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Tuesday, September 19, 2017 Vol. 81 No. 5

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Cover Story
Answering the Call
| Jennifer Zurko | photography by Mark Widhalm
>> Published Date: 8/27/2014

“ Doug is a true grower in the purest sense,” said Bob Dickman, who has the pleasure of seeing Doug Mead work for his family’s operation on a daily basis. When Bob nominated Doug for the Young Grower Award, he talked about his passion for plants and for the industry, and how he really worked his way up to becoming a senior section grower with two assistant growers reporting to him.

And this passion started at a very early age. Doug said his earliest memories are gardening with his grandmother. And his mother likes to tell stories about when he would take cuttings off of trees and try to root them in water.

In high school, he worked at his uncle’s landscaping business during the summer and got a job at a garden center in his hometown of Elbridge, where he truly discovered that his future would be in horticulture.

“I don’t know if it’s in my genes or what, but I just love plants,” Doug said with a shrug and a smile. “I think it’s just my calling. I don’t know how to explain it.”

The plant life may have been calling him, but at first, Doug wasn’t listening. He chose to major in Meteorology when he entered a local community college because he’s also very interested in the weather and different climates. It was okay at first. And then it wasn’t.

He liked studying Meteorology, but he never felt truly comfortable with his studies or the school, so he decided to transfer to a different college and changed his major to Ornamental Horticulture. He earned his associate’s degree and then graduated from Cornell University with his Bachelor’s.

So, he had the determination and the degree. Now all he needed was a job. 

Humble beginnings
Doug has been with Dickman Farms in Auburn, New York, for almost nine years, but he didn’t start in the greenhouse. In order to get his foot in the door, Doug took a job working in Dickman’s retail garden center, helping out the customers and “mucking in trees for the season” in the nursery area. But his career at Dickman almost didn’t happen.

“I had a job offer with a landscaping company in Syracuse and I was supposed to start that Monday,” recalls Doug. “The human resources guy here called me that Friday before I was supposed to start and said that there was an opening in the garden center and asked if I would take it.” After a quick conversation with his wife, Doug called back and accepted the job—even though it meant being the lower man on the totem pole.

But it didn’t take long for Doug to find his way into the wholesale greenhouse. Within the year, he was brought over “to the other side” to help pull poly off of the greenhouses. From there he was named as an assistant grower, where for two years he learned everything he could about propagation. And when Dickman added another range, Doug was able to try his hand at growing all by himself.

Bob said Doug “thrived” as an assistant grower, taking over much of the rooting responsibilities during liner season when another grower had to leave for health reasons. Since a short time after that, Doug has been a senior section grower, overseeing all of Dickman’s young plant production. It was a swift transition, but Doug earned it by working hard and facing every challenge.

Rooting station rock star
Being a Ball Seed rooting station comes with its own unique set of challenges and Dickman Farms has been doing it for more than 30 years. Bob said they started with a small volume of dracaena and other oddball plants, but now most of their business centers around rooting cuttings for other wholesalers. Besides their own garden center across the parking lot, Dickman Farms services 80 area IGCs, along with the Meadows Farms chain in Virginia and Washington D.C. And recently, they’ve taken on the large task of growing for the Wegman’s grocery chain, where quality is key for their high-end customer base.

With change comes even more headaches sometimes, but it also brings about some new opportunities. Doug said the growers are now more involved in the production planning for some of their customers, which has worked well for them and the business.

“This year, for one of our contract growers, all of the growers are going to look at [their orders] and determine crop times—what we should grow and other things like that,” explained Doug.

Other than choosing which crops to grow and determining their growth cycles, you have to make sure that the product you ship out actually looks good—which in the liner world, can be a difficult task.

“Spring is a little bit, I don’t want to say easier, but if it’s not quite perfect, people will still take it,” said Doug. “But if a liner doesn’t look that great, you’ll get a QN.

