Garden business, in 62nd year, not resting on laurels

Gene Annacone carries a lawn ornament for display at Gene’s Farm and Garden Center in Hamilton Township. Such accessories have helped Gene’s stay competitive against chain stores and discounters.

Running a farm and garden market in some ways is as steady as the seasons, anchored by the sale of plants in spring and fresh local produce in summer.

But even this ancient form of small business must adapt like all the others to changing preferences, market conditions and competitors.

"In business, you almost have to reinvent yourself all the time," said Gene Annacone, who with his wife, Jeanie, owns and operates Gene's Farm and Garden Center on the Black Horse Pike in Hamilton Township.

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With the center now in its 62nd year, the family's reinventions apparently have worked. Annacone said Gene's thankfully "has a zillion steady customers."

One big challenge came early, in 1964, when the Atlantic City Expressway opened and took a lot of traffic off the pike.

"That gave us a jolt and knocked out a lot of business," he said.

Then pinelands restrictions ensured that the area around Gene's Farm and Garden Center, about 10 miles west of the Hamilton Mall, would remain thinly populated.

"We've adjusted by becoming a destination, a place worth driving to for the service and prices," Annacone said.

One early adjustment, about 40 years ago, was to start selling concrete garden statuary made by Massarelli's Lawn Ornaments Inc. of Hammonton, "one of the biggest makers in the country," he said.

Picking out a cute animal in the $25 to $30 range or browsing the large discount area where bargains start at $5 gives people an extra reason to pick the center for their flowers and produce, he said.

"The good stuff ranges from $25 to $2,000 for a major fountain," he said.

Perhaps because of the fountains, Gene's was an early seller of garden ponds and pond supplies.

Such diversifying has helped him compete with the chain home stores and discounters that arrived decades after his business.

"You want to sell things that you have to have some knowledge to sell, not something people just come in and pick off a shelf," Annacone said.

That advantage still works today for shrubs, whose ultimate size and requirements of soil and sun must be known by the buyer to select the right one, he said. "They're like puppies."

The center's basics go back to when his mother, Olga, started selling produce from her Hammonton farm at three little markets in the 1940s.

"She married my father, who is also Gene, and they came over here in 1951," he said. "She was sharp."

The center still grows most of its flowers - pansies are popular now, and soon it will be time for the popular perennials such as impatiens, as long as you know how to rotate them to avoid Downing mildew, he said.

From June through August, Jersey tomatoes, peaches, corn and blueberries will be the big draw. "I go out every day (to area farms) and pick out the produce myself."

Gene Annacone said his uncles and cousins also have had stores on the Black Horse and White Horse pikes over the years. "My Uncle Tom and Aunt Helen had Tom's Garden World in Hamilton Township, which became a huge garden center and Christmas shop." Now the site hosts a Children's Hospital of Philadelphia facility.

The retail segments covered by such pike businesses have had mixed results in the past decade.

The number of nursery/garden stores in New Jersey declined from 325 to 303 in the decade to 2011, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows.

But on the produce side, the number of fruit and vegetable markets increased from 239 to 285 during the same time.

Both segments, however, shed more than a quarter of their workers during that period.

Annacone said he's felt the downturn, too, but takes it in stride like a change in seasons.

"We're working harder for less. We're doing OK, not great," he said. "But that's OK. I don't mind. We've been here forever and we work hard at it. There are no shortcuts."

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