The road to
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
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
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
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
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
“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
Selecting for taste
Greenbrier is selective about which vendors they allow into Farm to Table Roanoke to complement their
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.
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
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.
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
“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
Fruits of their labor
This past September, Greenbrier Nurseries’ hard work and commitment to serving its communities
“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.”
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.”
Explore the March 2016 Issue
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