She came for three months and ended up staying for 20 years. That’s how Regina Coronado’s journey began from an agronomist in Guatemala to becoming one of the leading ornamental plant growers in the United States.
Regina is the head grower at Stacy’s Greenhouses in York, S.C. Ranked at No. 87 on our Top 100 Growers, Stacy’s has 815,000 square feet of greenhouse production and 250 acres of outside growing area. The company founded by Louis Stacy, Jr. specializes in perennials, pansies and mums and serves the nation’s largest retailers directly and indirectly through many of the largest bedding plant growers. Stacy’s also has two retail garden centers and is in touch with consumers.
Our panel chose Regina among a pool of 17 nominated growers and four finalists for our very first award recognizing an outstanding Head Grower of the Year as part of our Grower of the Year awards program. More greenhouse operation owners are relying on talents of head growers. The award sponsored by BASF was presented July 12 at the OFA Short Course in Columbus, Ohio, and recognizes high-level employees who lead production while elevating the value of their profession.
Regina earned her U.S. citizenship in 2008 and is a shining, but humble, example of how hard work and a dedication to education leads to a brighter future. She feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue higher education and is very proud of her adopted sister, who is 26 and studying biochemistry.
“In Guatemala, only 10 percent of the children go to school and only 1 percent of those who go to school have a college degree,” she says. “There are a lot of kids under age 10 working. They quit school to support their families.”
Regina attended a German school in Guatemala from age four through 18. This is where her disciplined foundation in science began. The agronomy school Regina attended focused on cotton, soybeans and coffee and had a research relationship with Auburn University in Alabama. “I chose to study soils with a focus on testing and plant tissue analysis,” Regina says. “We used to study soil and conduct big trials in cotton and fertility programs.”
One day a friend asked if she’d like to go to Florida to learn greenhouse production as part of a free, three-month training program. Regina then met Roger Vasquez, a grower from Honduras, who taught her how to grow ornamental plugs for Speedling in Florida. She also tried growing herbs and spices in Mexico before returning to grow vegetable transplants for Speedling in Texas.
She transferred to Speedling’s Blairsville, Ga., facility, which has a strong focus on pansy plugs. It was in Blairsville where Regina met “Mr. Stacy,” who came to visit and inspect the plugs as a potential customer. “He asked me several questions and said, ‘If you ever need a job, call me first,’” she says.
Regina kept his card and gave him a call when she was interviewing at several operations in the Southeast. She started at Stacy’s as a section grower for three years and then was promoted to head grower in charge of all the finished plant production. “I didn’t know anything about perennials but he assigned me 100 acres and I started learning,” she says. “It was a great experiment. Like with anything else, there were ups and downs. I learned by watching and doing it myself with people.”
Working with Mr. Stacy and taking direction from him made her a better employee, she says. “He and I used to ride the farm together. We’d get to certain beds and he’d ask me what I had done to the crops. Most of the time, you have to keep track of what you’re doing, so I always have a notepad, pen and scissors, in case pruning needs to be done.”
Outstanding In Her Field
Regina spends 95 percent of her time in the field, where she likes to be, with her notepads, laptop, and mobile file cabinet on her golf cart. Her staff includes three senior growers, four assistant growers, seven irrigators and nine chemical applicators, all of whom she trained herself.
“I take care of the chemicals and have developed programs that are mostly preventative, but people are the ones who make a difference in being successful. I love the people here,” she says, adding that teams come together for fun, educational activities and to celebrate progress. One initiative has been safety. “We went from 50 accidents two years ago to 22 last year,” she says. “This year we’ve only had one and it was a merchandiser at the stores.”
Stacy’s President Tim Brindley commends Regina for her positive and hands-on approach. “She teaches as well as anyone I have ever encountered. She listens very well. Her work ethic and hands-on interaction keep her staff at a very high level.”
Regina spends most of her time perfecting production and developing programs specific to Stacy’s growing conditions. She works with leading industry consultants and technical advisors. “When we start a new crop, we get guidelines from the vendors but use them only as a guideline,” she says. “Not everything they tell me works here. You have to develop your own program because the growing conditions are so different.”
Hydrangeas have been a hot crop, along with Knock Out roses, clematis, phlox, peonies, callas and Asiatic and LA lilies. While mildew is the disease to watch for in phlox up north, in the south it’s aerial phytophthora. Another big project has been converting all the outdoor mums to drip irrigation. Other trials in the works include testing Configure to see if it stimulates branching in perennials and slow-release fertilizer trials.
Testing, Testing, Testing
Regina believes in monitoring soils and crops with laboratory testing. This was part of her training in Guatemala, and while she worked at Speedling, she worked with Fafard’s Dr. Hugh Poole in Florida. Today she uses Fafard’s lab in nearby Anderson, S.C., for soil plant tissue and water analysis.
“Here, when we have issues, the first thing we do is check soil and water and send samples to Fafard,” she says. “We can do some things here but not the whole list of things to check. Certain products need professional recommendations.”’
Stacy’s produces more than a million hostas a year and checks each variety for Hosta virus X in house. “If it’s positive, we retest. And if it’s positive again, we put a hold on the variety and send a sample to Agdia labs,” Regina says. “If it comes back positive, we send the plants back to the supplier.” Daylilies are another big crop to screen for diseases and samples are sent to Clemson University.
Testing early and often helps nip problems in the bud and determine where they originate. “My rule is if the plugs die within 10 days of transplant, it’s a plug problem,” Regina says. “We’re good at killing plants, but not that good. After 10 days, then it’s something else.”
The cultural practices Regina learned in agronomy and in plug growing have served Stacy’s well. “Regina has helped to annualize and modernize the thinking and production in today’s perennial market,” says Rick Grossman of Express Seed. “Never-ending quality improvement has been the goal with testing new varieties, PGRs and more efficient growing methods. Her leadership in production quality has been the foundation for continued success of this growing operation.”
Brindley adds: “As detailed as any grower in the world, Regina is able to apply a small grower mentality at a very large growing facility. She treats every crop individually. Regina uses a variety of methods to achieve her ultimate goal – every plant grown to the highest quality, ready to perform for the consumer. From 250 miles of drip irrigation to 20 acres of lit growing beds to new chemical experimentation, Regina does it all.”