Sunday, March 9, 2014

Starting from Scratch

If we had it to do all over again...
These are notes I made for a weekend presentation about our experiences starting and then "growing" a business on our farm.
Juno, Blake, first greenhouse, 1979

So you think you want to have a greenhouse....grow plants under cover, in a climate controlled environment. Do you want to grow bedding plants? Perennials? Vegetable starts for your garden? Vegetables for people to eat?
What is your goal for your product? Farmer's markets, direct sale to customers on your farm, or wholesale?
Selling mums at the Wine Fest 2013

.....I wish I could tell you we had answers to all these questions nearly thirty years ago when we started down the greenhouse road. I wish I could say truthfully that we had a business plan, visited with others in the field for advice, and proceeded along a predictable path from minuscule to minute to breakeven to full scale full time business to second generation family sized enterprise.
Lee and her daddy..note untreated lumber.
Maybe you can do better. Perhaps our experience in the school of learn by doing will keep you from living one of Grandpa's favorite aphorisms: If you don't use your head, you will use your heels.
We did one thing right: we started small. We were young, just starting our career farming, still proving ourselves at one job, and short on time and cash. We built our greenhouse business for years like Johnny Cash built his long black piece at a time. We were risk averse (farming was risky enough!) and we learned by doing. This meant it took us quite a while to build past the hobby stage, move into the too big to be fun and too little to be a business stage, and finally achieve the volume of sales to be worth the time we were putting into our work. We had the advantage of "free" real estate; we had the disadvantage of that land being in the middle of nowhere by any and every definition.

Note: Westboro's Only Greenhouse..still is
 We knew from the very start that growing our business meant selling outside our community. Do you have a place to put a greenhouse business? Not just a greenhouse, because one greenhouse will supply one garden....believe me, I know. Our family sized business is now 2.5 acres under cover with another 2.5 acres devoted to outdoor production of summer and fall crops. Do you have access to lots of water? Open space for light? Protection from high winds or prevailing winds? What will be your source for heating? I cannot tell you how often someone has asked me if we need to heat our greenhouses.....they don't seem to realize that while the greenhouses can be warm and toasty on a cold sunny day, the sun still goes down. The insulation value of polycarbonate or polyethylene coverings is well under the R values of your pink attic insulation....Greenhouses are energy hogs any time they are operating.
The home place 1987
Years ago, I had someone come visit the greenhouses with the notion she might like to go into the business. She was quite clear that she was going to be in it for the money. "I don't really even like plants, "she told me. Wrong! Any enterprise that involves living things, whether animal or vegetable, is going to require passion. Plants, like animals, require constant attention day in and day out: while you have plants in your greenhouse, you won't be taking any week long vacations unless someone trustworthy is plant-sitting. This is a lesson we learned early on. Our very first home made greenhouse had two stage ventilation; first stage, opening the door and second stage putting a box fan in the open door. We went to church one cloudy Sunday morning, leaving the door shut. Before we got out of church, the sun had come out and our little tomato seedlings resembled nothing so much as a wilted lettuce salad.
Annie peddling the leftovers
Obviously, our climate controls have advanced considerably since that first greenhouse. And if you are building your own greenhouse, you will want to give heating and cooling serious consideration and close attention. It is tempting to scrimp on the high dollar and complicated controller systems, and it is possible to create a pretty good environment using just thermostats. But eventually you will want the peace of mind that comes from knowing your plants are growing in the most ideal conditions of warmth, light and humidity that you can give them. I don't want to get too much in the weeds here, but there is a happy medium between sensible investment and unnecessary bells and whistles with regard to environmental controls.
Multi tasking with Ben

hand seeded flats...Lee tagging
When we started growing, I seeded most of the flowers and all of the vegetables by hand in rows into flat trays filling with potting soil, watered the soil, then covered them with plastic wrap to keep in the moisture. When the seedling were big enough to transplant, I pricked them out and planted them into cell packs. I bought begonia plugs and seed geranium plugs because they took so long to grow or the seed was simply too tiny for me to manage. As time went on, we bought some cuttings: New Guinea impatiens and zonal geraniums. We bought a seeder that consisted of a machined tray of tiny holes that matched up with a plug tray. A little portable vacuum cleaner provided the suction...when I turned it off, the seeds dropped into the plug tray. It wasn't a bad system for pelleted seed like petunias and moss rose, or smaller seed like impatiens, but it was pretty unwieldy for marigold or vegetable seed. Blake built me a seed room with humidity provided by two misting nozzles and extra heat from a host of 4 foot fluorescent shop lights after he had visited a large greenhouse with its own plug growing operation. We visited greenhouses every time we took a trip and spent days at the trade show at the Ohio Short course.
We finally sold enough plants to have a couple of salesmen call on us out in the middle of nowhere. One was a greenhouse salesman; he had a habit of showing up just before suppertime. We bought six greenhouses and fed him a lot of spaghetti over the years. In the beginning, I filled pots and trays and baskets from 3.5 cu ft bags of Metro Mix; we progressed to a hopper and chain driven flat filler with a loose mix bulk bag like that used for bulk soybeans. Finally, we purchased a bale breaker in order to take advantage of the most inexpensive bulk potting mix.

 We buy in all the flower plugs now and run thousands of them through a mechanical transplanter. A huge part of our business is cutting raised plants in either 4"or planters or hanging baskets.

 Labor and time are always limiting factors in our compact spring season, and especially in a rural area where greenhouse season coincides with crop planting. What you grow will be determined by your market....but we have noticed a trend away from flats of flowers and toward ready made containers of larger plants. We sell more single vegetables than we used to.
I have to believe more gardeners enjoy their plants in pots and fewer get down on their hands and knees and plant into the ground. But I admit we don't have a big retail business. Being a small wholesale greenhouse means we survive by accommodation; we are willing to grow whatever plant our customers want in whatever container size they specify and deliver on the date they ask for it. Selling flowers these days is a buyer's market.
We didn't know where our first small greenhouse would lead us. There have been plenty of both ups and downs; flowers are discretionary and sales take a hit during economic hard times. We have lost customers, found new ones, expanded, seen sales shrink, blown greenhouses away in storms, and dealt with crushing droughts. We expanded our sales season by growing mums and other fall plants in the field behind our greenhouses. By far the biggest accomplishment has been the ability to bring our family into the business and see our children raising their children among the flowers and tomatoes just like we did. A greenhouse business, like other types of farming, is a great place to teach children about the wonders of the world they live in and is full of chores to help them learn responsibility.

Just last week, bay 9 and Josh


  1. Great post! Love the old pictures of the the girls. Still as cute as they can be. Thanks for sharing your story and your "start from scratch".

  2. Great post!
    Your story is such an inspiration.
    Best wishes in this growing season.