Head Grower Of The Year Dennis Crum: The Grower’s Grower

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Dennis Crum is Greenhouse Grower's 2013 Head Grower Of The Year.

Dennis Crum values relationships. It’s a trait that has served him well over the years and it defines his career. And it’s those relationships that have stood the test of time and remain important after the excitement of the day and after the applause dies down.

This was illustrated perfectly at Greenhouse Grower’s Evening of Excellence reception at OFA Short Course. The ballroom was abuzz with excitement, as 17 companies and individuals were nominated for awards at the prestigious ceremony, including four finalists for the 2013 Head Grower of the Year Award, sponsored by BASF. When Crum, the director of growing operations at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton, Mich., was announced as the winner, the room erupted with applause and cheers from his many supporters. Crum accepted his award with humility. Through jokes and a few tears, he thanked owners Tom and Sharon Smith and his team at Four Star Greenhouse, more than two dozen of whom where there, sporting shirts that read,
“I ❤ Me Some Crum Cake.” He thanked his wife Martha and daughters, Abigail and Emily, who had driven down to Columbus, Ohio, from Michigan for the evening, and he thanked the Proven Winners partners and many others.

“There are other things I could do and be good at,” Crum said. “But growing is what I love, and there is nothing else I would rather do.”

Inspirations And Beginnings
Dennis Crum is the first to say he relied on the knowledge and support of others in building a successful career. After the reception was over, Crum noted that there were a few important people he had meant to thank, but left out in all the excitement.

“I wanted to thank Dr. Will Carlson,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “He was my teacher and my friend. I wish he had been here tonight. I miss him very much.”
Carlson, a long-time Michigan State University (MSU) horticulture professor and an industry icon, died in 2010. Crum is an MSU alumnus, who worked with Carlson while he was a student and then as a grower. During Carlson’s later years, Crum visited often. On his last visit, Crum helped Carlson write his final column for Greenhouse Grower.

Crum also credits his grandmother for his interest in plants that began when she taught him how to grow tomatoes. A friendly neighbor, Ball Seed salesman Si Randolph, who lived across the street from Crum’s family, furthered that interest, supplying him with bulbs and seeds. Crum said his parents supported his interest and by the time he was ready for college, he was addicted.

Crum studied horticulture at MSU under Carlson, as well as Bill Carpenter and Paul Rasmussen. He interned in the teaching greenhouses and stayed on after graduation as a research technician, doing postharvest work on cut roses and research on supplemental lighting, bedding plants, nutrition and kalanchoes.

Crum then worked for a rose grower in Illinois for 15 years. “I enjoyed growing roses but I started missing home and the rose industry was going downhill, so I moved back to Michigan in 1992.”

Crum let his friends at MSU know he was back and needed a job. It was Carlson and Dean Krauskopf who told him about the opening at Four Star Greenhouse.

“I was fishing in Canada and they called me about this guy Tom Smith,” he says. “I didn’t know Tom or anything about Four Star Greenhouse but the next thing I knew, I was coming back to grow the first season of Proven Winners.”

Making A Difference In Michigan
Relationships have been the basis for Crum’s 21-year career at Four Star Greenhouse, and in the industry he loves. As the director of growing, he wears many hats, but says he’s first and foremost a grower at heart. He spends a lot of his time on the telephone, answering culture calls, and traveling through the country to work with growers, help them plan spring production and review their seasons. It’s all part of the emphasis Four Star places on partnering with its grower customers. Helping growers solve production problems is a top priority for Crum.

“For many growers, especially those in the Midwest, Dennis has been the face of how to grow Proven Winners varieties,” says Joe Moore, head grower at Lucas Greenhouses and Greenhouse Grower’s 2012 Head Grower of the Year. “I think growers really appreciate someone who is extremely knowledgeable about growing and helping with problems or challenges, without speaking down to them.”

In Proven Winners’ early years, Four Star received many grower calls about pH problems and iron deficiency in the vegetative material. Crum went to work with Bill Argo at Blackmore Co. and Paul Fisher, now at the University of Florida, to develop a professional fertilizer program that addressed the problem.

