought and transported from other cities.

""Some were bought in Surabaya, Bandung and several other places,"" Sudir said.

""The ornamental plant business is rather sluggish now, though. It's been this way since early this year. I don't know why, but perhaps it is due to the difficult economic condition,"" he added.

During such straitened times, he went on, people prioritized their primary needs and placed other needs and interests, including horticultural hobbies, at the bottom of their priority list.

""Ornamental plants are secondary needs. How can you force yourself to buy ornamental plants when you find it difficult to meet your primary needs?"" he said. In the last few months, Sudir said his earnings from the business had been uncertain.

Previously, when economic conditions were relatively normal, he sold at least one plant a day. These days, he often goes a week without any sales.

""The other flower vendors here are also experiencing the same thing,"" he said.

The plants Sudir sells range in price from Rp 1,000 to a few million.

""The most expensive plants cost about Rp 3 million each. These include the Anthurium and Cemarang Udang, but others cost only Rp 1,000, like the krokot (purslane) and Beauty,"" he said.

Aside from tourists, many of his customers are Purwokerto locals.

""Local buyers are usually people who keep ornamental plants as a hobby. They are our regulars. As for the tourists, they buy plants that have caught their eye at the tourist site,"" said Sudir.

One of the most popular plants among his buyers is the Evorbia (Euphorbia, spurges): ""The price has dropped considerably but many people still like this plant. Four months ago I could sell a 20-cm spurge at Rp 100,000, but today it's good if we can sell it for Rp 10,000.""

At present, the Gelombang Cinta (Anthurium, ""Wave of Love"") and geraniums are increasingly popular. These two species of flowering plants can cost between Rp 50,000 and Rp 1 million.

""The price of a flowering plant depends on the condition, like that of cage birds. At one time it can be cheap, but the price can suddenly shoot up or vice-versa. It seems as though some individuals are controlling the prices,"" said Sudir.

For example, he said, when the spurge first appeared, it cost about Rp 500,000, but five months later the price fell sharply. At present, few people are interested to buy the tallest spurge (about 1 meter) for Rp 25,000.

Muhsonudin, 40, another flowering plant vendor, agreed with Sudir about the fluctuation in prices.

""These prices are arranged by the big traders. They can create a particular image about a flower, its price introduced to the public through the mass media. So the price does not depend on the quality of the flower. Like with the Anthurium, what's good about this plant? It was rather rare at first, so the price was high. Now that many people grow this plant, of course the price drops,"" he said.

This was why, he went on, ornamental plant sellers must actively keep in touch with market trends, both nationally and internationally.
""Don't think that this concerns only ordinary farmers. Today, there is a business network of major flower traders that control prices. Even the names of the flowers are specially created to sound exotic so that high prices can be quoted. Take the Gelombang Cinta. This is a new name and the plant is a hybrid,"" said Muhsonudin.

Aside from keeping up with the latest trends, flowering plant vendors must also manage their businesses cleverly to anticipate price fluctuations.

""If the price of a particular plant begins to drop, don't keep a large stock because the price will continue to slide and soon there will be a new species to replace it,"" said Muhsonudin. ""Small-scale sellers who know little about this will surely go bankrupt quickly.""
Another trick to ensure survival in this business, he said, is to take good care of the plants, giving them sufficient water and spraying pesticide so that they always look fresh.
""This is a very basic standard of plant maintenance and every flower vendor must practice it. The most important thing, though, is to be able to capture the latest market trend,"" Muhsodin said.
""When a new flower appears (on the market), buy it straight away, even if it is expensive. Then breed the plants up to the peak of the trend, then stop and clear out stock. Then wait until a new species is introduced in the media.

Agus Maryono, The Jakarta Post, Purwokerto

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