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2011 GrowerTalks Young Grower Award: Up for the Challenge
| Jennifer Zurko
>> Published Date: 5/24/2011
This industry is not for the weak. Long hours, uncertain weather and a fluctuating economy come with the territory. So if you can’t take the heat—or the snow or the rain or the insect infestations—the greenhouse business is not for you.
Luckily for us, this year’s crop of Young Grower Award finalists knows that challenges are part of the job and they take them on with gusto. For the last six years, GrowerTalks has bestowed the Young Grower honor to young professionals who are daring enough to make their careers in this industry and have already made a name for themselves among their peers and mentors. With the generous support of our sponsors—Ball Horticultural Co. and OFA-An Association of Industry Professionals—we’re proud to be offering the Young Grower Award for the
As in previous years, we asked our three finalists to write a brief essay based on a specific question. This year we asked: “What are the biggest challenges facing growers today and how are you helping your business meet them?” It’s not surprising that each one looked at different aspects of their business—each operation is different in size, customer base and location. But there is a common thread: All three of them had to work their way from the trenches to get where they are today, so hard work is not a strange concept to any of them.
Tara Tischauser of Guthrie Greenhouses in Guthrie, Oklahoma, has a Bachelors in Human Resources Management and a Masters in Business Administration, so all of her horticulture knowledge has been learned on the job working for her grandfather’s greenhouse. Moving from Wisconsin to Oklahoma in 1997, Tara helped turn her father’s struggling potted plant business into a thriving and respected bedding plant operation. Her innovative ideas and work ethic have transformed the company into a major player that services five different states.
The person who nominated Jeremy Webber said that “passionate” would be the best word to describe him. After graduating with a degree in Horticulture Science, Jeremy worked his way through different growing operations before coming to Sunny Border Nurseries in Kensington, Connecticut, where he handles—among other things—product availability for the company’s 40 acres of production space. Sunny Border’s customers truly appreciate Jeremy’s expertise and focus on service. One was quoted as saying, “I feel lucky to have him close by.”
After consulting for entrepreneurs all over the world for four years, Nancy Gambino needed a change. She loves to garden and her husband, Joe, had a landscape business, so they decided to combine their hort and business knowledge to open Arte Verde Garden Center in Poplar Grove, Illinois. Not only is Nancy the grower, marketing manager, merchandiser and educator for the business, she’s also the mother of two small children.
Our panel of judges will choose the 2011 Young Grower Award winner based on their nomination applications, their essays and a telephone interview. The judges are:
All three finalists will be our guests at Short Course in July and the winner will be announced at the Unplugged event at the Park Street Cantina at 8 p.m. on Monday, July 11. The winner will be featured in the September issue of GrowerTalks.
- Anna Ball, President & CEO Ball Horticultural Company
- Dr. P. Allen Hammer, product development and support for Dümmen USA and Professor Emeritus of Floriculture at Purdue University
- Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery in Fresno, California, and current OFA President
- Dana Langhoff, 2010 Young Grower Award Winner, Floral Plant Growers, Denmark, Wisconsin
My father and I are partners and owners of Guthrie Greenhouses LLC in Guthrie, Oklahoma. I’m a fourth-generation greenhouse owner. My great-grandfather Leonard Sorenson gave greenhouses in places like Wisconsin and Florida to all of his children in the 1950s. I grew up working at my grandfather’s greenhouse and floral shop in Wisconsin throughout high school. Weekends and summers were spent transplanting and weeding under benches. Occasionally, I was lucky enough to make deliveries! I attended the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh and graduated with a business degree in 1997 when I moved to Oklahoma to work with my dad at Guthrie Green-houses. I’ve been here since and am loving it! I’m very hands on and involved with just about everything that goes on in our business: I’m responsible for sales, payroll, ARs, APs, marketing, branding and plant scheduling.