Crum partnered with researchers like Carlson and Royal Heins at MSU to develop the Supernova liner program, which provides growers with a pre-programmed liner, allowing them to plant and finish crops with minimal treatments.

Working together with MSU Extension’s Dave Roberts and Agdia, Crum led the development of a stock testing and sanitation protocol at Four Star, and at Proven Winners’ stock farms in Costa Rica, to keep material clean and virus-free. He also helped establish Four Star’s in-house testing laboratory, where all material is tested upon arrival and before shipping.

“We are really sensitive about the quality, consistency and reliability of our material,” Crum says. “I’m willing to wager that Four Star spends more money on testing than anyone else.”

Crum has been instrumental in putting combinations together that work well for growers, including Four Star’s best-selling combos. He also developed the Vigor Index for combining like plants for successful containers. Now, Crum is using a similar concept for Four Star’s new bench run collection program, which will make it easier for growers to produce groups of plants together with the same environmental and cultural requirements. This new program will be available first to growers who attend Four Star University this month.

“Dennis has a true passion for the industry,” says Tom Smith. “He is extremely knowledgeable, and I think he knows the Proven Winners material better than anybody in the world. He has a great feel not only for what plants will sell well and make consumers successful in the garden, but also what plants will produce well for growers.”

A Well-Respected Industry Leader
Beyond his work with growers and researchers, Crum stays active in the industry by contributing production articles to Greenhouse Grower, speaking at OFA Short Course and as a guest lecturer at MSU, where he also serves on the selection committee for new horticulture faculty hires.

“Dennis is among our most knowledgeable and insightful growers in Michigan,” says Erik Runkle, associate professor and floriculture Extension specialist at MSU. “He’s skilled in identifying and solving production issues and keeps up-to-date with university research. He’s always looking for ways to improve production practices and the facilities at Four Star, maintaining a healthy balance between present-day reality and opportunities for the future. Dennis is a go-getter, is personable, knows when to delegate (and when not to), and from a technical standpoint, is very savvy. He’s one of our industry leaders and has garnered a lot of respect from those who know him.”

Crum has mentored countless young growers and emphasizes hands-on education and training with his fellow production teammates. When it comes to the next generation of growers, he says he is concerned about the general lack of interest of young people pursuing horticulture degrees to become growers, and encourages growing operations to truly invest in these young people.

“The industry is getting too small, but the cost of college is hard to justify when growers are paid what they are,” Crum says. “If you’re willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment, you can afford to invest in people. We can’t complain if we don’t invest in new growers.”

The Heart Of Team Four Star
As part of the management team at Four Star, Crum controls the budgets at both the Indian Trail Road and Sigler Road locations, which he helped to expand from seven acres to 20, plus three offsite locations and two farms in Costa Rica. Crum was instrumental in streamlining shipping practices designed to deliver plants in their best possible condition and keeps the operation on track with technology.

“It’s great working with Dennis, because not only does he know his stuff from a floriculture standpoint, he also understands costing,” says Four Star CFO Mark Multer. “This understanding impacts Four Star positively year after year in regard to the overall management of costs. As a colleague, Dennis is very approachable, listens well and is a great guy to have on our team.”

Most importantly, though, according to Smith, Crum keeps everyone smiling.

“I use Dennis a lot as a sounding board, both professionally and personally — he keeps me grounded,” Smith says. “He thinks through things very well and I truly appreciate his opinion. Overall, Dennis is just a lot of fun to have around. He makes work fun and he can always bring smiles to people’s faces. He likes to dish it out but he’s not afraid to take it and, especially on a management team, that’s a rare quality.”

The best thing about working at Four Star Greenhouse, Crum says, is the people, who create an extended family environment.

“It’s fun to go to work when the people are there for more than a paycheck,” he says. “Our team is there to maintain what Four Star stands for and to make it even better. It’s fun to be around people you have a kinship with and who inspire you.”

Laura Drotleff is editor of Greenhouse Grower.
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