One-two punch — Virus outbreak testing landscapers after mild winter

Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski Photo illustration by Nick Anna Warner's Landscaping owner Shawn Warner does a spring inspection of a fire pit and patio installed in the fall.

A mild winter was a mixed bag for area landscapers. And now the COVID-19 outbreak is presenting a new wrinkle.

Altoona’s winter weather — with only about 8.4 inches of snow — created both positives and negatives for area landscapers, according to Thomas G. Ford, Penn State extension commercial horticulture educator.

“Most landscape contractors have had limited cashflow this winter, so some contractors have had to delay equipment replacement or refrain from making new capital investments,” Ford said. The lack of snow did allow some contractors to do early pruning and/or tree removal.

But low cashflow may have forced come contractors to lay off some employees, Ford said.

Now, coronavirus is testing the companies.

Joe Beck, owner of Beck’s Maintenance and Landscape Center, Duncansville, said the virus outbreak is a concern, but it won’t directly affect his work or schedule because his workers are outside and at a distance. He stressed that the firm’s stores remain open and fully stocked.

Beck’s main concern now is that as people’s income becomes tighter, they may opt to hire family or friends to do work — like landscaping — that they aren’t qualified to take on.

Jeff Adler, president of Adler’s Landscaping Nursery Inc., said the effect of the coronavirus “just depends how deep this goes.” He said that the real difficulty is “not knowing where the bottom is and how long everyone is going to hold out waiting till the bottom hits.”

He said, “People will be more particular about where they’ll spend their money,” so the business will consider cutting back on inventory and focusing on having the cash to pay bills.

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” he said, referring to the virus’ impact on his business and industry. Although he did speculate that the green industry may shift toward home gardening and raising small animals like chickens, because of people being isolated at home and some people’s worry about having sufficient produce to eat.

Worst winter

Most area landscapers rely on snow removal for income during the winter.

John Sinisi, owner of J.J. Sinisi Landscape and Lawn Care, Altoona, said this was the worst winter he has seen.

“You prepare for a slow winter every five years. This was the worst winter I’ve seen, and I have been in business since 1982. It makes up about 25 percent of our business,” Sinisi said.

Others agree the lack of snow was detrimental.

“A lot of guys bank on snow maintenance to prepare them for the spring season. Snow maintenance makes up about 50 percent of our business,” Beck said.

Rich Huber, owner of ProLawn Landscaping Co., Altoona, said “We do a good bit of snow removal. We do a lot of commercial accounts. We did a little salting and plowing to pay the bills. It was an unexpected winter. A lot of the forecasters had predicted a snowy winter. Snow removal makes up about 20 percent of our profits,” Huber said.

Getting a head start

The mild winter did allow landscapers to get a head start on their spring work.

“I was able to start working before the end of February,” said Shawn Warner, owner of Warner’s Landscaping and Property Maintenance of Altoona. “I’ve been able to do some foundation work with concrete. Hardly ever can you do this in February. It has to be 40 degrees to set concrete.”

Beck agreed: “It gave us an opportunity to get some work done we would not have been able to get accomplished during the winter months. We were able to get a good head start on our landscaping work.”

ProLawn and Adler’s Landscaping also got off to an early start.

“The weather has cooperated. At the end of February and early March, we got a big jump on spring. We have been doing spring cleanup,” Huber said. “There were a couple of projects we did not get finished last year. We can now do planting and hardscaping work.”

“We got a jump start on spring, finished up some odds and ends from last year,” Adler said. “We could do things like prune a bush, straighten a tree. Last year was the best year we ever had as far as volume … but the weather has to be right. We had a really good year.”

A labor problem

But in good economic times, finding labor was a challenge for landscapers.

“Most contractors cannot recruit or retain good workers. Some contractors have been forced to recruit foreign workers because there is an industrywide shortage of landscape laborers. In some cases, owners have confided to me that they cannot expand their business in the Altoona area because of labor shortages,” Ford said.

“The biggest challenge is finding qualified help and trying to keep up with everything. The economy has been good. We have had to turn down some work; we’ve been so busy. If we could find the help, we could expand,” Huber said.

Sinisi said he is fortunate that he does not have a labor problem.

“I’ve had my same crew for years. They are full-time, year-round employees. I look for people who want to make a career out of this,” Sinisi said.

Despite the ups and downs, local landscapers are optimistic about the year ahead.

“With the milder temperatures, the phone has been ringing off the hook. People are spending more time outdoors and taking a closer look at their yards. It is usually mid- to late March until we get busy. People are calling earlier; we got a nice jump on things,” Huber said.

“I am fairly certain this will be a good season. People who didn’t spend their budget on snow maintenance will have more money to do installations. We now have two locations; we only had one last year. We now have Beck’s Gulish Garden Center near Pinecroft and may be adding a third location in Ebensburg fairly soon,” Beck said.

However, Adler remains concerned about the weather.

“If it gets real cold, plant materials could suffer. Silver maples have popped, buds are forming. … I am concerned if it gets into the low 20s or teens. The chances are that something will happen. I am scared. If we get a deep frost, we will be in trouble, it will hurt some plants,” Adler said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.


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