You always try to grow the perfect crop every single time and there are always challenges, like bugs or diseases or weather—which is a huge thing here—that’ll throw you a curveball. The Upstate New York weather makes it difficult; it’s dark a lot of the time so it’s a huge challenge here.”

And to use a weather analogy, when it rains it pours—meaning that when one thing doesn’t cooperate (like the weather), another thing will happen to make it worse (like insect problems). And Doug and his other fellow section grower Gary Gavurnik have been dealing with insect problems for the last few years. Notably thrips, fungus gnats and shoreflies.

It all came to a head when Doug and Gary couldn’t get control of their thrips problem. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“We just kept struggling with thrips and nothing was working,” said Doug. “No matter how much you sprayed, you couldn’t get control. And we just came to a point where we had to try something different …”

That something was biologicals. Doug implemented an Integrated Pest Management program, which Dickman Farms had never done before. He admits that they were a little late to the IPM party, but when human hands couldn’t control the bug problem, they were forced to bring in insect reinforcements. And the operation is even better for it.

“It’s safer, it’s easier to apply—you don’t have to worry about re-entry intervals—and when you’re spraying a chemical that’s not working anyway, what’s the point?” Doug said. “You’re just wasting money. So you might as well go and try something different to see if you can control them. We had to change our thinking. And we still are doing that now.”

They started during liner season, when Doug and the other growers were struggling with fungus gnats and shoreflies, using nematodes and Botaniguard “with great success,” said Doug. They used these biologicals for a few years in this area of the greenhouse only. But when thrips and aphids started to become a huge problem in their finished plant area, that’s when they incorporated biocontrols during that part of their production, as well.

“We started with banker plants and we saw really good success with aphid control,” said Doug. “We still get hot spots here and there, but we saw really good control.”

Two years ago, they used sachets on their poinsettia crop and Doug said that by the end of the season, they “had zero whiteflies.”

Their new IPM program has been quite successful, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps on the way. Doug confesses that he once wiped out their whole population of Orius insidiosus by accidentally spraying them, bringing them back to the drawing board.

“You just have to live and learn from it,” said Doug. “[Biologicals] do work. You just have to be patient and stubborn at the same time. You can’t ship out stuff that’s loaded with bugs. There’s a lady who does scouting [for us] and she’s only come to me a couple of times for sprays. We were spraying like every other week. Now, we use the Orius in there.”

Dickman Farms really just started promoting the fact that much of their product is grown using biocontrols, something that they’re still working on how to get the word out. But, on the other hand, consumers’ expectations need to be a tad more flexible, in Doug’s opinion.

“People have to be a little more tolerant,” he said. “There may be a couple of thrips; I don’t think anything really can be 100% clean anymore. I think it’s almost impossible.”  

Getting more personal
As most of you know, being a grower gives you a sense of accomplishment—especially when you see those racks of liners and cuttings go out the door. But it also brings a lot of long days, weekends and a few sleepless nights.

Doug and Erin have been married for 11 years, so she’s used to having a husband who’s absent for most of the late winter and spring. But they’re also juggling the schedules of two children (Olyvia, 9, and Gabriel, 5), while Erin is in her last year of school trying to earn her paralegal degree. Doug says he works hard to keep work at work because his family time is cut short during much of the year. But in the summer months, he has more free time to attend his kids’ activities, garden and have weekly bonfires with his dad and brother.

Now that fall is starting, Doug will be spending his weekends cheering on his Syracuse Orange and St. Louis Rams, while his workweek will be spent growing poinsettias from cuttings. Before, Dickman always bought them pre-finished, but last year, they decided to grow their own and Doug took on the task of growing 100,000 poinsettias from cuttings. In Bob’s own words, it’s this eager approach to change and willingness to learn new things that has made Doug a valued member of the Dickman Farms family. And it has now earned him a place among an elite crop of young growers in our industry. Not bad for a local kid from Elbridge. GT  

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