For Gary Mangum and Bell Nursery, quality is job one. “We all have to keep our eyes on quality, because if we don’t, that’s what will kill our industry,” he says. “And by quality, I mean letting something sit on the bench long enough to be ready. Send it when it’s ready and not before.”
Co-owners Mangum and Mike McCarthy saw the pinch their Bell Nursery was heading for when customer Home Depot began increasing its needed supply of live materials. So seven years ago, Bell Nursery began investigating network growing — setting up a pool of associate growers. The network was based on that of the poultry market in Maryland. Initially working with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and with input from USDA, the network began with one farm family.
Instead of investing in new greenhouses, Bell Nursery has invested in people — 550 of them in 88 Home Depot store locations.
“I think it’s working out exactly as he had hoped,” Mangum says. “The first network grower, Charles Lohmeyer, now has sons involved in the business. They’ve doubled their size and it’s definitely become a family affair.” Bell Nursery’s network now includes 32 families of greenhouse growers from agriculture segments as diverse as poultry, tobacco and grain.
Something In Common
Although they have different backgrounds, Bell Nursery’s network growers do have some things in common, and those characteristics are what make them good candidates, Mangum says. The two most important, he says, are a good work ethic and the ability to follow direction.
“These folks understand the 7-day work ethic,” Mangum says. “They know they can’t take off and go to the beach during the growing season. They understand what it’s like to sweat. Those are the folks we’re looking for.”
The ability to follow direction is important since these growers have never grown plants before. That lack of knowledge is an advantage, in Mangum’s eyes.
“We frankly don’t want experience in greenhouse production, because we want to be able to teach these folks to do things the way we want them to do it,” he says. About 50 percent of Bell’s network growing is done primarily by women — stay-at-home moms. One growing family includes seven children that are home schooled and the greenhouse business is part of their learning experience. The first round of teaching, however, comes from Bell Nursery staff, in the greenhouses working with associate growers.
Plants are potted and tagged at a Bell facility and then shipped within three to five hours to a network greenhouse. Range growers visit associate growers on a weekly or twice weekly basis. Mangum says that Bell allows a 2 percent loss factor, much lower than the industry average, but associate growers generally come in well below that number. What’s more, no network grower has ever left or been asked to leave Bell’s program.
The Plus Side
The network growing system has allowed Bell Nursery to expand in a way that it couldn’t without it. Associate growers invest in their own greenhouses and equipment. Instead of investing in new greenhouses, Bell has invested in people.
“We’ve put people into the Home Depot stores, 550 people in 88 stores, doing merchandising, taking care of the product and presenting it to the public in a way that makes them buy more,” Mangum says.
Having a network of growers has also allowed Bell to keep up with demand in a way that Mangum says the company wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
“There are other folks who have figured it out, but if Mike and I were responsible for our roughly 55 acres of production, it would be difficult for us,” he says. “We work with a great group of owner operators.” Those owner operators have a good reason to produce a quality product — Bell is not required to purchase substandard product from any of its growers.
Even with these requirements, farm families are clamoring to become part of Bell’s network. Last year, 75 families showed interest when five slots were made available. These are families outside of the floriculture industry. They find out about the opportunities at Bell by word of mouth, but the best recommendations come from lender Farm Credit.
“They know what we’re looking for and who would be a good fit,” Mangum explains. The recommendations ensure that Bell gets the best of the best growers.
Bell Nursery network grower Steven Walter
In The Future
The networking model is catching on with more growers, and Mangum sees this as the way the market is going. He sees more growers in the market in the next 10 years, but fewer growers selling directly into the primary retail channels — the big boxes, mass merchandisers, independent garden centers and supermarkets.
“And I think that’s healthy because people won’t be put out of business. And there won’t be the competitive issues that most of us feel today,” he says. “People will be working more as a team to get more product into the retail environment.” That cooperation includes Bell buying from growers that ten years ago would have been considered competition.
“One grower, for instance grows virtually all our gerbera daisies,” Mangum says. “He has to be the best gerbera grower in the country and he used to grow 40 different crops. He would make 20 deliveries to all the florists and garden centers with one truck. Today, he brings us five truckloads a day of gerbera daisies. They’re able to specialize and do what they really have come to do best.”