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US: EPC leadership class gains field experience in New Jersey

The fifth Eastern Produce Council (EPC) Leadership Class had a chance to get their boots on the ground at Hionis Greenhouses in Whitehouse Station, NJ, and the Clifford E. and Melda C. Snyder Research and Extension Farm at Rutgers University located near Pittstown, NJ, on October 3 as part of the ongoing EPC leadership education program.

Tim Hionis, co-owner of Hionis Greenhouses, provided a thorough tour of the operation’s main greenhouses, currently overflowing with mums, fall ornamentals, and Christmas poinsettias. “We are currently in the middle of fall mum season,” Hionis told the group. “We grow about half a million mums per year.”

The operation was founded by Hionis’ father and mother (Spiro and Angie) three decades ago and is now run by Hionis and his three brothers (Pete, Spiro, and Gerry). “We currently have two locations totaling 15 acres under cover and 65 open fields, and we’re expanding another four acres of hoop houses,” says Hionis. “We’ve also been investing in more automation technology. This doesn’t replace labor but allows us to use our valuable labor in other areas.”

Jessica Sarter, Regional Account Manager at Pulmuone Foods, related gaining a new appreciation for ornamental products making it to the retail venue. “Often, at the end of the supply chain, you don’t really consider everything it’s taken to get it there,” she said. “From getting seeds to root to placing them in pots, to the growth that has to happen in unpredictable weather conditions - it’s helpful to see first-hand all that goes into the product at this level.”

The second leg of the day included a visit to the 390-acre Rutgers Snyder Research and Extension Farm. Peter Nitzsche, Morris County Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent, toured the class around the farm in a wagon ride, explaining the research projects underway. “Our goal here is to research and demonstrate innovative practices for growers,” he said. “We currently have 120 cultivated acres, which include a variety of projects from looking at butternut squash yields to an agrivoltaics project to determine the feasibility of growing crops between solar farm panels.”

Megan Muehlbauer, Hunterdon County Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent explained her current hazelnut project to the class, as well as several ongoing apple variety trials. The group enjoyed picking some Macoun apples to sample and take home. “The farm tour showed various aspects of production affecting growing plants and different species,” said Max Pozzessere, Regional Sales Manager with Little Leaf Farms. “It was interesting to learn about different diseases and how the researchers are working to mitigate them, particularly how the research continues to be an evolving cycle because of the nature of the diseases.”

“These field experiences add so much to professional development because our participants are exposed to unique areas of the industry they may not encounter in their daily work,” said Susan McAleavey Sarlund, EPC Executive Director. “In addition to our classroom and conference activities, getting out into actual production and research facilities adds another layer of industry understanding.”

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