Greenhouses tend to get a backup of plants when weather conditions worsen.
Photo courtesy of Anthony van Hoven

The greenhouses are overflowing with plants because the weather just took a turn for the worse and you’re not shipping, five of the 20 temps you hired just quit, and you’re wondering how you’re going to manage cash flow.

Sound familiar? Welcome to the spring rush in the greenhouse business.

“It’s hard for anyone outside our industry to appreciate what our spring is really like,” says John Casertano, vice president and general manager of Casertano’s Greenhouse & Farms, Inc., in Cheshire, Conn. “You’re growing things, so there are variables in that, and you’re in a very condensed shipping window. Plus, you’re a seasonal business trying to manage cash flow. All these different variables come crashing together very quickly for an intense period of time.”

Staying calm during the storm

With everything seemingly happening at once, how do people in this industry keep their cool?

“There are lots of things you can do to reduce the stress during this period,” says Casertano, whose company supplies mostly perennials and groundcovers to big box stores and other retail outlets along the East Coast. “Without a doubt, it’s all about planning, and for us, communication.” With a staff that doubles from 100 year-round employees to 200 during the peak season, he says it’s critical to maintain open lines of communication.

Greenhouse managers should hire crew leaders with an ability to read “social cues” and keep calm in stressful situations.
Photo courtesy of Anthony van Hoven

“Communication becomes key,” says Casertano. “You have to get information through this whole organization.” Initially, they try to pound out what the expectations are for the upcoming rush and even rehearse a few things. For instance, they may go through a scenario involving a new loading system with a crew leader and workers and try to forecast where there may be bottlenecks.

In addition to regular meetings the crew at Casertano’s makes use of technology to quickly touch base with each other and keep people informed of key decisions or changes in protocol. Because there simply isn’t time to get people together face to face during the rush of the season, email and texting become the preferred way to communicate.

“Email and texting have become important because you can hit a lot of people with different information,” says Casertano. “For example, if a decision needs to be made about inventory that affects everyone in the organization, we won’t hold a meeting, we’ll just send an email that explains the thinking behind it.” He says they can send this to several people. Texting, he says, is more personal where you only need to talk to one or two people. These are tools to not only keep things running smoothly but to keep everyone happy.

“The most challenging thing for sure is that all the frustrations of the managers are heard,” says Casertano. “And at times deciding whose frustration becomes top priority to avoid internal squabbling and to keep tempers from flaring, because under these conditions of extreme stress people get very testy.”

People can get stressed out quickly when everything is happening at once, he explains. For example, people may get pulled out of production to cover shipping, which adds to the stress for those folks in the greenhouses, not to mention the fact the crew has been working at breakneck speed for several days.

“My job is to prioritize and sometimes these meetings happen when people are pretty tired,” says Casertano. He says what he tries to do is to point out to staff what their immediate priority should be so they don’t get so frustrated that they become unproductive.

One of the proactive things greenhouse managers can do is to hire crew leaders with the right temperament. Casertano says he looks for certain qualities in crew leaders. Those qualities include being able to read “social cues” and keep their cool in stressful situations.

“When you manage people, you need to have the ability to be likeable yet command some respect, and discipline people where necessary — bring calm to a situation rather than being the one who creates hysteria,” he says. “The qualities we look for are really personality skills, not job skills.”

Keeping a positive attitude

Spring is no less hectic at Battlefield Farms, Inc., in Rapidan, Va., which consists of 45 acres of covered production and 20 acres outside. The workers at this family-owned business are busy in the spring growing and shipping annuals to grocery stores like Kroger and perennials to Lowe’s.

At Battlefield Farms, they try to get their ducks in a row before the spring rush begins and then deal with staff in a way that will help keep stress at a minimum so the job gets done.

“I’m a big believer in planning and strategizing,” says Anthony van Hoven, president and co-owner of Battlefield. He says dealing with live product always presents challenges due to weather and potential crop problems.

Dealing with live, perishable products presents its own set of unique challenges.
Photo courtesy of Anthony van Hoven

“If we have everything planned — our inventory here, labor, all this stuff — it makes us able to handle unexpected challenges that come up,” he says.

Van Hoven says they have weekly managers meetings and go over everyone’s workload — production, shipping, maintenance and logistics — and see where they’re at and how they’re going to finish out the week. Then they’ll look ahead to the following week and try to map out a plan to keep things running smoothly. Invariably, things do go wrong. Van Hoven, who started in this business at a young age, says the best way to handle a stressful situation is to lead by example.

“It benefits nobody to show anger, or to look like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, because everyone under you will feed off that,” he says. “Attitude is a big thing here, to maintain a positive attitude.”

At the same time, he says it may be necessary to adjust a person’s workload if they look like they’re overwhelmed.

“Yes, it can get challenging, but we can handle it together,” is the message van Hoven tries to convey to his staff. “No one is on an island, we can all pull together, stay calm and we can work it out.”

Finding people who are up to the challenge

The spring rush starts in March for Doug Thorsen at Thorsen’s Greenhouse, in Delaware, Ohio. Thorsen’s ship cold hardy pansies and bulbs early in the season for gardeners who can’t wait to get their hands in the soil. They also grow a nice selection of foliage and blooming plants for indoor gardeners, which they supply to the floral trade statewide and sell from their retail store, the Garden Mart.

“You go from planting to planting and pulling so it gets to be a lot,” says Thorsen. Thorsen’s has a full-time crew of 22 people and increases up to 65 by Mother’s Day. To get enough workers to cover the spring rush they advertise for workers via an email campaign and a sign they post out by the road, but invariably they need to turn to a temp service.

“We go through a temporary service for laborers and delivery drivers,” says Thorsen. He says they generally have good luck with the temp service, but some find they’re not cut out for this type of work and quit.

“We tell them what the physical demands are going to be,” says Thorsen.

To keep things running smoothly and people from bickering, Thorsen maps out production on a weekly basis so they can plan accordingly. If it looks like they may fall behind, he’ll have his workers come in on a Saturday. He adds that they have regular meetings to see how everyone is doing and each month they treat the workers to a lunch and let them know they’re doing a good job. He says the full-time employees at Thorsen’s mentor the newbies to “help them feel comfortable and let them know they are contributing to the business.”

Keeping your cool during the spring rush in the greenhouse really boils down to advanced preparation and a positive attitude with employees.

“People just can’t prepare enough, says Clint Albin, president at Clint Albin Consulting. “The last thing people need to be doing when you have 21 trucks a day is to have that meeting you should have had in January.” He suggests greenhouse operators examine what went wrong and what went right just after the spring rush is over while it is still fresh in their minds.

As for attitude, van Hoven says it’s about mindset.

“You can wake up every day and decide to look at things positively or negatively,” he says. “We really try to show these guys we’ve got to take a positive approach and accept the challenges that might come our way.”

Neil is a horticulturist and freelance writer who has experienced the challenges of the spring rush in a commercial greenhouse. greenindustrywriter.com