Nick Gerace isn’t one to waste his youth. At the tender age of 27, he has held a head grower position at Welby Gardens in Denver, Colo., for three and a half years, leading with enthusiasm, determination and intelligence. He is one of three finalists for Greenhouse Grower’s Head Grower Of The Year award and winner of its Excellence in Innovation award for 2015.
Gerace oversees all three of Welby Gardens 1 million square feet of growing facilities. He also manages Hardy Boy Plants finished crops and Hardystarts young plants that are sold to growers across the U.S. and Canada, along with heading up the organic vegetable and herb lines.
As head grower, Gerace has been instrumental in ensuring uniformity of practices throughout the operation with the implementation of full-scale growing procedures. He also reduced man hours for his growers from 7 day/100-hour work weeks to 5 ½ days and 45 to 50 hours, even during the busiest times of the year. This has gone a long way toward recruiting and retaining qualified growers at Welby.
Gerace has a unique — what he terms old-school — way of training his growers in the proper Hardy Boy method of growing, which is to minimize the use of water through drying down techniques while also minimizing the use of plant growth regulators.
“We use the end of the hose as our plant growth regulator and try not to use as many chemicals,” Gerace says. “Our greenhouses are hand-watered every day, by design. I want my growers to actually grow. We also cross-train them to be successful in any part of the greenhouse.”
Welby Gardens is also unique in that it still uses 20 percent sandy loam in its Hardy Boy finish production to add soil buffering for high fertilizer treatments, which carry transplants well into establishment in landscapes and gardens. Using his background in soil science, Gerace reworked all of the Hardy Boy soil mixes to maintain the loam tradition while improving the air porosity and water filtration of all mixes. He continues to trial the soils for improvements.
As Welby’s Hardystarts young plant division has grown at a rate of 15 to 25 percent over the last 10 years, many of the facilities have had to be upgraded from regular finish plant production to higher propagation standards. Gerace guided Welby in this transition, overseeing the installation of computer controls, fog, booms and moveable bench systems. He also maintains rigorous virus-testing protocols and isolates infected cultivars, advising the staff of the current and future impacts to young plant customers and helping to develop proactive solutions. As a result, Welby’s staff has at times become aware of foreign stock irregularities six weeks in advance of the industry.
Welby Gardens is a four-generation greenhouse started as a truck farm and hot house for vegetable starts by Gerace’s great grandfather and great grandmother. With all he does, Gerace says he has always had strong support from his family and couldn’t do what he does without their encouragement. He has especially enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with his father.
“My family has been in the business for years,” Gerace says. “I have been fortunate enough to work with some pretty great growers. I was shocked to be nominated for this position. The 80- to 90-hour weeks can really test your passion for the industry, but it is worth it when you see your product throughout the industry and see customers having success with it.”
The Head Grower Of The Year and Operation Of The Year will be announced July 13 at Greenhouse Grower’s prestigious Evening Of Excellence event at Cultivate’15.
Greenhouse Grower thanks BASF, the sponsor of the Grower Of The Year Program.