Are Vegetables Good For Your Bottom Line?

Mediterranean cucumbers have been one of Plantpeddler’s most successful crops. They are packaged and sold under their Stone Creek Farms label.

When you listen to ornamental growers talk these days, some of them are talking about vegetables. Not plugs or transplants that other people can grow, but actual produce. It turns out that vegetables may not only be good for your waistline — they may be good for your bottom line. As fixed costs continue to rise and competition and the economy limit margins, growers are getting increasingly creative to find new markets and develop new products.

Getting Started In The Edibles Market

For some growers, using empty greenhouse space to raise produce in the off-season is that new market and new product. If done right, raising and selling produce can help to 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.

Two growers, Mike Gooder, president of Plantpeddler in Cresco, Iowa, and Jeff Mast, general manager of Banner Greenhouses in Nebo, N.C., have faced these challenges and ultimately found ways to make growing produce profitable. Each has approached the growing process from a different angle, depending upon their resources, location and ornamental crop mix.

Both emphasize that raising produce is only a small part of their business, and ornamental plants remain their primary focus, always taking priority over vegetables. But both Gooder and Mast say that for them 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 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.”

Grow To Cash In On The Locally Grown Market

Jeff Mast of Banner Greenhouses says he began looking at growing vegetables in the off-season about four years ago. “The whole
locally grown movement has been big in Western North Carolina for a good period of time,” he says. “It seemed like there might be opportunity in that realm that we could pursue if we could match up the time periods in the years with those opportunities. Our goal was to diversify our product, diversify our customers, open up a new sales channel and hopefully cover some overhead costs in the off-season.”

Like Gooder, Mast and his staff had a lot to learn. Banner Greenhouses is predominantly a wholesale contract grower for the mass market — two seasons of annuals in spring and fall, although they also sell plugs and liners and unrooted ipomoea cuttings. “We tried quite a few things — green beans, pak choi, cucumbers, bagged herbs, strawberries, mini cukes, mini squash and mini melons,” Mast says. “We looked at what would fit nutrition-wise, what fits with our irrigation system and, of course, where the volume is. Tomatoes and peppers are where the big volume is, so we worked with those.” Mast originally sold the produce under the Banner name. Now he is selling through a distributor, using its New Sprout Farm label.

Find The Right Market To Increase Efficiency

Mast has since backed away from tomatoes, saying he couldn’t compete on price. “You’re competing regionally during the season and with California and then with Mexico during the off-season. It’s a high-volume product for those guys, and it all comes down to commodity pricing,” he says. “In 2011 we really went after the tomato business. We had really good volume and a beautiful crop, but the price was horrible.” The pepper crop he’s growing right now includes red, yellow and orange bell peppers, which will be harvested during the summer and fall.

Mast has found a profitable marketing outlet with Whole Foods as well as with a local grocery store chain and a local distributor who works with restaurants. He says having a restaurant distributor is important since restaurants want small, frequent deliveries, which were inefficient for his operation.

Banner’s rural location is not suited for a retail outlet, but Mast acknowledges that would be ideal. He also stresses the importance of finding markets that value locally grown food. “Our product is local, it’s grown pesticide free, vine ripened and has a great flavor — those are the merits,” he says. He’s considering the advantages of becoming certified organic, citing some possible opportunities that might open up. “You can get a better price if you’re certified, but there are some upfront costs. We’ve found in some of our sales channels if it’s local, vine-ripe and pesticide free, it has just as much merit as being organic. We haven’t decided yet,” he says.

Last fall, Banner became Good Agri-cultural Practices (GAP) certified. It’s a voluntary certification but will open doors for business opportunities. “In the future a lot of grocery store chains are going to require you to be GAP-certified to sell to them, and the local school systems as well,” Mast says. “And as part of the GAP process, we’ve learned a lot more and changed our ideas on handling and harvesting.”

Develop Partnerships To Reduce Packaging Issues

As Banner started to get involved in vegetables, Mast got support from two
important sources: his seed supplier, Rogers Seed, and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), a non-profit organization with the mission of helping North Carolina farmers convert from a tobacco-based economy to other products. ASAP helped with marketing and setting up meetings with buyers, while Rogers assisted with production information. “The main differences [from ornamental plants] are that irrigation is critical — the volume and frequency impacts the fruit quality — and the nutrition is completely different. Managing temperature and light was similar,” Mast says.

The marketing, sales and packaging sides of the business have their own unique challenges. “Packaging and handling have been the largest obstacles we’ve had to work through,” Mast says. “It’s a perishable product — it’s got to move. You don’t harvest the same quantity every week. For example, you’re used to 100 cases per week, now you have 225. Where are you going to go with those extra cases? It’s happened to us.” In those cases, Mast says, it was vital to have multiple, good business partners who can work the extras through.


Leave a Reply

One comment on “Are Vegetables Good For Your Bottom Line?

More From Vegetables...

April 1, 2015

Philadelphia Flower Show Draws More Than 250,000 Attendees With Disney Pixar Movie Theme

With more than 250,000 consumers attending the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show in March each year, it's a great opportunity to get flowers and gardening products into the public eye. This year's show displays took on family favorites at the movies, with a focus on Disney and Pixar films. Check out some of the highlights in our slideshow.

