Bonsai as a crop/industry

Jason

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So just curious on peoples thoughts and perceptions (for the sake of conversation)....I've never been to Japan but frequently see pictures of "Bonsai fields" where they seemed to be farmed as a cash crop (a very slow cash crop). Has this been standard practice there for eons or is this a recent phenomenon? Doesn't it seem like specialty bonsai nurseries are becoming more prevalent? Is this just due to stricter import/export laws? I wonder what percentage of them actually stay in business long-term. Is it a fad? Would it be safe to say this is a new world wide industry?

For the record, I'm not conjuring up any business plans (I'm sure it would be a tough business and I've read some of Brent Walstons posts on other forums)...I just kind of find the whole concept of raising pre bonsai fascinating .......
 

bonsaiTOM

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Jason, I don't have any answers to your questions - but I'm so glad you asked. I've wondered the very same things for some time now, but never got around to asking anyone. Let's hope we get some thoughtful responses. Thanks.
 

bonsai barry

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Having seen photos of rows and rows of fantastic maples, I found it extremely depressing that quality trees seem to be mass produced. Makes my efforts seem futile.
 

satsuki

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I have heard some pretty interesting things about this as well. My teacher has told me of times he has been up to some satsuki fields, pretty crazy stuff.

I don't think this is a good business idea, but could be a good side-business idea.
 

sam

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raising material for bonsai is by no means new in asia . pine growers in kinashi/takamatsu , shikoku, have been doing this for 4 and 5 generations, - well over 100 years. pine seedlings started today will likely be sold as bonsai material by the current owner's grandson or more likely by the owners great grandson. same is true in taiwan. junipers planted in the ground 40+ yeas ago are now world class bonsai stock reminiscent of mountain yamadori.

best wishes, sam
 

milehigh_7

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As far as profitability, it seems that Japan was something of the "perfect storm". As the art progressed, the demand increased and at the same time the supply of yamadori decreased. This made it profitable to fill the demand with field grown stock.

This may never be possible in the United States as we have a nearly limitless supply of yamadori. Additionally we, as Brent has chronicled, are not a culture (as a generalization) willing to pay for the time it takes someone to develop excellent stock.
 

Attila Soos

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As far as profitability, it seems that Japan was something of the "perfect storm". As the art progressed, the demand increased and at the same time the supply of yamadori decreased. This made it profitable to fill the demand with field grown stock.

This may never be possible in the United States as we have a nearly limitless supply of yamadori. Additionally we, as Brent has chronicled, are not a culture (as a generalization) willing to pay for the time it takes someone to develop excellent stock.

That's about sums it up.

But there is an extra ingredient that makes these Japanese growers profitable. Something that we, here in the US, don't have: The whole extended family is involved in growing these fields, at any given time. From grandson to grandfather. Add to this a few apprentices working for free, and the cost of labor becomes rather cheap, even by Japanese standards. The costs of labor makes this type of business unprofitable in the West.
 

Bonsai Basho

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In the UK

Hi all, I just thought I would tell you about what happens in the UK.

We are not blessed with the kind of yamadori that the US has, our climate is fairly mild and so whilst we get scotts pines & larch they are mostly from forrestry activity. We get lots of deciduous trees like European Elm, Oak, Beech (sylvatica) and some Yew.

What a few peple have done here is to set up growing fields for faster growing species like, Trident maple, beech, larch, and some junipers which can be twisted up and made into literati designs. Peter Chan in the UK planted up an acre of ground and in 15 years, had hornbeams with a girth of 9". Now 15 years is a long time but you can get a larch from a seedling to a bonsai in 7-9 years. In that time they need little or no effort save a once per year dig round the root ball.

I'm in my mid 40's and I will be planting up a field with elm, larch, oak and a few other species. When I reach 60 I should have 100+ trees all of which are at good raw material standards. I'm lucky as I have the right climate but so do parts of the US. I see this as a retirement bonus that will get me a 500x return on anything I put in - not bad and worth the consideration. You just have to pick the right species that are easy to grow in your climate.

