Cover Story: Farming consumer interests

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Capitalizing on the locally grown food trend, retailers host farmers markets and CSA programs to bridge the gap between busy seasons.

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Many consumers prefer locally grown produce and organic food found through CSA programs and farmers markets.

The road to produce hasn’t always been a smooth one for Jim Monroe, owner of Greenbrier Nurseries, a grower-retailer based in Virginia and West Virginia. Tough economic times and changing consumer preferences forced him to reconsider the business’ tree and shrub-heavy production and think about shifting some of the focus to another product area in recent years. Finished produce was a logical choice. “The demand for container nursery stock was certainly diminishing and we could see that happening,” Monroe says. “So we took houses where we were eliminating mostly deciduous shrub types [and started growing produce there].” Greenbrier started growing finished produce in September 2013, and hasn’t looked back.

For almost 60 years, Greenbrier Nurseries has been making its mark in Virginia and West Virginia. What originally started as a landscape business and later evolved into a container nursery has developed into a thriving company comprising two garden centers, three-and-a-half-acres of heated greenhouse space and approximately 27 acres of open field production that includes a hoophouse. The independent garden centers are located in Beckley, West Virginia, and Roanoke, Virginia, and the open field production site is located in Talcott, West Virginia.

In addition to a CSA, Greenbrier Nurseries has offered a farmers market for the past two years.

While finished produce has become a larger portion of the business than the standard 4-inch starter plants typically sold at garden centers, Monroe estimates that Greenbrier still sells about 500 varieties of different vegetable and herb starter plants. They grow some of the staple varieties like Early Girl and Big Boy tomatoes as well as a wide variety of heirlooms. Greenbrier grows both for wholesale and for their retail stores.

During the past two years, Greenbrier has gradually increased its finished produce offering, selling through three new revenue streams: a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, a farmers market and direct sales to local restaurants. And that decision has paid off.

Uniting in produce

According to a report published by the Penn State Extension, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs began in the 1980s, and between 30,000 and 50,000 people in the U.S. belong to one. Monroe saw an opportunity, and the Greenbrier Nurseries CSA program was born. This year, 400 families from the Roanoke area participated in the 22-week long CSA program Greenbrier developed.

The process begins on Nov. 1 each year, when Greenbrier starts marketing and selling CSA shares. Shareholders pay up front for the program, which costs $500 per share and starts in June. Sales and marketing continue through late February, or until the shares are sold out. The number of shares that they sell is dependent on their anticipated production capacity. The 2015 goal was 400 shares, which they reached.

“So in January and February when [business is] really slow — we’re almost closed — we’re getting 400 people to pay us $500,” Monroe says. “That’s $200,000 worth of revenue in the dead of winter when you have nothing [else] coming in the door.” Those customers aren’t necessarily coming in during the business’ busiest months, which are March, April and May, when there’s already a strong cash flow.

Jim Monroe, owner of grower-retailer Greenbrier Nurseries, has successfully moved his company away from nursery stock and into edible production.

On June 1, CSA shareholders return to the pick-up point (in this case, the Roanoke garden center) for their first bag of produce and return for 21 more weeks through the summer and fall. This is also complementary timing for the garden center. “Once you get kids out of school and people are in summer mode, garden center sales start falling off,” Monroe says. “And we have 400 people coming to our store every Saturday to pick up their food.” The CSA is set up so that members walk through the rest of the store to get to the bag pick-up in the greenhouse, passing by impulse items on the way. The Farm to Table market is co-located with the bag pick-up on Saturdays.

The last bag pick-up is at the end of October, and the next year’s marketing begins again in November. Christmas sales at the store are generally good, and then most people pay for their CSA shares in January and February. “It’s almost a perfect financing tool for a garden center to have 12 months of cash flow,” Monroe says.

