Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award

2006 Winner

Tampa Wholesale Nursery
Dover, Florida

Roy Davis began his career by establishing the Davis Landscaping Company in 1961. Starting on a 51-by-106-foot city lot in Tampa, Davis ran the operation while his wife, Leta, grew plants for the landscape jobs. Two years later, the family moved to their present location in Dover, about 15 miles from downtown Tampa. With their home on the property, Roy and Leta raised their sons, Steve and Mike, at the nursery.

Over the years, the family realized they found more joy in growing plants than in landscaping. So in 1978, when Steve returned from college, Davis Landscape Company was phased out and the family shifted its energy to raising plants at the new Tampa Wholesale Nursery. Two years later, the Davis family branched out and started Big Tree Nursery in nearby Antioch.

“When we started out, my wife and I didn’t even have one employee,” said Roy, who is president of Tampa Wholesale Nursery. “Before I would go out on landscaping jobs in the morning I would give her the list of things that she needed to get accomplished and she’d still cook supper that night, and took care of those two boys. She’s pretty tough and has been right by our sides all along.”

“Back when we started we used metal cans,” said Leta, who is the company’s secretary/treasurer. “We went to school cafeterias and collected their gallon cans, and we had to punch the holes in the bottom, which was really great exercise for your legs. The boys really enjoyed doing that. They would cry and I’d say alright, it’s your turn to punch cans.”

“It was a lot of work in the nursery,” said Mike Davis of Big Tree Nursery. “I worked back when I was younger going to school. I would work on a lot of the equipment. Steve would do a lot of the nursery work and I would fix things that they would tear up.”

Currently, Tampa Wholesale Nursery raises over 120 different varieties of plants, from ground covers to shade trees, shipping more than 300,000 plants throughout the Southeast each year.

Today, Roy Davis likes to spend part of his time at Big Tree Nursery where his son, Mike, is the general manager and Mike’s wife, Bonnie, is production manager.

Steve knows this property. Other than his time away at college, he has lived at the nursery all of his life. He has raised his family there as well, and over the years they have all, at one time or another, worked in the nursery. Steve’s wife, Vivian, still helps out on the weekends. Daughter Kitty now teaches agriculture at nearby Durant High School. The Davis’ other daughter, Shannon, helps by running errands for the company. Their son, Eric, a regular at the nursery, hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I want to go to college, get my four year degree, at the same time work here at the nursery,” Eric said. “I’m going to major in horticulture. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to be a part owner. I want to stay involved in Tampa Wholesale as long as possible.”

A lot has changed in Hillsborough County since the Davis family first began. The rural areas, once home to citrus groves and still home to some of the country’s best strawberry farms, have experienced Tampa’s urban sprawl which has placed heavy demands on the area’s water supply.

As with any agricultural operation, water is the lifeblood of Tampa Wholesale Nursery. While permitted to use about 280,000 gallons of groundwater a day, the nursery strives to conserve this valuable resource.

Back in the 1970s, Tampa Wholesale Nursery was one of the first nurseries to incorporate low-volume irrigation, greatly reducing water usage. Where overhead spraying is still used, the beds are gently domed so that any excess water is collected in gutters that surround them. From the gutters, water flows into a ditch that channels it to a two acre reservoir where it is again pumped to water the plants.

Water in Tampa Wholesale Nursery’s reservoir comes primarily from its daily allotment of groundwater, as well as collected rainwater and irrigation runoff. But 80,000 gallons of water a day comes from an unusual source.

One of the largest seafood packaging companies in the United States, Tampa Bay Fisheries, is just a mile from the nursery. The plant produces about 1.7 million pounds of seafood a week and uses approximately 200,000 gallons of water daily. While it has its own wastewater treatment plant and spray fields, its growth made it necessary for the company to seek additional ways of disposing of excess water. The company considered expanding its existing spray fields, but the land it would require made it impracticable. Instead, Tampa Bay Fisheries began exploring a partnership with Tampa Wholesale Nursery.

“With us being a large user of water, it was only good business sense to reuse this water,” said Robert Paterson, president and chief executive officer of Tampa Bay Fisheries. “That’s when we began to talk with Tampa Wholesale Nursery about processing our water to the state where they could then reuse it on their ornamental plant nursery and, at the same time, make it not necessary for them to pump that amount of water out of the ground.”

With assistance from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the fisheries upgraded its waste treatment facility. The Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences all contributed greatly to the success of the plan.

As the water leaves the seafood processing plant it goes through a screening process before going into Tampa Bay Fisheries’ wastewater treatment plant. From there it flows into a treatment pond where it is held until it is pumped through a mile-long pipeline into Tampa Wholesale Nursery’s two acre reservoir. Since implementing the new process, the amount of water Tampa Wholesale Nurseries draws from the aquifer has decreased by 40 percent.

“The benefit has been that there’s approximately 80,000 gallons of water a day that we are not pumping out of the aquifer, which has been very beneficial for the environment,” said Steve Davis, vice president and general manager of Tampa Wholesale Nursery.

“Tampa Wholesale Nursery has been a leader, taking appropriate steps to protect the environment as well as being a good agri business,” said Hugh Gramling, executive director of Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers. “The reclaimed water project took a tremendous amount of personal effort, time and expense to be able to utilize that source of water to reduce groundwater pumping, which is a critical need in this area.”

Tampa Wholesale Nursery is a vigilant steward of the land, and constantly looks for ways to lessen the business's impact on the area.

"When you look around the nursery, we’re doing Best Management Practices that people haven’t done before,” said Kurt Johnson, nursery manager. “Mr. Davis designed the water recovery system and used reused lintels to make it work, to get the water back to the pond. They’re innovators, willing to try things. That’s really nice about working here at Tampa Wholesale.”

Tampa Wholesale Nursery’s efforts to recycle go beyond utilizing wastewater and collecting runoff. Damaged concrete lintels from a local manufacturer recovered by the nursery are used as the gutters that edge the beds. The lintels also serve as posts for frost protection.

The nursery mixes its own potting soil using pine bark and other byproducts of pulpwood mills as well as composted yard waste. The plastic pots are reused by the nursery, and it offers a credit to customers who return them, reducing solid waste that would normally go into the landfill.

Tampa Wholesale Nursery incorporates Best Management Practices throughout the operation, including Integrated Pest Management. Employees scout for pests and diseases on a routine basis and use spot treatments, reducing the use of pesticides.

The nursery’s reservoir attracts wildlife. Sandhill cranes and hawks often nest in the area. Great blue herons and egrets perch at the water’s edge.

Wading birds aren’t the only animals found here. Steve works hard to save injured wildlife and has been permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He cares for 80 to 120 animals each year.

“One of the things that I really love is my wildlife rehabilitation that we do here,” said Steve. “It’s been something that we started about 20 years ago. I do all the feeding and the flying and the work that goes into taking in injured animals and hopefully releasing them. We mostly do birds of prey. We have a couple of foxes. We have a bobcat. With the population that’s growing out in the rural areas, there’s more and more of those animals that have been pushed into areas that they end up getting into trouble, getting into somebody’s yard or something like that. It’s just a nice thing to do. It’s sort of my way of giving back to Mother Nature who’s provided a lot for us.”

Continued Steve: “It’s important for all of us to take care of the property that we have. Some people don’t understand that we live on our own property. We like and enjoy seeing the little snakes go through the grass and the birds come down and be able to eat out of our own ponds. We enjoy being able to do the right things for the environment and for our ground. Being good stewards is just all part of keeping nature around and being involved in keeping the environment healthy.” -- 2006


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