Producing organic seedlings can bring higher prices for commercial nurseries. Growers can also benefit from a thriving market for organic seedlings. Paul Betz, owner of High Ledge Farm, presented “Organic Seedling Production” as a webinar hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa recently.
Betz shared what has worked at his greenhouse in Woodbury, Vermont. He said that planning has been instrumental in helping the business stay organized. For example, he maintains seedling sheets on his computer that he also posts in the greenhouse for his crew to fill out. The spreadsheet includes special instructions for varieties of mixes and the size of cells.
“Problems can be noted, too,” he said.
The sheets also help them keep track of what’s growing where, as do the pot sticks. Betz sells directly to the public at a farmers market.
“I try to remove every barrier to my customer,” he said. “Not knowing what it is, is a barrier. Except for lettuce, every seedling sold has a tag on it.”
He purchases perforated sheets of plastic that he can print in his laser printer. Each sheet can label three flats.
“I don’t have to plan super far ahead for a company to print them out for me,” Betz said. “I keep them in a file so they’re neat and organized.”
Printing them means he doesn’t have to hand write them himself — plus, his customers don’t have to struggle reading his sloppy handwriting, he admitted.
“Once they have pot sticks, they go into a greenhouse,” Betz said. “We put them in blocks of like age.”
That helps Betz and his crew know at a glance which plants should mature by what time, a technique he has found particularly helpful for new crew members.
He puts the plants in the cold frame three to five days so they can harden off before they are sold and put into the ground.
“We try to use organic seed whenever we can,” Betz said. “Having it start from organic seed is super important for organic farms but they’re not always available for every variety. Hybrids do cost more typically, but the cost of the seed isn’t a super high cost.”
He also likes offering mixed packs, which gardeners enjoy. They’re a bit more labor intensive, but buying a pack that includes sweet, salsa and very hot peppers, for example, helps out home gardeners and encourages repeat sales. Customers also receive a chart of which plant is which.
“It allows them to have a much more diverse garden in terms of variety,” Betz said. “They cost more to produce. We’re buying the seed in smaller amounts and they require more attention when managing them. But it brings people to the booth.”
They will often buy other items that don’t cost as much for Betz to produce, which helps improve his profit margin on the sale.
Since he wants to sell plants at their best, sometimes that means throwing plants away or donating some plants to a food pantry.
Days to sale include three-week plants, such as summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, winter squash, Asian greens and Napa cabbage; four-week plants, like lettuce, chard, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beets and tomatoes; and six-week plants, including basil.
“Many people grow them weeks and weeks in advance and I’ve found I don’t need to,” Betz said. “Once all that’s done, we have to get them to market.”
He tracks what sells well year to year so he can remember to plant good sellers. Like a puzzle, the trays of plants pack onto racks in his van in a specific order so he can keep the plants organized when he unloads at the market.
“It’s super important to remove barriers,” he reiterated. “There are folks comfortable asking you questions and folks who are uncomfortable asking questions.”
That’s why he spends a lot of time writing, printing and laminating the signs he posts with plants. Many bear witty personal comments.
He also believes it’s important to assign roles to each person working at the market. Workers need to keep the display full, change flats when they get picked over, manage the line of customers and greet people in the front.
Of course, having a few people in line is good, since it indicates sales and tends to attract passersby; however, when the line becomes too long, potential buyers can become impatient and move on.
Behind his booth, “all the plants are grouped by type so if I need to restock, I can just go grab some,” he said.
His season ends around Independence Day.
All season long, Betz tracks his production costs so he can analyze which plants and varieties cost the most to raise compared with the market rate for plants.
He can also make greenhouse improvements during the off-season, such as an overhead hose trolley, which has proven to be a good time saver. It also prevents dirt from spreading around the greenhouse, a side effect of a dragged hose.