Read More

April 1, 2015

Peace Tree Farms Grows Its Customer Base

Over the past five years, Peace Tree Farms in Kintnersville, Pa., has concentrated on growing its business by providing plant material for the displays at the illustrious Philadelphia Flower Show. We caught up with Peace Tree Farms’ Lloyd Traven to ask about how the Flower Show figures into his business plan.

Read More
protecting bees and pollinators video

March 31, 2015

New Video On Protecting Bees And Pollinators Educates Horticulture Industry Professionals

A new educational video that provides information on the horticultural industry’s essential role in bee and pollinator stewardship is one result of industry collaboration by the Horticultural Research Institute, AmericanHort, Society of American Florists and the American Floral Endowment. “Protecting Bees & Pollinators: What Horticulture Needs to Know,” narrates the current state of bee and pollinator health, provides information on factors that impact pollinators and the environment and underscores the beneficial role horticulture plays in providing healthy pollinator ecosystems.

Read More
Latest Stories

March 31, 2015

California Summer Vegetable Trials To Be Hosted By Nati…

Vegetable breeding companies will come together this August to host the Summer Vegetable Trials in California. Like the long-standing California Spring Trials that are held annually in California, attendees will have the opportunity to visit breeding companies' trial sites in seven locations throughout the state, from August 20-21, 2015. National Garden Bureau (NGB), the non-profit organization promoting gardening on behalf of the horticulture industry, is organizing and publicizing this event on behalf of its members.

Read More

November 24, 2014

Root Crops And Plug Trays: A Perfect Match

Growing a plant to maturity in plug trays might be foreign to ornamental growers, but with a little help from plug tray manufacturers and breeders, there is little to hold growers back in this root crop category.

Read More

November 14, 2014

First Vegetatively Propagated All-America Selections (A…

All-America Selections (AAS) honors two vegetatively propagated impatiens with AAS winner status.

Read More

October 8, 2014

Gotham Greens To Build Rooftop Farm In Chicago

Gotham Greens announced October 7 that it has partnered with Method Products, an eco-friendly cleaning product company - to build what they are calling the "world's largest rooftop farm" at Method's new manufacturing plant in the Pullman neighborhood, on Chicago's south side.

Read More

August 19, 2014

A Look Ahead At Food Safety For Commercial Greenhouse V…

If you grow food in your greenhouse that is sold for consumption, food safety regulations will affect you. Here is a recap of Debbie Hamrick’s (North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation) Cultivate'14 presentation on food safety for commercial greenhouse vegetable production.

Read More

July 22, 2014

Bright Farms Launches Crowdfunding Campaign To Build Ur…

Urban farming pioneer Bright Farms is attempting to crowdfund what it hopes will be the "world's most productive urban farm," in Washington, D.C.

Read More

July 18, 2014

Meeting The Demand For Edibles: Go Green Agriculture In…

Read about how Go Green Agriculture Inc. took its business from the classroom to commercial reality in one of four articles on how growers are appealing to the growing interest in edibles.

Read More

July 18, 2014

Meeting The Demand For Edibles: Peace Tree Farm

Interest and response to Peace Tree Farm’s annuals and foliage plants continues to increase, but herb and vegetable starter plants is where the company makes its money. Read about it in one of four articles on how growers are appealing to the growing interest in edibles.

Read More

July 18, 2014

Meeting The Demand For Edibles: High Meadows Farm

Grants brought opportunities for High Meadows Farm to start growing raspberries and tomatoes. Read about it in one of four articles on how growers are appealing to the growing interest in edibles.

Read More

July 18, 2014

Meeting The Demand For Edibles: Altman Plants

Read about Altman Plants' venture into greenhouse vegetable production in one of four articles on how growers are appealing to the growing interest in edibles.

Read More

July 15, 2014

Cultivate’14: Vegetable Production Tour Highlight…

Check out photos from Greenhouse Grower's visit to CropKing Inc.'s research greenhouses as part of he vegetable production tour at Cultivate'14.

Read More

July 8, 2014

Veterans Are Well-Suited For Grower Jobs, And AgVets Is…

AgVets is breaking ground this summer with the first of up to 30 hydroponic greenhouse operations located throughout the country to provide produce to lower- and middle-income consumers.

Read More

June 27, 2014

Growing Beyond New York, Gotham Greens Is Developing Pr…

Gotham Greens is considering the potential for partnering with growers for new ventures in cities across the U.S.

Read More

June 27, 2014

Gotham Greens Takes Locally Grown Produce To A Whole Ne…

Gotham Greens broke the boundaries of agriculture by building the country’s first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse operation in Brooklyn, N.Y. Now it’s taking that vision further with two more locations and contracts to build in more cities.

Read More

June 25, 2014

New Trends, New Crops Offer New Possibilities For Edibl…

New small-space vegetables, container trends and flower/vegetable groupings contribute to a resurgence of interest in growing edibles.

Read More

April 11, 2014

Eight Standout Vegetables From Spring Trials [Slideshow…

Reflecting the consumers' passion for growing food, a number of breeders introduced attractive and flavorful vegetable varieties. Here are a few of my favorites.

Read More

April 10, 2014

Syngenta Opens Application Period For Grow More Vegetab…

The Syngenta Grow More Vegetables Seed Grant Program supports schools and community organizations interested in establishing or enhancing garden programs. Applications are now being accepted for 2014.

Read More

April 10, 2014

Managing Organic Food Waste In Your Business

The single largest component of the nation’s waste stream by weight is food waste. Here is what you need to consider before implementing a food waste collection system at your business.

Read More