For some growers, using empty greenhouse space to raise produce in the off-season is a viable new market. If done right, raising and selling produce can help offset overhead costs without requiring additional investment in new structures or equipment. It’s not a slam-dunk; careful planning is required to find markets for your produce and to determine which vegetable varieties to grow, as well as to understand legal issues.
Mike Gooder, president of Plantpeddler in Cresco, Iowa, has faced these challenges and ultimately found ways to make growing produce profitable. He emphasizes that raising produce is only a small part of his business, and ornamental plants remain the primary focus, always taking priority over vegetables. But for Gooder, it’s worth doing.
“If you’re only producing ornamentals for a short period of the year and then that space will be empty, look at your opportunity during those windows to gain some revenue to offset overhead expenses,” Gooder says. “You need to look at it from a distribution of overhead cost approach — ‘I’ve got a fixed overhead cost, can I divide it up further?’”
Gooder says his goal was to bring in new revenue without increasing his fixed costs. “It doesn’t make sense to say you’re going to produce vegetables if you’re going to incur costs to build more infrastructure,” he says. “You have to look at your structures and opportunities and ask, ‘How can I do this without contributing more cost to my operation?’”
Gooder says one of the easiest opportunities is the fall cycle. “You seed now, you seed through the summer — there is a wide variety of vegetable crops that respond well to this. You can use the naturally declining temperatures of fall to finish that material and pick after the normal outdoor production cycle. It’s an easy opportunity to gain a fall revenue stream.”
While Plantpeddler still grows a large number of poinsettias as a rooting station for Ecke Ranch, and as pre-finished and finished, Gooder points out that fall produce is a good option for growers who no longer have poinsettias in their mix or if they are looking for something to grow with them.
Choosing What To Grow
Historically a potted flowering plant producer, Plantpeddler has recently focused on vegetative propagation of young plants, especially begonias. They started growing vegetables in 2008. When asked how he learned production techniques for vegetables, Gooder laughs, saying, “The way we learn most things at Plantpeddler — the hard way.” One of the big challenges was finding the right varieties. They needed to be compatible with greenhouse production, and Gooder focused on self-pollinating, seedless varieties.
“We tried more than 20 tomato varieties until we found ones that were adaptable to what we were trying to do in the greenhouse,” Gooder says. “If you’re going to do determinate tomatoes, they need an open canopy, and you’ve got to get air through that canopy. And they have to be able to grow in low light — most people are not equipped with HID lights in their structures, and a lot of guys will be growing under poly.” The typical Dutch tomato varieties for greenhouse application are developed for glass roofs and supplemental lighting. They are also mostly indeterminate, he says.
Gooder has had success with a number of other crops including Mediterranean cucumber, bush beans, leafy greens, Swiss chard, summer squash, zucchini, radishes, strawberries and raspberries. “Probably the most well-received product for us was the Mediterranean cucumber. Also the leafy greens,” Gooder says. “And there’s always demand for locally grown tomatoes, but it’s the most difficult crop to produce.”
Gooder saves money by recycling pots and planting media. Leafy greens, for example, are a 30-day crop, ideal for short windows within the ornamental cycle, he says. “You can take a 10-inch hanging basket, or — we do lettuce in a 6-inch azalea pot — core it out when you’re done and replant right back into it. You don’t even have to refill it,” he says.
In some cases, Gooder says, he can sell both the produce and the plant itself. With strawberries, for instance, he plants in late summer or fall in hanging baskets, picking fruit until Christmas. In January and February, the plants rest, and he begins greening them up again in March. “They’re cold-hardy, so you get them out of your greenhouse and finish them outside. You get a nice flush of fruit on them and they’re good to sell. It’s a double-dip,” he says.
The Legalities Of Growing Food
There is something even more important than the varieties you choose, however, and that’s understanding the legal issues surrounding selling food that people will eat, as opposed to plants that people will grow.
“The first conversation that you have to have is with your insurance company,” Gooder says. “Make sure they understand that you’re going to be picking food for harvest. We’re used to being in the ornamental business, and what we do typically doesn’t affect the health of our customers. It’s a whole different factor when you start to grow food.”
Gooder stresses that you have to do your homework. Challenges such as monitoring for pests, sanitation and pest control are more complicated when producing food for consumption. Fewer pesticides are labeled for greenhouse use, so the use of beneficials in an IPM program or mechanical controls such as row covers become more important. He recommends Wholesale Success: A Farmer’s Guide to Selling, Postharvest Handling and Packing of Produce produced by FamilyFarmed.org as an excellent source of information on harvesting, storage, grading and packaging of produce for someone starting out.
Finding Your Produce Niche
Plantpeddler’s produce is sold under the name Stone Creek Farms. Gooder explored and is successful with several different markets: restaurants, food co-ops, wholesale produce distributors, schools and institutions and his own retail store. The latter is the most successful. Initially a traditional flower shop, Plantpeddler’s store now carries Stone Creek Farms produce as well as other local products, such as wine and cheese. Grocery stores, unless it’s a small, local chain, are the hardest to break into because of aggressive national and international price competition, Gooder says. Food co-ops are good markets because of the value placed on locally grown, sustainable products. “Co-op customers don’t want a Mexican tomato, they want a local tomato,” Gooder says. “Cost is typically not a factor, and you can set and count on a fair price for the season.”