Title: 2007 Ag-Environmental: Fraleigh Nursery
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Jay Fraleigh: “This family farm has been around for a very long time. And it’s certainly dear to our hearts. So the history here runs deep with my grandfather and father, who all farmed it. And now I’ve got the opportunity to do it and be the steward that they were prior to me.”
Jay Fraleigh is the sixth generation of his family to farm these rolling hills of north Florida. While the family traditionally planted shade tobacco, cotton and row crops, Fraleigh has taken the operation in a new direction, by converting it to a nursery.
Though he grew up on the farm, he left to work throughout the Southeast for a large corporate nursery. After years of managing production and construction of new facilities, Fraleigh realized he could build and run a more efficient nursery for himself. This would also give him the opportunity to fulfill his dream -- to move back to the family farm in Madison where he was born and raised -- and build the nursery there.
In 1999 Jay and his wife, Donna founded Fraleigh Nursery. Their sons, Russell and Lane, are growing up on the farm and help out in the fields in the summer. But the nursery is anything but traditional. Jay created Gro-Eco, a system of growing that not only cuts water use by 80 percent, it eliminates irrigation runoff and produces healthier plants.
Jay Fraleigh: “Well, the concept for Gro-Eco came about, basically, out of necessity. I wanted to try to create production in a fashion that wouldn’t require all of the upfront costs that I was presently used to… with building the retention ponds, culverts, ditches, and all the construction that came in with building a larger facility.”
“And as we played with it and tinkered with the idea, slowly but surely, Gro-Eco evolved into the raised-bed technology that uses a lot of the techniques that the vegetable growers today use.”
Because the technology doesn’t require the infrastructure to store runoff, estimates put the construction costs for the Gro-Eco system at 40 to 50 percent lower than a conventional nursery.
Using a high-lift tractor, raised beds are prepared on row-crop land and covered with weed cloth. A drip tube, placed in the center of the bed under the cloth, moistens the soil keeping the roots cool in summer and warm in the winter. Many varieties of plants get extremely stressed when temperatures reach 100 degrees. Moistening the soil keeps the plants healthy, and with the Gro-Eco system many varieties of plants grow faster -- in about 2/3 of the time as in conventional nurseries. It also cuts down on the amount of irrigation each pot needs.
Jay Fraleigh: “When we’re able to keep plant material in a more natural setting through the raised bed and the cooling of the root system, then obviously, we’re keeping a plant vigorous for a longer period of time and fresher. And when you can keep that plant fresh and vigorous throughout a growing season, you’re only going to produce a higher- quality plant…”
“And certainly some of the things that we deal with the northern part of Florida, the freezes of ’83 and ’85 dictate how we do winter protection now. And one of the big advantages is we’re able to pump water into this raised bed and actually keep the roots at a temperature of 40 degrees or above. And that creates a great thermal barrier and protection for the plant material.”
From the development of new equipment to the modification of the process, Fraleigh is continually refining the system. He has designed and modified everything from simple tools to complex tractors. One such tool is a jig that makes uniformly sized and spaced holes in the weed cloth. The size of the hole and the sockets dug into the bed match the size of the pots, which range from 1 to 15 gallons. These sockets create a thermal barrier for the plant that’s much like its natural state -- growing in the ground.
In a traditional nursery setting, a hard rain or gusty wind frequently blows pots over requiring workers to reset them. Gro-Eco’s pot-in-socket design secures the plant in the bed eliminating that possibility. In a nursery this size, that translates to a substantial savings in labor. Overall, the Gro-Eco system is less labor intensive so Fraleigh sees up to a 30 percent reduction in operating costs.
Jay Fraleigh: “We’re actually doing all the potting out in the field. We took gravity-feed trailers and fabricated them in a way we could actually straddle the beds and do all our production in the field, rather than having a central potting location where there’s multiple tractors and many, many wagons and a lot of people that have to move product back and forth.”
“Gro-Eco eliminates a lot of this handling. Basically, you’re planting it at one time, and the next time, you physically pick up to move it, it’s to go to sell.”
Conveyor belts, taken from a stationary potting machine, were reconfigured and attached to the wagon, reaching across the beds to cover more area, thus saving even more labor.
To replenish its inventory, the nursery uses cuttings from its own stock which are rooted and grown in greenhouses for about 3 months. Mark Jones, manager of production and propagation, assures the plants’ health and quality before they’re taken to the field to be planted. The planter has been customized with shelving that holds the flats of young plants. Extra seats have been added to allow for more efficient planting.
In a traditional overhead irrigation system only a small percentage of the water hits its intended target -- the pot. Of that, only 13 to 20 percent is retained by the plant for growth. The rest becomes runoff or evaporation. Gro-Eco’s irrigation method is considerably different.
Jay Fraleigh: “The uniqueness is how efficient it is in the water use. We’re able now to reduce the watering of container plant material by as much as 80 to 85 percent with no waste. The exciting thing that we’re finding out how little of water it really takes to grow a quality plant. And right now, we’re as much as 1.2 and 1.6 quarts of water a day, and that’s it. It’s going to be interesting to find out in the year to come really how little of water it does take to grow a viable plant.”
At the heart of the operation is a computer controlling a low-pressure pumping system that delivers water and, when necessary, fertilizer through a drip tape to precise areas of the beds.
Each block is divided into small zones that are individually controlled, addressing the plant’s nourishment needs based on its age and variety. The high-tech system waters the specific area for 10 to 20 minutes, supplying only the amount the plant is able to use. Besides conserving water, irrigation time is reduced by 75 percent and greatly decreases electricity consumption.
The drip tape applies water directly to the base of the plant leaving the plant tops dry, reducing the risk of fungal diseases, thus the amount of fungicides used. The plants are healthier -- and so is the environment.
Since the system precisely delivers such a small amount of nutrition to the plants, water and fertilizer runoff, as well as nitrogen leaching, has been eliminated. Water quality is protected, and the nursery has been able to substantially reduce its chemical usage.
Jay Fraleigh: “The State of Florida has now adopted Best Management Practices, things that help us to do growing practices that help reduce nitrate runoff, reduce irrigation runoff, and being more efficient with our fertilizers and pesticide. And we found that we’re actually even as much or more efficient than the Best Management Practices now are asking us to be. And that’s exciting to us.”
This is an exciting time for the nursery and Gro-Eco. Ornamental plant production is the fastest-growing agricultural sector in the United States, and Florida is the second-largest producer of nursery plants. While Fraleigh Nursery’s primary customers in the Southeast are re-wholesalers, Dave Hutsell who manages sales and marketing, also deals with large landscape contractors and independent garden centers. Jay’s wife, Donna, manages the office of the briskly growing company, allowing Jay to focus on production and construction. Despite his intense workload, he serves on the Florida Farm Bureau State Ornamental Horticulture Advisory Committee, and the board of directors for the Madison County Farm Bureau.
This involvement enables him to share the conservation benefits that his Gro-Eco system can offer to the greater agricultural community.
Jay Fraleigh: “That’s the simplicity of Gro-Eco and what it brings to the table. It brings the ability to produce quality plant material with high efficiency and high economic savings, along with the environmental positives that it brings with it. And those two, as I’ve said earlier, very rarely come together. We’re obviously trying to produce environmentally friendly products and bring them to the consumer, as our consumer is becoming more aware of what impact environmental sustainability is having, not only on our water, but our environment around us.”