With nearly 45 years in the horticulture industry, Mark Clemmons has watched the plant business evolve as new competitors, cultivars and technologies entered the marketplace. By adjusting to these constant changes and challenges, Clemmons grew through the decades.
“If you can’t adapt to change, you’re not going to make it as a grower,” says Clemmons, who shifted into horticulture early in his career. After earning a biology degree in 1972, he spent several years working for a pharmaceutical company before a friend recruited him to join Nortex Wholesale Nurseries.
Clemmons instantly fell in love with the industry and went into business with a couple partners to open two garden centers with a landscaping division. After several years, he sold his shares and started a nursery with his brother called Clemmons Lawn and Garden. They ran the business for about 10 years — until big-box retailers started moving to town in the mid-90s.
“The family business ended up succumbing to the chain stores. My thought was, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Clemmons says. He went to one of his suppliers — a small startup called Seville Farms — and asked if they were hiring. Thankfully, they were, and the rest is history. He has led Seville’s growing operation ever since.
Open to change
Since joining Seville about 25 years ago, Clemmons’ responsibilities have shifted drastically. “I used to inspect every one of our facilities as head grower, but now we have regional growers that help me look over each location,” says Clemmons, who turned 70 this year. “As we continued to grow and build other facilities, my role became coordinating the production efforts to keep everyone within the same methodology, so we could duplicate quality product everywhere.”
Now, as regional head grower, Clemmons still walks a couple of Seville’s seven production facilities — which total 8 million square feet across the state — but now he relies on head growers at each site to oversee individual crops. Most of Clemmons’ time is spent using photos and Facetime to help growers diagnose issues remotely.
Through the years, Clemmons documented successful growing recipes for Seville’s major crops, but with 1,700 cultivars, one man simply cannot dictate every detail for each plant. So, Clemmons relies on his team of growers to innovate new ways to meet the changing expectations of customers that include big-box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, and large grocery chains like Kroger.
“The older you get, the more you realize that you don’t know everything,” Clemmons says. “Any grower will tell you that there’s more than one way to get a beautiful product. It is not for me to tell my growers, ‘You have to do it this way,’ but rather, ‘Show me a better way.’ You have to be open to change if you want to have the best techniques.”
Back to school
To create a forum for growers to learn new techniques and share best practices, the company launched Seville University about three years ago. Leading up to this annual training summit, Clemmons polls Seville’s growers about the topics they want to learn more about, and then invites industry experts to speak on these issues during a two-day seminar.
Guest speakers have included Raymond Cloyd and Ann Chase, as well as Will Healy and Todd Cavins of Ball Horticultural, and Jan Couch and Nancy Rechcigl from Syngenta. “It’s not what you know, as much as who you know to get information when you have a problem,” Clemmons says. “It’s so valuable to have personal relationships with these people, and we could not do what we’re doing without the help of our industry partners.”
Of course, Seville University looked a little different this year when the company met at the end of June. “Because of COVID, we couldn’t bring 30 growers together or have people come to us, so we did Zoom meetings instead,” Clemmons says. “Zoom meetings may be the way of the future, because we were able to share presentations remotely and allow the growers to chat and share feedback, just like always.”
Passing down passion
Although Clemmons wants to be remembered as “a true plantsman” who helped advance the greenhouse industry, he admits that his role at Seville Farms over the last decade has become more focused on people than plants.
“You can’t be a good manager or teacher unless you enjoy people as much as you enjoy plants,” says Clemmons, who shares his plant passion with the next generation as he nears retirement.
“If you don’t love what you’re doing, go do something else, because if you don’t, it’s going to be a chore,” he says.“Working every day in his industry has never been a chore for me; it’s been a pleasure.”