Finding skilled labor is one of the biggest challenges in horticulture in North America, and therefore, having them is priceless. However, when they leave, the company is facing a huge challenge. Under sad circumstances, Wenke Greenhouses has been facing this challenge this pansy/viola plug season, as Wenke's lead plug grower, Taylor Dragicevich, sadly passed away unexpectedly at the end of May. In this article, Rose Oberholtzer, Director of Young Plant Production at Wenke Greenhouses, tells us more about this unusual season and how they eventually managed to produce one of their best pansy and viola crops in years.
But before diving into their challenging pansy/viola crop production, more about this nursery. Wenke Greenhouses is a large, family-owned, vertically integrated production greenhouse with four locations in Kalamazoo, MI, and a sister company in Douglas, GA. The company grows and sells flowers year-round, with their main crops being annual bedding plants and home-use vegetables. The fall pansy and viola crops are some of the most important crops in Wenke Greenhouse's fall plug program. "We have about an eight-week window where we are sowing anywhere between 1,000 to 3,000 plug trays of pansies and violas per week.'" Their young plant division supplies them to their finished division, where they are eventually sold to garden centers, landscapers, and the Kalamazoo Flower Group.
This season proved to be a very unusual one, as their lead plug grower passed away, Oberholtzer explains. "We are deeply saddened by Taylor's passing, we have not only lost a great person but also an amazing plug grower with a lot of knowledge and experience." For the company and pansy/viola plug season, this meant facing a huge challenge.
"The plug growing team, which consists of Ben Cramer, Regina Rapier, and myself, pulled together to produce the pansy/viola crop without Taylor and her experience. None of us had the experience of driving the boat, so to speak, of growing a pansy crop before. We also had the help of some well-known industry consultants, like Ron Derrig, Bill Argo, and Sonali Padhye, to make sure we were considering all the details as we were growing the crop. A local grower very experienced in pansy and viola production, Todd Trimestra, was also kind enough to lend his expertise and help guide us in a way we would not be able to without a lot of experience growing these crops. Without the effort of this team of amazing people to step up to the challenge, we would not have been able to produce the quality of pansy, and viola plugs that we have this season. I believe Taylor would have been proud of what we accomplished," says Oberholtzer.
Integration of plug and liner production into one location
Now, they are integrating the plug and liner production into one location, and they have recently hired someone into the Lead Plug Grower position. "We are excited to work with them and continue the positive progress we have been seeing this fall. Integrating plug and liner production into one facility has many benefits and several challenges. Many of the production and growing processes for plugs are similar to processes for liners, but there are a few differences as well. We will be working hard to ensure the transition goes smoothly so that our quality and efficiency just keep getting better."
Wenke Greenhouses also expanded recently. "We have added another four acres of double poly greenhouse to one of our locations and have moved our liner production to that location as well. We are currently growing most of our young plants at a single location, which is helpful for efficiency, cross-training, shipping, etc. We have found that the improved environment has very positively impacted our liner quality and are excited to see the changes that result from consolidating both plugs and liners into one location."
And their fall program will also become available to growers next year. "This season, the fall program is internal-only, but in 2024, they are opening the program to customers." And they are already experienced in supplying growers. "During the spring season, we already sell plugs and rooted liners to other growers through the broker networks."