Title: Managing Partner/Business Manager
Operation: Guthrie Greenhouses LLC, Guthrie, Oklahoma
We face challenges every day, but I feel there are three major challenges we’ve faced and have overcome to succeed. The first challenge when I came to Guthrie Greenhouses was survival. It’s a competitive world out there and it takes the willingness to make big changes to be successful. It means we needed to be growing what the market was demanding and making money while doing that. Our operation has been in business since 1892 and we’re the third family to own it. When I first started, we were growing potted plants and servicing florists … because that’s what we’d been doing for the previous 100 years. We continually saw declining sales from a dying market and we weren’t having fun anymore. We knew if we didn’t make a change we wouldn’t be in business. So in 2003 we became a seasonal bedding plant grower. What fun! We had a great niche: small enough to grow what customers were asking for, but still big enough to service five states in our region. Since that change, our sales have increased every year and so has our bottom line.
The second challenge we faced was labor. With a seasonal schedule we needed a way to employ a seasonal workforce. We researched different programs and were able to implement a migrant worker program. This allows us to have employees when we need them and minimal payroll when we don’t. We’ve had the same group returning since we started the program. We treat our employees like family and this results in very little turnover. Having the same workforce year after year reduces the cost of training and increases our efficiency and product quality substantially.
We recruit our delivery drivers from abroad as well. These are the faces our customers see. We have friendly and helpful people that our customers look forward to seeing. The same drivers return yearly, which increases our productivity and pleases our customers. We have zero problems with our driver’s accountability and reliability. This means our customers always get their plants when they want them and the plants don’t sit in a truck any longer than they absolutely have to.
We grew the plants customers were searching for, obtained the customer base we wanted, and found a labor force that would help us with both. The ongoing challenge we now face is keeping our customers happy. In 2006 I developed our “Red Dirt” brand. Our private branding has been a huge success and allowed us to separate our product from the competitors. We’ve made our product beautiful with the design of our pot, tray and informative label. We even branded our delivery trucks. Our product is highly recognizable and sought after by the end consumers—the look has driven them to our customer’s stores looking for our product.
Over the years we’ve faced many challenges, and I’m proud of the way I’ve helped our company overcome these challenges, leading us to a successful position in our market. I take pride in our quality product and our superb customer service. Of course, just because we’ve conquered these challenges doesn’t mean we’re finished. Every day is a challenge to survive in this industry. We can never stop changing if we want to be successful!
While I will always categorize myself as a grower, the biggest thing that motivates me is increasing my company’s bottom line. Therefore, my two greatest challenges are selling more product and finding less expensive and more efficient ways to produce it.
Title: Director of Field Operations
Operation: Sunny Border Nurseries, Inc., Kensington, Connecticut
The recession and skyrocketing input costs have dramatically raised the stakes as of late. To be honest, though, I’m not certain that’s all bad. To get more plants out the door, I have to produce plants at a higher standard of quality. To decrease spending, I’m constantly adjusting our processes and searching for better materials to use, with less cost. Instead of merely weathering this economic storm, I’d prefer to see the industry as a whole use it for the opportunity it is to fine-tune our operations and emerge on the other side even stronger.
I have a relatively unique position as the grower at Sunny Border. While I’m in charge of growing all of our plants, I also supervise the creation of the weekly availability. Few things are more gratifying than producing a perfect crop. To then be able to publicize it to our customers and watch it quickly ship out is even better. Talking with our customers is something that I love to do, from helping them find the best crops to telling them about the standouts they didn’t even know they needed. This line of communication has been my most valuable tool in accomplishing my primary mission—don’t just grow great-looking material, get it on a delivery truck, too!
The art of producing the highest quality possible with the least amount of expense is something I find extremely rewarding. One cost-effective change that we’ve made this year is the incorporation of beneficial insects into our propagation house. Control of every greenhouse pest is better than anything I’ve previously experienced with chemistry, plus it’s safer to be around, marketable, and the plants just look better. The real bonus was seeing the same populations go out to our greenhouses and re-establish themselves. They’re cleaner than they’ve ever been, and have yet to be sprayed with anything more than OMRI-listed fungicides. What started out as a plan for just our edible program quickly morphed into a dominant part of our nursery-wide IPM program that has both increased quality and significantly decreased expense.
In addition to the cost savings of the beneficials, we’ve also been re-investing in our facility. From simple things like recovering with IR-barrier poly and upgrading to more precise computer control systems, to the installation of energy retention curtains later this summer, we’re aggressively trying to capture and conserve every penny spent in heating our facilities. These changes are allowing us to grow better-quality plants at warmer temperatures while using dramatically less fuel. For the icing on the cake, I removed all growing benches from these houses and increased the growing space by almost 30%. My main focus has been to identify improvements with quick paybacks, and so far it’s working. This isn’t the economy for a project with a 15-year return on investment.
