By Matt Reese
Visitors to Green Valley Growers, Inc. near Ashland are treated to row, after row (after row) of beautiful plants to peruse under two acres of greenhouse glass and additional outdoor retail space. Even more appealing to many shoppers than the almost endless blur of floral hues are the budget-friendly price tags on the plants.
“We have a different approach from other greenhouses. We let customers come in and go everywhere to see all of our plants and make their own choices. The thrust of the operation was to sell plants at a lower price to expand consumption. A lot of former competitors were selling just a few plants at a high price. They are no longer in business,” said Tom Moherman, owner of Green Valley Growers, Inc. “We try to come up with prices where we can still make money and keep customers happy. That is what differentiates us from other greenhouses. We’d rather sell 500 items at a $1 profit than 50 items at a $10 profit.”
Based on the packed parking lot and vehicles loaded down with plants aplenty, the strategy seems to be working. Moherman grew up in near Ashland and served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He returned stateside to work in Wooster in agricultural research and learned about growing produce. He bought land from his mother where he grew up, went out on his own growing produce in 1977 and eventually ended up with a store in Mansfield (Tom’s Farm Market). He got up to growing around 150 acres of produce in the fields and then further expanded with greenhouse production for both produce and bedding plants. The store was open year round selling what he could produce along with California produce outside of the Ohio growing season.
“We gradually phased out of produce and sold the Mansfield store in 1999 when it got to be too much and focused everything back here on this location with the greenhouses and started Green Valley Greenhouses,” he said. “We expanded greenhouse space several times and now we have two acres under glass and five acres of outdoor growing area with drip and sprinkler irrigation. We have expanded and built some open roof adjustable greenhouses too.”
Large retail scale and low prices make for a strong business plan, but a significant workload for Moherman and his wife, Shelley, who are the only full time workers in the business.
“It makes a lot more work for us from that business model. You need to be efficient in order to pay a good wage. We have no year round employees, but we have five or six with us from January through the end of mum season. The highest number of employees we get to is maybe 20. We start seeding around Jan. 10 and continue until mid-May,” Moherman said. “A lot of things we sell are patented and we start from rooted cuttings or liners and you pay a premium for those. We open April 1 and have senior citizens day every Tuesday and they get a piece of cake (Shelley makes A BUNCH of cake) and a 10% discount.
“Just like any other farmer we are dependent on the weather. Customers come in when it is nice weather. And this April the weather was terrible but we were incredibly busy starting in early May. The day before Mother’s Day is typically the busiest day of the season. We close in mid-June and then clean up and start the next day with mums. Then we re-open Aug. 18. We stay open until we run out of mums.”
Hanging baskets and perennials are always popular during the early part of the season
and then the chrysanthemums dominate late summer through early fall.
For both parts of the sales season, Green Valley Growers fills up the massive retail area multiple times and sells until every last plant has disappeared.
“For example, we grow 3,600 terra baskets that are holding different plant combinations and we always sell almost all of them by Mother’s Day. Around mid-June we do progressive markdowns until we are at 80% off the last day and the prices are low to start with. In the spring we are about 90% retail and 10% wholesale and we deliver to a few older loyal customers,” he said. “We get customers from Columbus to Lake Erie. We try to grow what the customers will want. Price is elastic on all of these things. Our sale is good marketing research because you see at what price they can’t refuse it any more. We are not set up to have personal shoppers. We are set up for people who love plants and just want to walk around and see what they want. Our customers that have been here two or three times understand how things work, but it is a difficult concept for new customers. They don’t understand when we don’t have exactly the variety that they want.”
Greenhouse plant production, of course, has many benefits but there are still plenty of challenges. One of them is water.
“Some well water is good and some is terrible. The best water we have is from a two-acre pond that we can pump 100 gallons a minute out of. We have three wells and we had to cap them off at 130 feet because below that there is a lot of salt. We have one well that is pretty bad, but we use that for sprinklers for frost control and we can use acid to lower the alkalinity of the water if we need to, otherwise it can hurt the growing medium. We use three different types of fertilizer based on water supply and the desired pH of the soil,” he said. “We raise 1,700 different kinds of plants with different fertility requirements. We start with a pre-mix with micronutrients. We have drips on baskets and we have travelling booms in one greenhouse. Fertility is tweaked every day as needed. This year we were putting so much water on for freeze control that we were getting out of balance.”
Natural gas provides an economically friendly heat source when needed. Pests and diseases are also a constant concern.
“We use biologicals for pest and fungus control, especially Pythium. Botrytis is always an issue and there is a list of standard insects we deal with, especially thrips. If you say you don’t have them in your greenhouse you are either lying or don’t have good vision. Because we let our customers go everywhere, we only use products with a 12-hour re-entry and we only spray in the evening,” Moherman said. “When it gets hot and you open the vents, insects blow in from the fields and they reproduce very quickly in the greenhouse. It was cold this spring and that helped with insects this season. Mites are the other concern. We get all of these liners (young plants) from overseas and there is always
the chance of diseases coming in from those areas. They go to rooting stations in this country and you can get diseases and insect in your greenhouse from there too.”
This time of year production shifts outside as chrysanthemum production really ramps up.
“We plant the mums outside except for a few because we get better plants outdoors. They come as liners and we fill the pots with our medium and put them immediately on the drips and apply fungicides and insecticides one time. Aphids migrate over from soybean fields,” Moherman said. “We apply insecticides once at first and then as needed. It depends on the weather but we are spraying at least every 10 days or so. Fungicides are then applied as needed as well. I use an air blast sprayer and drive down sprayer rows left between the pots. We also grow a few fall pansies inside.”
Between now and the end of the sale season this fall, Green Valley Growers will grow and sell 90,000 chrysanthemums, selling half retail and half wholesale. The greenhouse business has high startup costs (around $1 million for an acre of greenhouse), the trials of agriculture and weather, and the challenges of direct marketing, but beautiful plants and happy customers make it all worthwhile. Plus, Moherman said with a grin, there is some time for duck hunting after closing for the season.