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Commissioner Adam H. Putnam


Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award

2006 Winner

Riverview Flower Farm
Riverview, Florida

In a state named for its beautiful flowers, it’s no wonder that millions of Floridians head to local nurseries to find just the right plants to make their yard a showcase of color. But for many weekend gardeners, the idea of buying plants can be daunting. Many don’t know an annual from a perennial, and with the thousands of varieties to choose from, who knows what grows well in Florida? To help these novice landscapers, brothers Rick and Dave Brown, founders of the Riverview Flower Farm, set a goal to make gardening in Florida easier.

“Perennials have always been something that people have struggled with, and a lot of people don’t know what a perennial in Florida is at all,” said co-owner Rick Brown. “We took plants that people were successful with in Florida and over the years combined them into some cohesive package and we call it ‘Florida Friendly Plants.’”

To identify plants that grow well in Florida, the nursery conducted more than 10,000 trials, seeing how each did under local climatic conditions, as well as with disease and pest resistance. From these trials Riverview selected 30 perennials and 10 ornamental grasses which -- under the label Florida Friendly Plants™ -- are stocked in over a hundred Home Depot stores from Gainesville to Key West.

Stretching out over 127 acres at three locations, Riverview Flower Farm has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The farm was started on a three-acre plot in Riverview in 1982 by Rick, Dave, and Dave’s wife, Diane.

“We started on a little piece of property that Rick had in his bachelor days and that was quite fun,” said Office Manager Diane Brown. “Actually, that’s where the office moved to eventually. We started in one of the bedrooms and I remember that we punched through a closet into another bedroom so we just felt as though we had this gigantic office at the time, and that was fun.”

Using the home of Rick and his wife, Sydney, as an office, the Browns began by growing poinsettias, garden mums and Gerber daisies, which they sold to retail customers and landscapers. Gradually, they moved toward perennials, planting several varieties in one-quart pots to see how well they would grow under Florida conditions.

Around this same time, Riverview Flower Farm began a working relationship with Home Depot garden centers. The retailer was looking for perennials in one-gallon containers that could stand up to the frequent “watering and drought cycle” the plants would encounter at retail and consumer levels. Once the nursery switched to the larger pot the perennials began growing vigorously.

Today, Riverview Flower Farm has sold nearly 30 million items in its Florida Friendly Plants™ program. The key to success is efficiency. The nursery benefits from having two people who can each make instant decisions in the day-to-day operations. For longer-range plans, Rick and Dave Brown discuss ideas -- each having a different perspective on the possibilities and ramifications.

“We’re all on the same page,” said Rick. “When, when there’s a big decision to be made and one of us has to make it, we can do it with confidence even if it involves a lot of money or a big shift. We know how each other thinks and we know how they’ll react to it. So it’s been very easy.”

“Rick and I get along pretty well,” said Dave. “I won’t say we haven’t had our differences over the years, but we’re able to talk them out. We’re different kind of people and so that really kind of makes it work together.”

“It’s like they have such a good relationship because they’re alike but they’re very different and so they really compliment each other very well,” said Diane. “They each have their strong points and they have what they bring to the business and it just, it’s just a nice blending.”

While Dave approaches the nursery from a production and facilities management position, Rick focuses on new product development, marketing and sales. One of his primary responsibilities is propagation. Working from imported, unrooted cuttings, Rick’s crew grows the young plants for four weeks before delivering them to the production facility. There they are transplanted into one-gallon containers, then moved to the nursery’s drip tapes for irrigation.

Early on, Riverview saw the need to move away from the inefficient, overhead irrigation system that most growers were using. They turned to drip-tube fertigation as a more efficient and cost-effective way to irrigate and fertilize plants simultaneously. Water is drawn from the retention pond and filtered three times to improve water quality and prevent particles from clogging the drip lines. An eight-to-10-minute run on the drip system would deliver about six ounces of water to each container as well as a specific amount of fertilizer. As the plants are pulled from a production zone, that segment of the zone can be turned off, conserving more water. As a result, the drip lines use 95 percent less water than the old overhead irrigation system.

By delivering water directly to the base of the plant, drip lines leave the plant tops dry, reducing the risk of disease. Application directly to the root system also minimizes the use of pesticides. To keep destructive insects from building up resistance to pesticides, Riverview rotates the use of traditional products with low-impact organic repellants.

We use clove-based products to repel leaf miner insects and we use garlic-based products which are repellant to thrips and at a higher rate repellant to white flies,” said grower Kevin Hearne. “And it’s not harmful to the environment.”

Using these organic mixtures also offers a safer workplace and a safer product for the customer. The plants respond with more blooms, longer-lasting flowers and a hardier, longer shelf life.

Always looking to further reduce waste and conserve water, Riverview Flower Farms is implementing a number of new techniques. Capillary mats, for instance, are an innovative irrigation system that holds liquid much like a sponge. By allowing plants to absorb water and liquid fertilizer through its roots, cap mats use 95 percent less water than even the cost-effective drip lines with no runoff. To avoid the waste of overhead watering during a freeze warning, frost cloth is used to protect the plants in the winter months; in the summer, the nursery uses aluminized shade cloth to keep their shade houses 20 degrees cooler.

