Among the many great mantras at Bell Nursery USA, one of the most popular is — act like you own it. Few take that more to heart than Director of Growing Operations Tom Wheeler, who is one of the first to arrive each morning and the last to leave in the evening. He delivers high-quality plants year in and year out, comes up with innovative production ideas and leads by example.
Wheeler manages Bell Nursery’s in-house production. He is also responsible for Bell’s network of farm families, which represent 50 acres of production in Maryland. Wheeler has substantially improved the quality of growing operations at Bell Nursery, to the point that shipped quality is the same from any Bell facility, regardless of location. Under Wheeler’s direction, Bell Nursery has been able to cut water usage at outdoor facilities by 70 percent by moving from sprinklers to drip irrigation. And he led the charge six years ago during Bell’s first ‘Veriflora Sustainably Grown’ certification, which the company continues to maintain each year.
“Some growers are science-based and some are more on the artsy side. I like to think of myself as a little of both,” Wheeler says. “I have a lot of experience behind me. I try not to get too far away from what works, but I have a great team, and I have the ability to try new things. We are constantly experimenting, trialing and learning, which keeps us on the leading edge.”
In 2014, Wheeler designed a program to grow neonicotinoid-free to help Bell Nursery gain a better understanding of the difficulties this type of large-scale production might present. That experience has proved invaluable. Thanks to Wheeler’s leadership, Bell Nursery has been able to have a significant impact on the dialogue within the growing and retail community, as well as on a local, state and federal level. Wheeler has generously shared what he has learned with his peers, which has been instrumental in helping others gain a better understanding of the challenges they will face with less access to neonicotinoids and what alternatives are available to them.
“We wanted to prepare ourselves. But in no way do we want to send the wrong message to the industry,” Wheeler says. “We want the message from Bell to be to help fund the research, listen to what the research finds and support the science.”
Wheeler not only leads on the broader scale, he leads in a very individual way within his operation. He is a strong believer in developing employees for the long term. And he zeroes in on passionate, hardworking growers who are willing to learn. He works closely with them, walking crops and feeling out their instincts. When it is time to let them make decisions on their own, he steps back and gives them all the support they need. The nearly zero employee turnover in Bell’s growing operations speaks to Wheeler’s success.
“I feel like I am part of a great team here at Bell,” Wheeler says. “I definitely take pride in my part of the business — the growing side, the growing team and the product we put out. I love the industry and hope it stays strong, all aspects of it.”