Walmart’s decision to downsize its vendor base forced more than a hundred large greenhouse operations into a mad scramble for buyers over the last year. Many mid-sized operations were forced to regroup, too, begging the question as to whether or not mid-sized operations have a place serving the big box stores.
The answer, if you’re a mid-sized operation like Ohlman Farm & Greenhouse in Toledo, Ohio, is a resounding yes. Ohlman Farm was one of first operations to serve Lowe’s home improvement stores in the mid-1980s, and it continues to serve Lowe’s today.
So much for the theory that big box business is only for the big grower. Ohlman Farm expanded its business with Lowe’s because it lives by producing quality crops and delivering those crops on time âˆ’ just as any large operation would âˆ’ but Ohlman Farm stands out from many large operations because it’s carried out those standards with Lowe’s for nearly 25 years.
“I think our approach is unique,” says Larry Ohlman, president of Ohlman Farm. “I’ve often been asked over the years how we’ve made our relationship with Lowe’s work. More or less, we approach it from a family perspective. We’re all about buying local, buying fresh. We’re a local vendor, and I’m proud to have such a long-term relationship with Lowe’s.”
Networking Pays Off
Ohlman Farm didn’t just stumble into business with Lowe’s. The operation was, however, fortunate one of its retail representatives happened to know the person Lowe’s hired to investigate whether the home improvement chain should venture into the lawn and garden world.
“We kicked around and explored all kinds of ideas, and when it was decided Lowe’s would incorporate garden centers into its stores, we were there along with Gedert’s Greenhouse (in Maumee, Ohio) to be the first,” Ohlman says.
At the time, Ohlman says Lowe’s had about 56 stores across the United States âˆ’ and Ohlman supplied all 56 stores nationwide along with Gedert’s. By the early 1990s, Lowe’s hired a third vendor to service its stores, and Ohlman figured his operation would lose considerable business. Fortunately for Ohlman Farm, he was wrong.
“Lowe’s was growing so fast, the volume was just tremendous,” Ohlman says. “It’s been an incredible journey since the start. Back then, Lowe’s connected with Southern Living magazine, Ball Horticultural Co. and PanAmerican Seed to introduce some different lines. Business just exploded.”
Today, Ohlman Farm maintains its partnership with Gedert’s Greenhouse. In fact, the two operations formed a three-grower network two years ago when they partnered with Schmidt Brothers in Swanton, Ohio.
All three growers are located in Northwest Ohio. Ohlman Farm and Gedert’s remain focused on Lowe’s while Schmidt’s serves independents, but the creation of the network has helped all three become better growers and meet the needs of its customers more efficiently.
“As the demands of our customers grew, particularly Lowe’s, we thought a third team member would help us better handle the production and deliveries to stores,” Ohlman says. “Volumes were increasing so dramatically just a couple years ago, and we were asked to service 94 stores. Having a network helps get the mission accomplished.”
Ohlman Farm is unique in that it supplies Lowe’s with a grower partner and that it does not appear on our Top 100 Growers list. An operation’s square footage isn’t everything, though. Besides, the more concentrated an operation is, the better it can adapt to customer needs on the fly.
“In a lot of ways, we probably are on the smaller side compared to other businesses supplying Lowe’s,” says Mike Maier, Ohlman Farm office manager. “But I think we have the ability to react quicker, especially if you have a store that needs something extra. That’s not uncommon. We will add something the day a shipment’s being loaded.”
Today, those grower partners make Ohlman Farm more efficient serving 40-plus Lowe’s stores, and Ohlman Farm does the same for its grower partners. “Because there are three of us engaged in production, one of us can cover another if one party is shy in a particular product area,” Ohlman says.
Challenges: Labor & Energy
Like many greenhouse operations, labor is one of the biggest challenges Ohlman Farm faces. But it addressed that challenge with the addition of on-site labor housing that can house 26 employees. Nine employees currently live on site, and housing is affordable compared to other area options. Ohlman Farm even earned a $50,000 grant for building the camp, which has been especially useful when greenhouse emergencies like power outages occur.
“It’s a very nice perk for the employee, and it helps us having someone on site if something does happen during the night,” Maier says. “We do have environmental controls if there’s a problem, so we can react quickly. But having someone 20 feet away is a big plus.”
Ohlman Farm is also fortunate to have a relationship with the Barnitz family of Bob’s Market & Greenhouses, which has helped the operation streamline certain processes. For example, Ohlman Farm adopted the Barnitz’s seeding racking system for plug production, in which plug trays move immediately from conveyors onto special carts the operation designed to accommodate particular-sized racks.
Another labor saver was the redesign of greenhouse aisles more than 10 years ago. Aisles used to be too narrow, Ohlman says, so employees could only pull orders one or two at a time. Now, aisles are wide enough that employees can take large shipping racks down aisles to meet orders in a more timely fashion.
Another challenge Ohlman Farm faces is energy, but the operation has overcome that obstacle in several ways over the last years.
“The first thing we did was co-generation of electricity, especially with our plug area, where we have 1,000-watt grow lights,” Ohlman says. “We can generate our electricity from natural gas, as we also capture all the heat off the generator that heats the greenhouses. If we have a 30-degree day with no wind blowing, that will, for the most part, heat the greenhouse.”
Underground heating has resulted in savings, as well. Ohlman Farm trialed underground heat in one greenhouse several years ago, and the operation installed it in plug houses about three years ago. Open-roof greenhouses have offset some energy costs, as well.
Adapting Mum Production
By now, Ohlman Farm is likely shipping the last of its mums and transitioning to shipping poinsettias. Mum season had a late start in Northwest Ohio, though, because consumers were still buying ornamental bedding plants long past the period to which Ohlman expected. The weather also presented a production challenge to Ohlman Farm, and it also forced the operation to adapt its plans on the fly.
“We experienced no heat delay whatsoever with the mums,” Ohlman says. “Usually, that’s somewhat figured into your production plan.”
Most mum production is scheduled two to three weeks in advance, Ohlman says. This year, the operation had hundreds of mums ready with no place to put them at retail because of the extended bedding plant season. So rather than ship mums to Lowe’s, Ohlman Farm kept them in refrigerated trailers during Stage 2 of the mum production process.
“Never in our 20 years of hardy mum production did we run across this,” Ohlman says. “We kind of experimented with cold storage a little last year. What’s really essential is the plant material goes in with the foliage dry, and that it receives a fungicide drench or spray before it goes on the refrigerated truck. Seven to 10 days is the maximum amount of truck time you want.”
Much of Ohlman Farm’s success can be attributed to the implementation of new ideas and processes, but another component of the operation’s success are the relationships and networks that helped build the business over the years. Near the top of Ohlman’s list is Lowe’s.
“It’s been a blessing right from day one,” Ohlman says of his Lowe’s relationship. “I really think in a lot of ways Lowe’s has set the standard and the pace for growth in our industry with its expanded product lines and new offerings.”