Opening as an apple orchard in the late 1980’s, Carbondale, Illinois-based McNitt Growers has since adapted with the times. After transitioning to peaches to bedding plants to vegetables to wine grapes, the grower has found that it excels markedly in strawberry production.
“We started doing the strawberries about 12 to 15 years ago, and that market has grown from about 20,000 plants to this year about 1.8 million,” says owner Andy McNitt. “It’s really taken off.”
In 2017, McNitt Growers sold strawberries to 23 states. Primarily, customers are located within 120 miles from home, in Illinois, as well as the neighboring states of Indiana and Missouri.
McNitt Growers produces strawberries within 2 acres outside, and when it runs out of room, it moves the overflow into some of the greenhouses that make up its acre and a half of undercover production area.
However, not all the grower’s expansion efforts are geared toward strawberry production for sales. “I have a few blackberries for fruit, and then we’ll fruit a few strawberries as a test plot to test different theories or new varieties,” Andy says. “This year we’re going to start custom-growing some perennials for a guy.” These perennials will be bare-root and mostly natives.
In 1987, Andy’s parents, Martin and Dolores, bought the farm. In the early 1990’s, the family added peaches and put up their first greenhouse, where they produced spring bedding plants. Then, they transitioned into mums and vegetables. For a few years, they grew 60 acres of vegetables.
In 1994, Andy’s brother, head grower Bill McNitt, returned from service in the U.S. Army to help on the farm and to attend college. “We added a few more buildings in, in about ’98, ’99, and we really started to grow at that point, from 10,000 square feet to slightly over an acre and a half now,” Andy says. “We stopped doing the vegetables — we got totally out of the peaches, apples and vegetables.”
For the past 17 years, McNitt Growers had a grape vineyard. But in 2017, for the first year, the family didn’t grow grapes. “They’re a distraction for us,” Andy says.
Between 1998 and 2009, Andy worked full-time for Hummert International, a horticultural supply distributor. “One of my customers asked me to see if I couldn’t get my parents to grow some strawberries for him,” he says. “We started doing that, and that’s just blown up here.” In 2009, Andy bought the business from his parents.
As many business decisions are income-based, so was McNitt Growers’ decision to continue to innovate and branch into different areas. “We weren’t a big enough apple grower to feed the family, and then as we messed with the trees for a few years, we noticed that just wasn’t an interest of any of ours,” Andy says. The field-grown vegetables yielded quick turns and provided the operation with a substantial amount of money. Then, the greenhouse created even stronger growth.
To resolve disease issues that many greenhouses are bound to run into, McNitt Growers works with OHP, uses the company’s products and helps OHP run trials. When Andy or Bill — McNitt Growers’ only full-time employees — have questions, they will call OHP to help guide them and point them in the right direction. Sometimes that direction is toward plant pathologist Dr. Ann Chase.
McNitt Growers has battled Phytophthora, Anthracnose and Pythium, as well as weeds, and OHP has been there through the process. “We helped them work with [herbicide] Marengo before it was released, and that really cut down on our weed pressure on the whole farm,” Andy says.
The grower has found success with several other OHP products, including fungicide Segway O, biofungicide Triathlon BA, insecticide Discus Tablets and insect growth regulator Fulcrum.
OHP’s approach to combatting disease and pest issues has changed over the years, and McNitt Growers’ approach has also changed. “We’ve evolved from being mostly chemicals to experimenting with biological insects, as well as biological chemicals,” he says.
Continuing to evolve
Through education and networking, McNitt Growers is still looking for ways to build its business.
A couple years ago, Andy took the Executive Academy for Growth & Leadership (EAGL) program, a collaboration between, Dr. Charlie Hall, Ellison Chair for International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, Kip Creel of StandPoint and Kellee Magee O’Reilly of MonkeyBar Management. “You work on strategic planning and marketing and finances, and all of those good core business practices,” Andy says. “That’s been a big shot in the arm to keep the business moving forward and evolving to become more profitable and a better, sound business.”
The grower also regularly attends industry events such as the Great Lakes Expo in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cultivate in Columbus, Ohio, formerly the OFA Short Course. Bill has attended Cultivate/the OFA Short Course every year for more than two decades.
“We’re still learning and evolving and trying to be the best that we can be, so that always means continuing education and continuing to look at options,” Andy says.
— Patrick Williams