Among the many traits a greenhouse operation might look for in a head grower are a desire to work hard, a thirst for knowledge, and a drive to continuously look for ways to improve. Fortunately for Battlefield Farms in Rapidan, VA, Marc Verdel — Greenhouse Grower’s 2019 Head Grower of the Year — possesses all these characteristics, and more.
Verdel’s path to becoming Head Grower (or, as he’s officially known at Battlefield Farms, Director of Horticulture), began in his home country of Holland, when he entered his college years unsure of what he wanted to do. At the time, his father was part owner of a local greenhouse operation, and knowing it would be easy to get a job at one of the many greenhouses in the area after graduating, he encouraged Marc to go to horticulture school.
“I really enjoyed working in some of those greenhouses, because it allowed me to work up close with plants right away,” Verdel says.
Eventually, the opportunity came to head west to the U.S. as an exchange student. When Verdel arrived, he immediately began reporting to Head Grower Ton Visser and his spouse, Plug Grower Geneva Visser, who owned a small greenhouse operation in Culpeper, VA.
“They were very instrumental in introducing me to the art of growing plants, and from that point, I never looked back,” Verdel says.
Marc then spent almost two years working at Color Star Growers (which has since been purchased by Altman Plants and now operates as Lone Star Growers) in Texas . When he decided it was time to move back to Virginia for family reasons, he reconnected with Jerry van Hoven and his family at Battlefield Farms, who he had been acquainted with during his initial stint in Virginia. The family immediately brought him on board.
“We were much smaller then, and we didn’t have any automation, so everything was done by hand,” Verdel says.
A few years later, the grower Verdel had been working with left the company, and van Hoven proposed that Verdel move into the head grower position.
“I took the opportunity and ran with it,” he says.
Five Goals to Follow
In his current role, Verdel follows a number of principles that guide what he does on a day-to-day basis to produce high-quality plants.
• Be consistent. “I get a kick out of seeing things work out according to plan,” Verdel says. “We are striving to produce a better crop year after year, and our goal is to make this process as efficient as possible while getting consistent production.”
• Improve efficiency. The repetitive production cycle can also be a challenge, Verdel says, because you still want to look for ways to become more efficient.
“We’ve converted to larger plugs to reduce our footprint and get quicker turns,” he says. “One thing you learn is that when problems come up, it’s usually not because of the plants; it’s because of what we’re doing to them, such as watering too much or too little.
• Gather knowledge. Whether it’s trade magazines, online articles, or talking to suppliers, Verdel constantly hunts for new information.
• Listen. “I’m not a super opinionated person, so if someone comes in here and they have something new to offer, I’m willing to listen to them, even if I may disagree at first,” he says.
• Plan. “Planning ahead for a potential problem is a much better strategy than reacting to it,” Verdel says. “I’m a planner, and I like to think ahead and see if perhaps there might be bottlenecks in our production process, or how we are using our labor, so I can fix the problem before it even begins.”
Innovation in Action
Verdel is always trialing the newest plant introductions and inputs to find where he can gain speed in production, reduce chemical costs, and decrease shrink, while looking for the best finished plant.
It was at one of Greenhouse Grower’s Connect events that Verdel and Anthony van Hoven met the team at Profile Products (winner of Greenhouse Grower’s 2019 Gamechanger of the Year award), which had just launched its HydraFiber line of renewable substrates.
“It looked like something that could work for us, so we began trialing it, first with our spring crops and then with more challenging plants like our poinsettias,” Verdel says.
Verdel also worked with Battlefield’s research and development team on early adoption of light-emitting diode (LED) systems, starting with fall pansy plugs and then with tissue culture. Working closely with Travis Higginbotham, the two of them performed several trials, each performing better than the last, before encouraging Battlefield’s ownership team to make the investment.
When it comes to plant quality, Verdel spent several years in the mid 2000s making multiple visits to offshore production farms organized by Express Seed.
“We talked about the size of the cuttings and how they should be packed and shipped,” Verdel says. “I wanted to get a better understanding of plant stock management, and why there might be delays in delivery. It’s definitely helped me plan better, and it’s helped our suppliers plan better as well.”
Marc Verdel has also started a tradition of hosting organized plant supplier visits at Battlefield Farms.
“We bring in our growing and sales teams so they can learn more about new genetics and what they might be growing in the coming year,” he says.
Planning for the Future
Moving forward, Verdel has no plans to slow down in bringing new innovations to Battlefield Farms.
“Our goal is to grow more sustainably, so we’ve started testing ultraviolet treatment and ionization for managing diseases like botrytis and powdery mildew,” Verdel says. “We are continuing to improve our use of biocontrols and beneficial insects and are always looking to trial new products. In the very near future, we will develop a standalone IPM department.”
This may seem like a lot of work, but not for Verdel.
“I love what I do, so I don’t see it as a job,” he says. “There can be stress, for sure, but looking forward, it’s all very exciting.”
A Close Friend and Advocate
Dr. Royal Heins has been a long-time consultant for Battlefield Farms and was a driving force behind Marc Verdel being named Head Grower of the Year.
“Marc is a lifelong industry leader and is deserving of this award,” Heins says. “He is demanding, yet easy to work with. He is confident in his abilities, yet humble at the same time. He is always willing to try something new and has his company’s bottom line in mind when deciding the direction of his trialing efforts and their results. Marc is extremely well rounded and well informed as a grower. He leads by example and works hard with his team to create a seamless process from seed/cutting production to growing to shipping.”
In His Own Words
In accepting the 2019 Head Grower of the Year award, Marc Verdel extended gratitude to a number of people who have influenced
• Ton and Geneva Visser. “They introduced me to the art of growing.”
• Jerry and Lona van Hoven “For giving me the opportunity to grow into the Head Grower position.”
• Anthony and Bobby van Hoven. “They have always believed in my abilities and have given me the freedom to do my job.”
• Dr. Royal Heins. “Thank you for making me a better grower. It is a real pleasure working with you and developing new and improved growing methods.”
• The entire staff at Battlefield Farms: “I can’t do this alone, it takes a great team to get the job done.”
MPS Congratulates the 2019 Hed Grower of the Year
Multi Packaging Solutions (MPS), a business of WestRock, is deeply dedicated to supporting the grower community. Over the course of 100 years serving horticulture, we’ve built a long tradition of producing premium packaging and offering superior service to our customers locally, regionally, and globally. From investing in innovation and development, supply chain solutions, and sustainability, to continuously expanding our database of horticultural knowledge and consumer insights, we work hard to be a true partner to our customers by providing the best in tags, labels, point-of-purchase, packaging, and merchandising solutions.
We also believe that being a leader in scale and capability comes with responsibility. Today, we are proud to further give back to the community by partnering with Greenhouse Grower to honor and recognize innovation and achievement in the grower industry.