There’s a saying that if you wait long enough, things go full circle and come back into fashion. A revolution is taking place in garden centers across the country. Produce farmers turned to ornamentals to supplement their crops and sometimes added a garden center in order to market their products. Now, with the resurgence in popularity of edibles, many of those farmers who are now retailers are turning back to their roots and producing vegetables once again. Yet it isn’t always as easy as it seems.Before you consider adding edibles to your product mix, whether seasonally or on a year-round basis, there are some things you definitely need to know.
Know What To Grow
It’s important to consider both your growing facilities and what your customers will want when deciding what types of produce to grow.
Ken Vande Vhrede of Gro Rite Greenhouses in Lincoln Park, N.J., has been growing indoor greenhouse produce for four years.
“As consumers and as a country, people are starting to realize that we need to eat better if we want to be healthy,” he says. “It’s definitely different from growing annuals. You have to look at your infrastructure and what capital expenditures you may have to incur to start. You need to have a plan and be prepared to make some growing mistakes. You can grow anything, but be sure you have a market or sales channel before beginning. Be prepared to grow some on spec, but also grow what’s been done successfully before. At the end of the day, it has to taste good.”
Vande Vhrede did a lot of taste testing in the beginning to determine the best varieties.
Vic Vanik of Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery in Dolores, Colo., had been seeking a solution for evening out the cash flow during the winter, and growing produce through the winter months was the solution. He stresses the importance of being willing to experiment to see what works. Vanik began growing baby sunflower greens year-round in 2009, and has since added a number of other vegetables and greens.
“Not every crop you try will work in your particular situation or be marketable,” he says. “You have to be willing to try a lot and see what sticks. For instance, we found we need to use determinate tomatoes in pots for our slicers, but we can use indeterminates in the baskets for our cherry tomatoes. Your success will also depend on your facility, the cleanliness of the facility, how much heat you’re willing to put into it and what kind of light you have available.”
Controlling Your Costs
Labor: One advantage of growing produce over the winter is it allows retention of employees who might otherwise leave. But it is important to figure the cost beforehand. Gro-Rite’s seasonal greenhouse crew moves solely to growing produce during the off season. “It’s easier and more organized for us because we’re doing the same thing every day and it gets more efficient,” Vande Vhrede says. Vanik agrees, but warns that growing produce can be labor intensive. “Your people have to be quality-conscious and as efficient or you can incur high labor costs if you aren’t careful,” he says.
Heat: Fuel costs are also a big consideration. Vande Vhrede and Vanik are using natural gas, and Vanik says it is the only economical heating option in his area.
“You know it’s going to take more heat if you are opening up areas other than what you have heated in the past,” he says. “The price of natural gas has been a little soft in our area, so I don’t think our cost went up more than about 20 percent last winter, but we were heating two more houses than we normally would. We are also pushing more heat in January and February for our tomatoes. Of course [the cost] depends on how cold your winter is.”
Jim Monroe, of Greenbrier Nurseries in Beckley, W. Va., uses LP gas but said he’s heating the areas where he’s growing anyway because of houseplants and poinsettias that are also in that space, so there won’t be additional cost to him for heat. Monroe also owns Hort Couture.
Light: The growing season will determine your lighting considerations, as will the type of crop.
“We are fortunate to have an abundance of sunshine in the winter,” Vanik says. “Because of our altitude (6,700 ft) we seldom get prolonged stretches of cloudy weather, but you need as much light as possible or you need to consider auxiliary lighting.”
He augments his lighting with HID lights when necessary.
“You’ll also need to time your crops correctly for shorter daylength in the winter months,” he says.
Vande Vhrede is also using HIDs, positioning them about 10 to 12 feet above the crop.
“I’ve also done some testing with LEDs and I haven’t found the right distance yet, but I believe that they’ll have the efficiencies right within about six months,” he says. “Daylength definitely affects the plants and our lights will go on shortly after Daylight Savings Time ends.”
Organic Certification: Is It Worth It?
Is it worth becoming certified as an organic grower?
“For us, becoming certified was important because that was the only way we could market to one of our biggest customers,” Vanik says. “Organically certified produce also commands a higher price, which is nice, too. It isn’t difficult in our state, as long as you are well organized and have good record keeping systems. We already had a food safety plan in place before we began the certification process. I know it varies from state to state, but for us wasn’t too bad.”
Vanik says the organic certification gives customers an added assurance that your facility and production meet certain standards. But he says many customers are more concerned with whether the produce is locally grown than whether it is organic.
“You also want to be sure to talk to your local or state Department of Agriculture to be sure that you are compliant with any processing, packaging or labeling requirements,” Vanik says.
Because most of Gro-Rite’s produce is grown hydroponically, it isn’t eligible to be certified in the organic program, which requires that plants are grown in soil.
Controlling Pests On Food Is Tricky
Pest control on plants grown and sold for consumption is vastly different than on those sold for ornamental purposes. Product choices are more limited, and it is important to make sure any chemical used is listed for use on edibles. Biological controls become more important when growing greenhouse vegetables.
“I’ve had limited success with beneficials because of the variety of plant materials in our greenhouses,” Vanik says. “So I also use spinosad, neem, milstop and sometimes pyrethrin or horticultural oil.You have to be aware of what’s available as far as low-impact controls go and also how they work.”
Marketing Is Key To Profit
Marketing is a large part of the success of any locally grown produce program. Will you be selling direct to consumers through your own store? Or selling wholesale to local grocery stores or restaurants?
Greenbrier Nurseries sells to local high-end restaurants and through its retail stores, and Monroe will be starting a winter farmers’ market this year. Vande Vhrede sells the bulk of his crop through local food markets and supermarkets including BJ’s Wholesale Club.
“You can grow anything, but it comes down to sales,” Vande Vhrede says. “Make sure you have a sales channel for it or a plan to develop one.”
Vanik distributes his vegetables through a produce distributor, local food stores, his retail garden center, his winter farmers’ market, restaurants and the local hospital. He also supplies four school districts through the Farm to School Program.
Both Vanik and Vande Vhrede say part of their success has been to have a plan, push the locally grown element and have a marketing message. Vande Vhrede created his Edible Garden brand that stresses why buying food locally from someone you already do business with is best. For Vanik, it was his story of health concerns that led him to begin growing produce in the first place.
For Monroe, it was filling a need for locally sourced organic produce in his area.
All three men agree that fresh produce brings more traffic into their stores.
“It’s beginning to build more traffic, and when those customers come in, they buy other things, too,” Vande Vhrede says. “We’re definitely making money on the greens and cucumbers. For our other items, we’re still testing so it’s too early to tell.”
Monroe has been using social media and word-of-mouth to spread the word on his new venture.
“I think it will bring more customers into the store on a regular basis, and we’ll ramp up other departments — birding for instance — because of that.”
Vanik agrees. “Last winter in November, retail traffic and sales were up 166 percent,” he says. “In December they were up 177 percent, in January they were up 1,268 percent and in February they were up 296 percent. People like knowing who grew their food and how it was grown. As a grower, the beauty of having it right there at the garden center was that we could even let them come down with us while we harvested, so they knew they were getting the freshest possible vegetables.”
The actual amount of profit depends on where your market is and whether you’re selling wholesale or retail. For Vanik, who is selling into a high-end retail market, the profits can be lucrative. He says, “I’m getting $8 per pound for tomatoes in the winter, but in the middle of January in Colorado, there are a lot of folks who will happily pay that for a good-tasting, locally produced, vine-ripened tomato from someone they know and trust.”