Although he loves being surrounded by plants, Marco (Marc) Verdel knows the key to being a successful head grower is surrounding himself with the right people. As important as plant knowledge is in his role as director of horticulture at Battlefield Farms, Inc., Verdel credits his mentors and colleagues who have influenced his horticulture journey.
“There’s a lot of people that made a difference in my career,” he says. “These people are instrumental in driving me forward and keeping me interested in this business. I’m hoping that other growers have people like that, and I’m hoping that I can be that person for somebody else.”
Here’s how Verdel takes a team approach to growing plants and improving processes at Battlefield Farms.
Leaning on others
Growing up in the Netherlands, where his father was part-owner of a local greenhouse in Aalsmeer, Verdel worked with plants as a kid “just to make some extra money,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d ever get into the business, because all I ever saw my father do was work, and I thought, ‘That’s not for me.’ But I found out that I really liked it, and now I don’t even look at it as work.”
Verdel earned a two-year horticulture degree in Holland, which exposed him to various aspects of the industry — from cut flowers to potted plants to propagation. After graduating, Verdel wanted to “see more of the world,” so he came to the U.S. as an exchange student. He ended up working at a small greenhouse in Virginia, “and never looked back after that,” he says. “At that point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
In October 1991, Verdel joined the team at Battlefield Farms in Rapidan, Virginia, as an assistant to the head plug grower. After just a few years, when the grower left for another job opportunity, company founder Jerry van Hoven asked Verdel to take on the head grower role.
“My mindset was that I had to know exactly how to do everything, but Jerry told me that you don’t have to know it all, as long as you have good people around you,” says Verdel. “I’m forever thankful to him for that lesson. Even with the responsibilities I have today, I don’t have to know everything, because I’ve got people in the greenhouse who know a lot more than I do.”
For example, Verdel’s team includes people like Jeff Ross, Rogelio Meza and Maricela Hernandez Ortiz, who each have between 20 and 30 years of growing experience at Battlefield Farms. “They know the nuances of each section, and they go the extra mile to grow high-quality crops,” Verdel says. “This kind of loyalty and work ethic is hard to come by, and it’s taught me the importance of having reliable employees on your team. You can’t learn to be a good grower overnight, but we’ve been successful by working together and learning from one another.”
When Verdel started working at Battlefield Farms, the operation consisted of about six and a half acres. In the nearly 30 years since then, the company has expanded to 45 acres of covered production and nearly 30 acres of outdoor growing space.
In that time, the facilities have also evolved with state-of-the-art automation — they’ve gone from hand-watering and manual planting to boom watering, flood floors and automated transplanting machines. The company recently received its first cutting and sticking robots to add even more efficiency.
With a diverse product line that spans annuals, perennials, potted holiday crops and bulbs, Verdel is always exploring new ways to maximize plant yield and minimize losses.
“I spend a lot of time with young plants, making notes on things that we need to improve or change — what needs to be done better, faster or easier,” he says. “I’m focused on reducing losses, especially on higher-value crops that start from tissue culture. If you can save a percent there, that’s a lot of money.”
Several years ago, for example, Verdel worked closely with Battlefield Farms’ research and development manager to trial LED lights for tissue culture propagation. The initial trials exceeded his expectations—improving “transplant timing, labor efficiency, and overall root and shoot quality,” he says, and decreasing losses by nearly 33%. Now, he says, Battlefield Farms hardens off tissue culture in an LED-lit cooler that turns transplants at least eight times a year.
Every week, while walking the crops and meeting with his team of five growers and their assistants, plus other plant experts specialized in MPS and IPM, Verdel is constantly looking ahead to improve the operation.
“As new technologies, genetics and growing methods come along, I’m always willing to adapt and do things differently,” he says. “There’s always something new, so if you can’t handle change as a grower, you’re in the wrong business.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.