Elevating An Industry

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Elevating An Industry

Will stayed in touch with his students. Shi-Ying Wang
seeks Will’s autograph during a book signing at
OFA’s Short Course in 2003.

It’s no fluke that Michigan is the third-largest state for floriculture crops, right after California and Florida. While those two large sunny states have natural climatic advantages, why would cold, cloudy Michigan emerge as third? It all started in 1966, when an ambitious new floriculture Extension agent at Michigan State University (MSU) named Will Carlson urged vegetable growers, who were losing business to farmers in the South and West, to start producing bedding plants–flowering annuals from seed. While most university floriculture programs were focused on fresh cut flowers, blooming potted plants and potted foliage, Will believed bedding plants had the potential to be the next big wave in horticulture.

Thanks to his drive and leadership, within 25 years, bedding plants went from being the smallest segment of floriculture to the largest. In addition to creating a highly concentrated bedding plant industry in Michigan, Will brought together thousands of bedding plant growers in North America by creating an educational association, Bedding Plants Inc. (BPI).

“Will started Extension meetings and then formed BPI at a time when the bedding plant industry was still in its infancy and growers knew very little about production and the science of growing bedding plants,” says fellow MSU faculty member and long-time research colleague, Emeritus Professor Royal Heins. “The meetings, bulletins and tours associated with BPI shared information among growers, leading to greater knowledge in producing bedding plants. Without this sharing, the bedding plant industry would not be as developed as it is today.”

Karl Batschke of Ball Horticultural Co., who was at Michigan State University in the late 1970s agrees. “Will has been a tireless advocate for our industry and was instrumental in fueling the innovation that drove the rapid advancement of the bedding plant industry,” he says. “His monthly columns in Greenhouse Grower were always challenging and encouraging. He will be missed.”

One of Will’s first big crop-specific projects focused on seed geraniums. He worked closely with Berl Thomas, who was then director of research for plug powerhouse Speedling Inc. in Florida. “I worked with Will and MSU for 20 years, developing graduate students in floriculture research,” Thomas recalls. “We developed a 10-week geranium program to finish geranium seedlings planted after Easter lilies were shipped. They were guaranteed to flower before Memorial Day. I remember the tremendous efforts and work Will did for BPI, starting out with all the activities being in the basement of his house.”

BPI became a national platform to bring growers together as far apart as Nantucket in the Northeast and Seattle in the Northwest. “One of the best things was the BPI tours around the world. No one is doing that anymore,” says Egon Molbak of Molbak’s, a leading grower-retailer in Woodinville, Wash. “In those early days, growers did not travel outside the United States. The international tours were a great inspiration for me to start planting mixed containers.”

Henry Huntington of Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, N.H., served as BPI’s second-last president during its 30-year span. Reflecting on what Will accomplished through BPI, he says, “Oh, what a vision he had–to see the potential of the bedding plant industry and realize the best way to share information with thousands of growers across the country was nothing less than visionary. His passion for quality, production and process improvement showed he was a man before his time. Our industry owes Will a debt of gratitude for pushing us to always find a better way to grow our product.”

A Magnanimous Mentor

Growers in Michigan were especially lucky to have a mentor like Will serve as their lead Extension agent. They reflect fondly on his visits, support and friendship. “Four generations of our family were fortunate to be able to call Dr. Carlson our friend and all of us consider ourselves blessed to have known him and worked with him,” says Mike Klooster of Klooster Greenhouses in Kalamazoo. “He was instrumental in transitioning us from struggling celery farmers to relatively successful flower growers. Through it all, Will’s wit, wisdom and sarcasm were always appreciated and most enjoyed.”

Micki Buist of Micandy Garden Greenhouses in Hudsonville, Mich., says she and her husband, Andy, were starting their business when Will was new at MSU. “We had so many questions, as plastic flats were replacing wooden flats and soil was being replaced with new soilless medias,” she recalls. “A call to Michigan State put us in contact with the new professor, which led to many conversations, greenhouse meetings, tours and a first-name friendship.”

