DENTON – Charles Lohmeyer stands in a sea of more than 100,000 pink, purple and yellow begonias, impatiens and marigolds. He grabs a pot of pink blooms with his sun-worn hands to see if it needs water.
“The pots on the edge usually get skipped” by the watering-system, he says, picking at the soil and adding dirt to his already grimy fingernails. He will have to hand-water those, he says.
Pruning and watering bedding plants is a new line of work for Lohmeyer, 73, who has cultivated poultry and soybean crops for the past 20 years on his two Caroline County farms.
He is one of the first growers to join a strategic partnership that could add greenhouses to the list of agricultural options for Eastern Shore farmers, who largely depend on less environmentally friendly poultry and grain farming.
The alliance among the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Burtonsville- based Bell Nursery and local growers imitates the poultry industry’s cooperative model. Instead of hatching eggs for Perdue’s processing plants, farmers nurture plant seedlings for Bell Nursery to distribute to Home Depot or Costco.
“This is the new Tyson or Perdue, except it doesn’t smell,” says Thomas Handwerker, director of UMES’s Small Farm Institute and sire of the project.
While only three growers have joined the network and Bell Nursery is the only seedling supplier, Handwerker and his partner, Daniel S. Kuennen, director of the UMES Rural Development program, predict more farmers will follow Lohmeyer’s path and radically change the face of the Eastern Shore’s agricultural economy.
“Our goal is not to displace those other markets,” says Kuennen, “but to give small farmers alternatives so that the Eastern Shore doesn’t put all of its eggs into one basket.”
Poultry farming accounted for 35 percent of Maryland’s farm income in 1998, according to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. State farms raised more than 290 million chickens that year.
Poultry farms have been indicated as a source of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay that contributed to a fish-kill bacteria in 1997. The greenhouse project’s proponents say greenhouses won’t pollute as much.
The idea gestated about seven years ago when J.O.K. Walsh, a private economic consultant in Caroline County, came to Handwerker and Kuennen with a blueprint for a high-tech greenhouse industry that he said could offer farmers another “profit-center.”
The template greenhouse for small farmers is the $3.2 million UMES hydroponic greenhouse in Princess Anne, which grows plants without soil. Based on a Netherlands model, a steady stream of nutrients, water and oxygen flows through trays that hold the plants. The recyclable system conserves water and nearly eliminates nutrient pollution, Kuennen says.
But that equipment is costly, so Bell Nursery recommends new growers, like Lohmeyer, use a cheaper feeding system – boom-irrigation, or computerized overhead sprinklers – in their facilities.
Financial risks and hard work are indeed part of the equation for growers, says Bell Nursery president Gary Mangum.
Despite pleading from Lohmeyer’s wife, Peggy, that he take a rest from farming, Lohmeyer built the $238,000 half-acre greenhouse – in between the chicken coop and 50 acres of wheat and soybean fields.
“I am not a rocking-chair man,” he says, although he appreciates occasional help from his three sons, daughter and three grandsons, with son Brian managing the poultry farm. He also sharecrops his grain fields with a neighbor.
His first flower crop – 11,400 trays of bedding plants – is almost ready. He spends at least five hours a day checking their leaves for diseases, mold and insects and monitoring the watering system. Bell Nursery provides an expert to teach Lohmeyer proper plant care.
While he qualified for a $270,000 loan from Chesapeake Farm Credit, he had to offer his house and farm as collateral.
“My whole life is on the line,” he says, casually stuffing his hands into his pant pockets, “but if it works out, it will be a pretty good cash flow.”
Growers can reap a $16,000 profit on top of debt service, given a 2 percent crop yield loss, Mangum says.
Lohmeyer paid Bell Nursery $4.50 for each tray of bedding plants and, after 14 weeks of care, will receive $9.50 for each tray of full-bloomed flowers.
If profit predictions hold, Mangum says, growers could pay off their debt in five years.
Farmers can even earn more profit if they harvest other greenhouse crops throughout the year, such as poinsettias, peppers, tomatoes and watermelon.
Lohmeyer already has plans to expand his greenhouse to hold more crops.
“I’ve got the facility here, so I might as well use it,” he says.
Besides, he says, “I enjoy it.” He says his greenhouse has a “better atmosphere,” than the chicken coop, and he prefers the smell of greenery and flowers to ammonia and manure.
The long hours aren’t a problem either. “I make time for it,” he says. “I don’t want to neglect my plants.”
But what’s most encouraging to Lohmeyer is the prospect that the greenhouse industry will preserve the Eastern Shore’s rural legacy.
Before Lohmeyer moved to his first poultry farm near Denton in 1968, he spent 20 years working for a sheet-metal union.
Baltimore-born, Lohmeyer says he will never move back to the city. “I want to keep (the Eastern Shore) rural,” he says. “It is the way of life I enjoy.”
He plans on passing the greenhouse to his grandchildren. He already has three, but expects more.
That is the mindset that makes this partnership a “win-win situation,” for current growers and those down the line, Kuennen says.
Small farmers have alternatives to poultry or field agriculture, Bell Nursery’s market grows and the Eastern Shore’s economy is diversified.
Handwerker and Kuennen want even more choices for farmers, so they are recruiting nurseries to join the network. Ultimately, they foresee a greenhouse cooperative that pools grower resources and offers them choices between nurseries, technology and crops.
“Bell Nursery has been a great Cinderella,” says Handwerker, but he hopes to find more Cinderellas to turn into princesses.
Lohmeyer says he doesn’t have a problem with that.
“That’s probably what it will come to,” he says, walking through the narrow lane between the impatiens and the begonias, careful his scuffed work- boots don’t crush them.
“That way I could be more independent and say, ‘These flowers are mine.'”
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