Getting them through the door

For customers who prefer to purchase their produce and other local foods throughout the year rather than through a CSA program, Greenbrier Nurseries hosts its own farmers market on Thursdays and Saturdays, dubbed Farm to Table Roanoke, located at the Roanoke retail store. The Saturday market shares space with the CSA food bag pick-up, effectively making it a one-stop-shop for CSA and non-CSA customers alike.

Farm to Table Roanoke started in October 2013 as a way to attract more people into the garden center on a weekly basis and create a market for the local community. As the market has grown, so has the demand for the produce that Greenbrier supplies. Monroe says it’s an excellent opportunity for garden centers to take advantage of empty greenhouse and/or retail space during slow seasons. Farm to Table is held in their main heated greenhouse space during the winter. As the market becomes more popular, sales have increased in other categories at the store as well, including houseplants and bird food.

Unique varieties offered by Greenbrier, like the beets pictured here, draw in customers looking to try new foods.

“That’s one of the things that garden centers have such an opportunity to get to is that they all have empty retail space that they’re just hardly using for anything,” Monroe says. “They tear it down after Christmas and they just set up spring to look at it for two months until anybody shows up to buy anything, and they have an amazing opportunity to use an outside space to get people in their store.”

The marketing for Farm to Table takes place mostly on Facebook and through emails sent out through MailChimp, Monroe says. However, they also put up posters in community establishments such as hospitals to get the word out. This year they put up a few billboards in Roanoke, showcasing the market as the area’s largest.

Customers pass through the retail store when they visit the market to pick up food at the CSA, and it has increased sales in other categories.
Greenbrier customers can pick fresh greens from small plots behind the Roanoke store during most of the year.
Selecting for taste

Greenbrier is selective about which vendors they allow into Farm to Table Roanoke to complement their produce offering, and the process has evolved over the past two years. For example, after finding out that one meat vendor was misrepresenting how its beef was produced, prospective vendors were required to fill out a questionnaire with information on how the food is grown/produced, and Monroe or his staff will often visit the facility before giving them the green light. The meat vendor in question was no longer allowed to be a part of the market. “We booted them out because [our customers] want to trust us, and we have a responsibility to make sure that what we’re giving them to eat is what [it’s reported to be],” Monroe says.

Building that trust means providing food production information to customers without them having to ask. “We’ve really gone out of our way to put in place the right signage and information so that people will understand what they’re getting,” Monroe says. For example, conventionally grown, certified organic and organically grown products are labeled as such.

The food sold at Farm to Table Roanoke and through the CSA program is clearly marked with its origin and production methods, including whether it was grown organically.

Garden center retailers without the ability to grow the produce for their CSA or farmers market still have an opportunity to make their respective businesses more relevant through collaboration with other vendors and produce growers, Monroe says. “If [a garden center] has the ability to go out and work with other food vendors to put together the program and make it convenient and affordable to people even if they’re not growing all the produce,” they have the ability to make their business more relevant.

Keeping it fresh

When deciding which varieties of finished produce to sell in the CSA and in the farmers’ market, Greenbrier tends to grow more “sophisticated” veggies, Monroe says. They draw on the knowledge that they’ve garnered over the years of selling vegetable starter plants at the retail store, giving them a solid understanding of the types of varieties that customers like. Because customers come in each week, they create a diverse group of products so they don’t get the same line-up each time. “We try to grow a wide breadth of things so that our CSA changes every week,” Monroe says. The 2015 bags included 10 different squash varieties, eight radish varieties and three varieties of beets, for example.

Also, because much of the marketing for the CSA and farmers market was going to be through their website and social media, they intentionally chose varieties with strong visual appeal that would stand out in photographs and get customers excited. For example, rather than growing a plain red beet, they chose one that has a variegated pattern that can be sold at a premium, even though seed costs are comparable between the two. “They’re no harder to grow than any other ones [either],” Monroe says. “[But we’re] trying to grow things that would be considered gourmet instead of mundane.” Most of the produce that Greenbrier grows is being sold through the CSA program.

Greenbrier's microgreens are sold under the brand Culinary Couture and most are destined for local restaurants.