Peter Chan 30 years ago in the UK 'wired in' 200 larch and 10 years later sold them making enough money to start his own nursery. The wire in techniqe is used extensively to creat gnarly trees - not everyone agrees, but its done all over Japan to farm trees into bonsai fast. It fattens the trunks faster and creates those curves. I'm not advocating this but its just how its done.

Article
http://www.bonsaibasho.com/micromarket/?url=/library/library/a128

Video
http://www.bonsaibasho.com/micromarket/?url=/library/library/a85
 

Mike423

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There are a few towns in Japan that are know are growing communities, specializing sometimes in just a single type of bonsai (ex: Azalea, Pine, etc..).

Its true that some are grown for generations before they even see the sellers market, while others are meant for the pre-sale market at around4-6 years old. Its sad but due to the economic properties for these types of nurseries, If a certain stock is unsold for too long they will burn it!!! This is due to the fact that if they want to sell it they will then have to lower the price, which if then done continuously will affect the market allowing them to make less. This cant be allowed as sadly, many nursery men barely make enough to stay afloat in Japan and will go out of buisness if this behavior was allowed.

I can just imagine those poor trees BURNING!!!:eek:

There a good article on Japanese Nurseries in Bonsai Today Magazine if I remember right. Number 75 or something like that (it says it on the cover under that issues topics)

-Mike
 
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Bill S

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Often they will grow the first part of the trunk someone comes along buys it up, and then grows the second stage, then on for branches, generations of relatives, and growers are involved. As to the burning, it makes sense for them not to dilute thier market with inferior stock, keeping thier prices up.

Yes the joke here is - Do you want to make a million in the bonsai bussiness???

Start with two million.
 
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Like Brent says more or less, if you want to make a buck in Bonsai you create allot of junky little $5 junipers and sell them real fast. My feeling is that is not why Brent or any other individual for that matter with stock worth the salt of the earth is in this buissness. It is a labor of love. You must love every minute of it, or at least every other. I am sure it helps over time to see your pre-creation over time in the hands of some other competent individual. I think in Japan their may be a better market to actually make money due to "dealership maintenance".
 

Smoke

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As an industry, Bonsai will never be a money making proposition. The best that can be had is maybe wages for a family but one will never be wealthy, you will most likely not have much in the way of luxery items since the disparity between industry and consumer is fleeting.

How many trees can a bonsai person be expected to purchase per year?

How many bonsai persons come and go per year that one would have access to?

How many conventions, swapmeets and club raffles will cut into your potential sales mechanism and ruin a month of sales?

Is the business going to be a full time operation with no other means of employment to help support it?


Suppose all the answers to those questions are the one you need to proceed with this as an endeavor one would wish to do.


The first question in my mind, and this has always been a peeve of mine, is that bonsai material is subjective. Meaning, what one wishes to think is good may not be good to another, and what one thinks is a fair price for something might not seem so fair to another.

The other peeve is the talent of the grower. "Growing material for bonsai is exactly the same as making bonsai from material". In other words, if you can't make good bonsai as a hobbiest, you can't make good material either. Making good material is not an "on the job training issue". One has to be equipped with the knowledge of how plants react to the functions of the creation process.


Let us pretend that two hobbiests decide to go into the business of growing material for the bonsai market.

Hobbiest X has trees like this in his collection.
 

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Smoke

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Hobbiest Z has trees like this in his collection.
 

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Smoke

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Which hobbiest is most likely to produce material suitable for making the best possible bonsai?

This is so common in the nursery trade in America. The recent photo's from Japan from Buddahmonk show many of the superior trees for sale during Kokufu at the Uyeno Green Club. We look at these pictures and are awestruck, because the trees for sale as material are far superior to anything we see in America as finished.


Why is this so?

Because people here don't have the same skills as those in Japan at growing and styling material. It is easy to see that those that are growing the material are nearly as good at growing as those doing the finishing or styling. That is why I say we have poor growers here compared to Japan.