While Florida Friendly PlantsTM are hardy, the tough conditions at retail outlets make it difficult for any plants to survive. With this in mind, Rick and Dave developed their own special growing medium that would retain moisture longer. Made of fine composted pine bark, Canadian peat and Florida sedge peat, the mixture is produced in bulk, which helps the nursery meet its need for a trailer load of potting soil every day. To increase efficiency, Riverview devised an automated process which distributes the potting medium from storage bins to the production floor on an as-needed basis.

The production floor is a showcase of efficiency. Basing their decisions on yearly and seasonal trends, and 25 years of experience, Dave and Rick determine just how many plants of each variety are to be potted at a given time. Nearly all plants are potted in the same one-gallon-size pots. By staying with the uniform size, the company can perform its tasks without having to reconfigure its line from the potting machines to the shipping racks.

“We have tried to consolidate the operations and keep things as simple as possible,” said Dave. “We use basically one size of pot. It’ll be different colors for different items and different price points. And we use one type of soil that we like for all types of plants. We may modify the fertilization and the different culture but it’s the same pot and the same soil trying to keep our production methods as streamlined as possible.”

At the Tucker Jones facility, potted plants are sent to greenhouses using the largest monorail system being used in the United States. With 15 miles of track weaving throughout the facility, no production worker is ever more than 15 feet from the monorail. Modified to the Browns’ needs, the monorail system helps workers transport the plants around the nursery -- out to the greenhouses, into packing and shipping.

“The key to our success has been working with good people,” Rick said. “We try to find that person that has got the right personality to match ours and the right work ethic, and we’ve been lucky. We’ve been able to find really good people.”

Added Diane: “It’s really about team work and we do have wonderful people that work here. We have a lot of people that have been with us for a long time. And it’s very comfortable and we really depend on them. You just can’t do it all by yourself.”

Dave agreed. “As we have grown -- and we’re now more than a hundred employees -- we’re still able to keep that family feeling. Rick and I and Diane are here every day working alongside the key personnel and everyone else. We still know our employees.”

To recognize and reward workers for their commitment to the company, the nursery implemented the “Assistant Grower Program.” Throughout the year workers are evaluated on their performance. Those who demonstrate a desire to go beyond what is asked of them are invited to become assistant growers.

“We have the luxury of having a workforce that really wants to do more,” said Jeff Lewis, head grower. “They want to learn and have a nice open mind to doing multiple jobs, multitasking and change. We’ll approach and ask them if they want to become an assistant grower, then we’ll give them the ability to move on within the company as much as possible.”

Riverview sells its plants exclusively at Home Depot through a consignment process called vendor-managed inventory. The nursery can immediately track the sales of its product over the Internet using a “pay by scan” method where data is collected from garden center checkout scanners.

While this information is gathered, the shipping manager electronically takes inventory of his stock, letting the main office know which plants are available to fill the daily orders. The following morning the orders are generated, including tickets for the pickers, giving them the location and quantity of plants, and number of trolleys needed for each garden center.

“I hand the pick tickets to our picking crew and they go out and pick the plants,” said Mike Hudock, shipping manager. “The packers are in the packing area and they get orders on an hourly basis, and they’ll do them by truckloads.”

The racks will be loaded and the trucks will be loaded in the evening and plants will be in the store within 24 hours. Riverview’s attention to detail doesn’t stop when the plants are on the shelf. To help retailers sell Florida Friendly Plants™, Riverview supplies the stores with a variety of point-of-purchase materials, including a pocket reference guide for Florida plants. This guide helps retail garden center employees answer any questions the customers have about Florida Friendly PlantsTM.

They are also looking at new ways to market plants. Their newest product, the “Saus-edge,” is a plant package designed to give consumers an instant edge to their gardens. The nursery roots six cuttings in a soil-filled, bio-degradable paper tube. When the tubes are laid out in a shallow trench, they quickly create a border for today’s time-strapped gardeners.

“I’d say these owners, Dave and Rick Brown, they’re probably the most progressive owners I’ve worked for as far as understanding that the only constant in this industry is change,” said Head Grower Jeff Lewis.

“Compared to other places I’ve worked, there is no comparison because we seem to be on the cutting edge of everything,” said Shipping Manager Mike Hudock. “We always kept on top of the technology, and I think we keep up pretty well.”

The Browns take the same approach to the future of their business that they use when they grow plants -- find the need and address it. To accommodate their expansion, for instance, new greenhouses are being built with accordion roofs that close during cold spells or to offer protection from hurricanes, but can also retract to allow for light or rain. Currently in development are cisterns for holding rainwater harvested off the greenhouses’ roofs to further reduce groundwater usage.

“I’m really proud of Rick and Dave and what they’ve accomplished because I’ve seen them grow from just a little, almost a little backyard nursery to where they are today,” said Sydney Park Brown, Hillsborough County extension agent. “I’m really proud that they accomplished what they accomplished in such an environmentally friendly way, which is a philosophy that I really believe in heart and soul, and I know that they do, too.”

Said Diane Brown: “Rick and Dave are very good at what they do and they’re very well respected. They still have so many wonderful ideas. They really need to have the time and the opportunity to see those ideas come about.” -- 2006

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