Monroe advises grower-retailers contemplating getting involved with or creating their own CSA or farmers market to take a close look at their market. “Some markets [already] have a lot of competition,” he says. But others could be primed for this type of market, and the margins are “really good.” It could be a worthwhile endeavor in a college community or an urban area where people are more interested in farm to table and local foods, he says.

However, before switching over more greenhouse space to grow produce for a CSA or a farmers market, grower-retailers should do the math. For example, in one of the greenhouses that was converted to produce, Greenbrier was growing about 500 7-gallon hollies that were wholesaling for about $27 and retailing for about $55. “It has taken us three years to grow that $27 plant,” Monroe says. “And you can grow a tomato plant in a 7-gallon pot in that same house for 80 days instead of 1,000 days, and pick 15 pounds of tomatoes off of that plant at $4 a pound.” Monroe estimates that a grower could get two turns per year on the tomatoes, but the profits lie in selling them at a premium at a local farmers market, for example, and not for a big-box store that will pay considerably less.

“Instead of getting $27 out of that space where the holly is, you’re getting 15 pounds [of tomatoes] times $4 a pound, [which] is $60 times 6, [for a total of] $360 out of the same space [in three years],” he says. “So [it’s] more than 10 times the dollar amount out of the same amount of greenhouse space. It’s powerful.”

When it comes to production techniques, Greenbrier Nurseries isn’t certified organic, but follows organic production practices. “We can’t call it ‘organic’,” Monroe says. “[But] we’re not using any chemicals in any of our food production.” Pests can often be a problem, but they’ve been experimenting over the past two years with different control methods. “We use neem oil and some biologicals,” Monroe says. “We’re using some organic controls… where we can if we have to.”

Farmers markets are often popular destinations and considered weekend outings, even for Millennials.
Fruits of their labor

This past September, Greenbrier Nurseries’ hard work and commitment to serving its communities was recognized by the Roanoke Regional Chamber. After being nominated, Greenbrier won the award for 2015 Small Business of the Year in the Wholesale/Retail category, and then went on to win the overall 2015 Small Business of the Year award, beating out nearly 70 other nominated businesses and not-for-profit organizations. “Greenbrier Nurseries, [is] an independent garden retailer that has evolved into a farm-to-table operation that helps other small agricultural businesses grow and succeed,” stated the Roanoke Regional Chamber on its website.

Before moving away from ornamental growing, companies should carefully consider the ROI of growing produce in that space.

“Roanoke is a pretty big market,” says Monroe. “But everyone was struggling so much with the economy, and we were able to use food as a way to attract new people and younger people into our garden centers. And people really liked the story.”

Greenbrier Nurseries is in the running to be the Virginia small business of the year—they’ll find out if they won this summer — and is up against representatives from other industries and regions in the state. “Local food is a really timely [and trendy] subject right now,” Monroe says. “We have a great story to tell, and [the people in Roanoke] think we have a really good chance.”

Clear signage tells Greenbrier visitors where to find and pick their veggies of choice.

From a retail perspective, selling food has been key to doubling the annual sales at the Roanoke store and making it more than just a garden center. “Selling hanging baskets and boxwoods doesn’t make you relevant to that many people. If you’re gone tomorrow, [customers’] lives don’t change,” Monroe says. “Food has made our company relevant to [customers] that trust us because they know where their food is coming from and they know we’re doing innovative things. We would have never, ever been considered for [the small business of the year award in the past], but after a year and a half of [offering] food, we were the most relevant small business in a pretty big city.”

But is the demand for locally grown, fresh produce and foods here to stay? Monroe thinks so. “This is not a trend, in my opinion,” he says. “I think [this is] a generation of people that are always going to be more conscious than their parents and grandparents of what they’re putting in their body, and they’re going to raise their children to be even more cautious than they are.”

Greenbrier carefully vets its farmers market vendors to make sure they are selling quality items and not making false claims.