Rethink What It Means To Be A Greenhouse Grower, Konjoian Says

Peter Konjoian
Peter Konjoian

During the first decade of my life, our three-generation household was supported by truck farming. My grandfather, father and mother, two brothers and I cultivated several acres of row crops. My father also worked outside the farm as a meat cutter. He built his first greenhouse and convinced his father-in-law that the family farm needed to take another direction. He began growing bedding plants and sold retail directly from the greenhouse during my second decade.

While we de-emphasized the farm to concentrate on the flowers, it provided me with a wonderful opportunity to run the farm as a means to work my way through undergraduate school at the University of New Hampshire. I have the fondest memories of that period of my life and career, having the opportunity to manage the farm, hire neighborhood kids to work with me, purchase supplies and learn how to manage finances.

In the ‘80s, my third decade focused on expanding the greenhouse operation, enjoying double digit annual growth with a belief of unlimited potential. The fourth decade brought a slow but steady decline as greenhouse production ramped up coast to coast, to the point of oversupply. By the end of our fifth decade, we decided to close the family greenhouse business, as did many other operations in our industry.

From Flowers Back to Food

Since closing the family range, I have renovated a Quonset house for my research and consulting practice. If you had told me in the ‘80s that in 2014, 90 percent of my research would focus on food crops and not ornamentals, I’d have called you crazy. But here I find myself completely immersed in farming again.

To be fair, during these decades I am repeatedly on record in my presentations and articles with the following statement: “If one could make a living farming in New England, I’d still be a farmer.”
So here I am, traveling this exciting path from flowers to food. Only now, we can agree that the more accurate reference is from food to flowers back to food. For me and my family, it’s more a case of closing a circle and returning to one’s roots. My favorite line from The Hobbit, “There and back again,” sums things up perfectly.

Find Your Place In The New Market Place

It’s easy for agricultural sectors to feel a sense of ownership, a sense of territoriality when it comes to others venturing from one sector into another. Greenhouse flower growers felt that farmers who threw greenhouses up and entered the local marketplace with lower prices were infringing on their turf.

Greenhouse vegetable growers feel that flower growers who are shifting into vegetables should stay away. I once referenced my local apple orchard’s venture into fall garden mums by stating that if they can sell mums, why can’t I sell apples?

I argue that today, diversification assures the best chance for growth and profitability. Farm stands and garden centers are morphing into identical retail outlets. Vegetables, flowers, nursery stock, baked goods — you name it and a progressive business is going to consider it in its product mix.

Consider how OFA and ANLA recently merged to bring greenhouse and nursery together under one association, AmericanHort. A question I’ve asked fellow growers in recent years is, “Are you a floriculturist or horticulturist?”

Several recent OFA Short Course programs have included seminar tracks on greenhouse vegetable production. Will it take much longer for AmericanHort and vegetable growers to come together? This year’s AmericanHort Cultivate‘14 (formerly OFA Short Course) seminar program will continue offering a track on vegetable production.

Is The Shift To Food Production Sustainable?

What’s fueling this shift in consumer demand from flowers to food? Is it real; is it going to last? My answer is yes, because we’re going to need more food to feed more people. If someone is hungry, they’re going to be more interested in food than flowers.

I also point to our younger generations of consumers and growers. A tip of my cap to young adults who are saying they want more of their food to be locally grown, fresh and sustainably produced. A colleague recently used the word locovores in a discussion with me to describe these individuals’ preference for locally sourced food. I like the word and what it brings to this debate.

These young adults are supporting farmers’ markets, which has resulted in unprecedented growth of this distribution sector nationally. Farmers’ markets are exploding coast to coast. How long until we invite this group into our AmericanHort family? I think not long at all.

I’ll slap an exclamation point on the conversation with this final thought: Medical marijuana legalization is sweeping over the country. As soon as permits and licensing protocols are established, I have an indoor urban agriculture project chomping at the bit to shift gear into this crop. So, shifting from flowers to food to fun may very well become an option for growers in the future.

As Kurt Schilling once said during the Red Sox’ run to the World Series in 2004, “Why not us?”

A Change In Crop Can Mean A Change In Growing Systems

As growers or ornamental crops add vegetables to their greenhouse rotations, some aspects of production remain the same while others bring new challenges. One of my favorite comments when discussing the different sectors of agriculture is, “A plant’s a plant.” Most crops require very similar inputs: water, fertilizer, temperature, insect and disease management and so on. But the big difference between ornamental and food crops is food safety.

Food safety laws and regulations are evolving continuously in order to assure consumers that their food is produced by farmers and handled by supply chain participants using accepted protocols and caution. Minimizing the entry of plant and animal pathogens that cause human health problems into the food chain is critical when feeding as many people as currently inhabit our planet.

Growers of ornamental crops face the challenge of learning new practices in order to comply with current food safety laws. We also must stay current when government regulations change. Similar to maintaining our pesticide applicator licenses, by law we must make a commitment to protect the safety of our food chain. To this end, educational conferences such as AmericanHort Cultivate‘14 will provide growers with the information we need to learn, understand and comply with current and future regulations.

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