Will challenged growers as an educator and writer for the rest of his days, Micki adds. “He challenged us to persevere in learning, embrace change, think outside the box, look for opportunities and always strive for excellence. An icon has left us but his influence lives on in our business, as well as in an industry, which has learned many things because someone led the way.”

Eric Rohloff of Esman Greenhouse in Kalamazoo recalls Will helping him with seed impatiens problems in the early ’80s. “Will’s down-to-earth approach to solving the problem gave me the insight to solve many of the growing challenges I faced then and face now,” he says. “His influence on me at the time was unknown until I matured as a grower and was able to realize that one short visit would benefit me the rest of my life.”

Tom Smith of Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton says Will was one of the most influential people in molding his career. “I was a kid fresh out of high school. He took me under his wing and said if you do these simple, basic things, you’ll be a good grower versus a reactive one,” Smith says. “He also taught me the value of time management as a business owner and to set aside time to work on the business. When I look back at it, these were the best steps forward.”

When Four Star had just begun producing new genuses of vegetative annuals in the Proven Winners line, Will saw the potential and opportunity for improvement. “He thought the plants looked a little weedy and that we needed to do research on how they come into color,” Smith says. “This led to our Super Nova liners, much like the early research MSU had done with seed geraniums.”

A Fantastic Fundraiser

Will always looked at the payback for growers, and in turn wasn’t shy about asking growers for money to fund the research. “He said if you don’t believe the research will pay off, you can have the money back,” Smith says.
Will had the personality and passion to be an effective fundraiser, says Erik Runkle, who now fills both Will’s and Heins’ roles in teaching, research and Extension. “Probably Will’s greatest strength was his ability to twist arms, finagle funding and make things happen,” Runkle says. “He was able to deliver information generated at MSU, make growers understand the importance of that information and unashamedly ask them to take out their checkbooks to continue to fund research.”

Over 36 years, the research Will, Heins and graduate students like Runkle conducted spanned the discovery of the DIF concept (manipulating plant growth through the difference of day and night temperatures), graphical tracking, plant timing concepts related to average daily temperature, and a wide understanding of flowering, dormancy, scheduling and height control in herbaceous perennials.

“He was a visionary thinker, always looking at five to 10 years down the road as to what the industry needs were,” says Tom Dudek, who worked closely with Will in cooperative Extension. “Then he would challenge the researchers to generate the information needed to deliver the new concept.”

One of Will’s finest contributions is the MSU Horticulture Gardens, which are adjacent to the Plant & Soil Science buildings. Just 30 feet from the campus arboretum, they’re a beautiful setting to see annuals, perennials, roses, vegetables, native plants and the highly acclaimed 4-H Children’s Garden.

“Will was the heart and soul of the formation of those gardens,” says the gardens’ current director Art Cameron. “Without his drive and passion, they would have never happened.”

Lasting Lessons

In addition to the importance of fundraising and sound science, Will taught lessons that helped many with their professions and daily lives.

Four Star’s head grower Dennis Crum also was mentored by Will as a teacher, employer and friend. “He taught me the foundations of what it takes to be a good grower and person in general. We studied not only the science of growing but the basics of everyday growing,” Crum explains. “He believed that you cannot be a good grower until you learn by getting your hands dirty and your feet wet.”

There are two sayings Crum feels best describes Will’s passion toward teaching all of us in the industry what is needed to succeed in our work and lives–”Only the mediocre are always at their best” and “Over prepare so that you always perform.”

“Some people have said that at times Dr. Carlson pushed too hard and demanded too much, but so does life, and he was merely trying to teach us to be well prepared for the challenges of work and life,” Crum says. “Good is not good enough if better is expected.” 

Delilah Onofrey directs Flower Power Marketing for the Suntory Collection. She can be reached at donofrey@gmail.com
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