When we all emerge from this chaotic business environment, what then? What are the odds of returning to the good ol’ days? If my friends and peers are any indication, we’re going to need to be on our toes. Most own houses and are married, some have families, yet none are interested in gardening. Most call it “yard work.” Really? We’ve got to change that mentality. What we do for a living, and what most of us do for fun as well, is ridiculously marketable to a massive population who are spending good money just to own an organic t-shirt. These are the customers we need to win.
For me, this is the tie-in between what I’m seeing at the nursery now and where I think the industry is headed. The economy is driving all of us right into the welcoming arms of sustainability, whether we like it or not. Not due to ethical or environmental reasons, but because it works and it costs less. Without even trying, I was growing an entire range of houses at near organic standards, with the highest quality. This decision, based on dollars and cents, is one I believe will be crucial for keeping both my company’s—as well as this industry’s—bottom line healthy.
There are many challenges facing growers today. Every year, we experience an increase in the cost of soil, containers, fertilizers and of course, fuel and heat. However, for a self-growing wholesaler and retailer like myself, I’ve been noticing a huge danger right before my eyes. The majority of our customers are slowing down or downsizing, and the next generation has other plans for their extra money.
Operation: Arte Verde Garden Center, Poplar Grove, Illinois
As our greatest percentage of customers begin to age, we fear two things: loss of their sales, and replacing those sales. The “more mature generation” truly has a passion for gardening and would much rather spend their time and extra money on improving the exterior appearance of their home. That specific group of customers is our bread and butter. So for the past couple of years, we’ve been offering additional services, like home delivery, soil preparation and planting services. We’ve also added a planting table at Arte Verde, so if they no longer have an area to plant at home, we can now offer them a place. They bring in their own containers or purchase ours and pot up their own masterpieces. We charge them a minimal fee for the soil and slow-release fertilizer and full price for the plants. Also, they have access to our knowledgeable associates.
If they’re not up for planting it themselves, we simply do it for them. Several years ago, this need for additional services sparked our landscape end of the business. Not only do we grow fantastic annuals and perennials, but we also have a shrub section. We reviewed the skills section on the applications of our current employees and saw many of them had landscaping experience. This was another great way for us to move our product and not hire additional help.
At this point, we should all be experts on getting our customers through the door. But with the next generation, you need to be where they are and convince them to spend their extra money on their exteriors instead of on vacations to Disney. We’ve added a few new advertising techniques, like advertising online with our local newspaper. Also, farmer’s markets are another great venue for advertising and moving product. All of us have seen the increase in farmer’s markets across the map. People love to talk to the growers and really learn about what they’re planting and how to plant it. Radio is great, but we’re part of a world that talks on the phone while in the car or listening to our MP3 player while riding the train. We as growers need to change (or add to) the way we communicate with our customers.
Email has been great. At Arte Verde, we ask customer to sign up to our e-newsletter as they check out. A no-pressure sign-up indicates they’re interested, but it also allows us to send them coupons, specials and weekly gardening tips. They can also share the emails with friends and they do.
It’s up to us to make consumers realize they can enjoy gardening every day. Remind them that whatever improvements they make will increase the value of their home and improve their well being. Also, if they have a special backyard retreat, they’ll be more likely to spend more quality time with their family and friends. Encourage the new gardener to take their significant other or a child outside and create something together. Gardening can be overwhelming, which is another reason why we sometimes feel the younger generations may shy away from it.
Our goal by the end of this month is to create gardening videos for our customers so they feel confident about the landscaping or planting process. Most importantly, we want to make sure they leave the garden center knowing what to do with the plants they’ve taken home. Knowledge is power, and when they’re successful with their first gardening adventure they’ll come back for more.
In an effort to help growers everywhere listen to what the “mature” customer needs and help the new generation realize the possibilities. Only then will the gardening torch be passed from one generation to the next.
As the circle of life goes on so does Arte Verde Garden Center. As a grower, nothing is more rewarding than watching a seedling every day for weeks transform in front of your eyes into a flower. If we don’t capture the need or encourage the new gardeners to plant, our businesses are in danger. GT
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