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Greenhouse company poised for growth in northern Colorado

Bill Jackson
Greeley, Colo.

PIERCE – Josh Montague expects things to really start jumping at the Bonnie Plant Farm facility this week and for the next few weeks as, he hopes, the weather turns more spring-like and gardeners can get to their gardens in earnest.

Montague, who moved to Greeley with his wife about three months ago, is a grower-trainer at the Pierce Bonnie Plant Farm, one of two such facilities in Colorado. Bonnie Plant, a national company based in Union Springs, Ala., opened the Pierce facility about eight years ago. He’s been with the company in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio as a sales representative before being transferred to Colorado.

The Pierce growing farm now has 34 greenhouses, each of them about 200 feet by

75 feet, that grow “every herb and vegetable under the sun,” Montague said.

Bonnie Plant is a wholesaler of vegetable and herb plants – and in the case of other locations, flowers. But the Pierce facility focus is on vegetables and herbs, and it delivers those to retail outlets including Walmart, Kmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and smaller, independent outlets throughout central and northern Colorado, Wyoming and parts of South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska, Montague said.

Because the plants are started here, Montague said, they perform better than those brought in from other areas.

The so-called green industry is huge in Weld County. Weld has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the state for the past several years in terms of greenhouses that raise bedding plants, vegetables and flowers for the retail market. Weld, with more than 1 million square feet under glass, represents about 20 percent of the state’s greenhouses and 25 percent of annual sales from those operations.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Weld had $73.8 million of the state’s $299.6 million in nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod sales.

Dawn Thilmany of the Colorado State University Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics conducted an economic survey of the state’s green industry that was last updated in 2008. In that report, she said Colorado household and business expenditures, which included garden, landscape and lawn products and services – including industries such as irrigation systems, botanical gardens, lawn and garden equipment, and maintenance services – averaged almost a 10 percent annual growth since 1993. In 2007, all that combined totaled $1.8 billion.

The only setback in that growth, she said, was the drought years of 2001 and 2002, and the recent recession probably also had its impact.

But through 2007, the total green industry employment had grown to more than 35,000 jobs, Thilmany said in her report, and for every million dollars in green industry revenues and economic activity the industry generates 20 to 40 jobs.

Bonnie Plant Farm was founded in Alabama in 1918 and has grown to include more than 70 facilities in 40 states providing garden vegetables, herbs and flowers to more than 14,000 accounts.

At the Pierce growing farm, there are 45-50 employees who work the greenhouses, transferring plugs of produce into growing pots, nursing plants being grown from seed and helping to load delivery trucks. In addition, Montague said, the farm employs 10 truck drivers and one or two helpers for each truck.

As spring blooms, so does the activity at the farm, although the cool weather has stalled that somewhat this year.

“I would expect things to really start hopping around here in the next week or so,” Montague said.

This time of year, he said, there could be as many as 100,000 flats of vegetables and herbs, with eight to 72 plants per flat. Each delivery truck will carry 800-900 of those plants, and one or two leaves the farm daily, Montague said.

The farm’s accounts are monitored daily, which allows salespeople to keep shelves stocked with those big-selling items and back off those which aren’t doing as well, Montague said.

In addition to the flats, the farm also starts tomato and strawberry plants, some of which are in 10-inch containers that don’t need to be transplanted in a garden. Those are designed, Montague said, for people who live in apartments or for retired people in assisted-living facilities.

“All you have to do is set out a pot where it is sunny, give it water and watch them grow,” Montague said. “Sunlight to a plant is like gasoline to an engine.”

There are, he added, 80 to 90 varieties of tomatoes that grow as vines or bushes.

“You just have to pick the one which is best for you,” he said.

The key to planting tomatoes is burying them deeply in the soil, unlike the sweet red onions also available from Bonnie Plant that grow on top of the ground with only their roots in the soil.

With the exception of those larger pots and the four-pack flats of plants, the majority of plants produced at the farm are started in pots made of peat moss that can be placed directly in garden soil.

“When you take a plant out of a pot to replant it, your tear out some of the roots. So with these, you just have to remove the plastic around the top, tear out the bottom of the pot and put in all in the garden,” Montague said. That also prevents the recycling headaches of plastic pots, he added, and gives the plant a much better chance of not only surviving but growing more produce.

Industries such as Bonnie Plant are recession-proof, Montague said, as more people tend to grow their own food to cut down on expenses. A 10-foot-by-8-foot raised garden, he said, can produce enough vegetables to supply a family for a year. There are raised garden kits available and they are easy to build, Montague said.

“You can buy four cucumber plants for $1.50 and they will produce 40 to 50 pounds of cucumbers or more,” Montague said. At the company’s research and development facility, one tomato plant produced 150 pounds of produce, he added.

Montague said he is a gardner himself, and while he and his wife are living in a Greeley apartment presently, he hopes that will change.

Last year in Alabama, he said, his garden produced so many peppers he couldn’t give them away, even delivering some to a Mexican restaurant free of charge.

At the facility, workers start the planting process in mid-February and continue into March. From there on into summer, things get hectic.

“Once it warms up and stays that way, we’re going to be real busy,” Montague said.


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