What will the market bare in price. Would we be able to support a grower who could provide the market with 1000 shohin black pines with superior trunks and good branching for $1000.00 a copy per year? A thousand maples, and thousand tridents, a thousand elms, a thousand twisty shimpaku. Now we are talking 5 million dollars. That was a capital M in the million.


Ok so you don't make bonsai material so good.....

Maybe I will sell my stuff for $75.00 dollars and not have so many branches on it, and maybe it will never be a masterpiece but someone will make something pretty good from it. $375,000.00 is not so bad. Anyone think they can sell 5000 $75.00 dollar trees a year? How will you reach all those people?
 

Zach Smith

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The bonsai business is certainly not a way to rapid wealth, or even wealth at all as we understand the term. But it can be very fulfilling, and can provide some level of income to the grower ranging from a little to enough to be comfortable. To be sure you have to have a love for the art/hobby, otherwise you simply won't last.

As to the esthetics involved, I think there's a place for bonsai of all degrees of quality. Beginners generally don't, and shouldn't, buy masterpieces. Cheaper trees do their service in helping beginners practice and make the inevitable mistakes. Given enough time and practice and luck, they move on to better trees.

Luckily for us all, the marketplace works its magic by determining the appropriate prices for the differing levels of quality. As long as the grower doesn't spend much time calculating his hourly pay for creating a bonsai, all is well.

Zach
 

Attila Soos

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A reasonable expectation for a passionate bonsai hobbyist is to be able to finance the expenses of his own hobby - which is not a small thing, since in many cases, people spend a small fortune on their hobbies - and, in addition, may be he can bring a little extra cash to the family income. If your hobby ends up costing nothing, because you bring in the money to cover your expenses, and on top of that, you end up with a small profit that can be used to pay a few more bills, you are way ahead of the game. And, you are also having a lot of fun.

But doing it as a full time business, that's a different story. It's a great struggle, and you are running the risk to take the fun out of it. The fun that brought you in it, in the first place.
The sad part is that you can create cheap little mallsai for a quick profit, but when you get to the expensive stuff, you end up losing money on that, because people don't appreciate the time and effort that you put into it. So, you end up producing mostly cheap bonsai, and your bonsai business becomes just another plant nursery. This doesn't have to happen, but it can easily end up happening.

Most of the people have one or two areas where they may be talented, but very few people have the talent to be very good at sales, artistic sense, gardening, and business, all at the same time. In addition to the physical stamina to do all that in one day. When you run a bonsai nursery, you have to be great at many things, because you have to do it all by yourself. There is no money to pay different people for different things.
 
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Jason

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I just wanted to thank everyone for all the interesting commentary. It sounds like asia alone currently has the demand to sustain very many high end bonsai growers. Asia seems to have more individuals who want the finished product alone. Some of them remind me of people who like to have their own private label of wine but never set foot in the vineyard or the winery (or the thoroughbred owner that doesn't know anything about horses). Maybe we need more of those individuals here to create the demand (more people that want the finished product to claim as their own but not the experience of growing it.

I think we are making progress in the US though. It seems to me that the quality and availability of high end material gets a little better every day as all of us learn to appreciate it....and thus are willing to pay for it (that whole supply/demand thing). I know after I stuck most of my "collection" (if you could call it that) in the ground and started to work on developing quality nebari and trunk diameter, I learned to appreciate what people like Brent Walston and Randy Knight do. (I'm sure there are many others who are contributing to improving our quality of raw pre bonsai stock.) Now we just need more people willing to spend money on quality finished trees. Then we'll have ourselves an industry.
 
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Jason

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For the record, I've learned I can't afford quality finished trees. Thus I have to learn to make my own...and for me this is where the fun is anyway. My appreciation for higher quality starting material has increased though....how do we get more of those other guys wanting the final product?
 

rockm

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Watching the video coming out of Japan over the last few days, I can't help but wonder if any commercial bonsai growers were caught up in the devastation...Sendai is an apparently heavily agricultural area...
 

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