Green Industry Growers Sharpen Skill Set On Florida Tour
By Marlee Moore
Green industry farmers crisscrossed south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle June 22-23, leaning into lessons about logistics, labor and the importance of farm-friendly legislation.
The Alabama Farmers Federation Greenhouse, Nursery & Sod (GNS) Division coordinated the educational tour, which replaced spring Commodity Organization Meeting workshops. The tour, held in the heat of summer, hit a lull for many greenhouse, nursery and sod farmers, including Ashley Driskell Morgan.
“I learned some new things at each of the stops, particularly the University of Florida (UF) Turf Unit, and will be able to integrate aspects into our business,” said Morgan, whose family farms in Mobile County. “With having a family business, it’s hard to take off for a long time, so the short tour was ideal.”
A seminar with Alabama Extension’s Dr. Jeremy Pickens kicked off the two-day event. The next day, the group visited Flowerwood Nursery in Loxley, Alabama, which propagates 4 million Encore azaleas annually, in addition to other container plants.
Flowerwood CEO Ellis Ollinger serves on the Federation’s State GNS Committee and gave growers insight into Flowerwood’s fusion of modern technology and hands-on labor.
“Right now, we’re working on ergonomics to not necessarily make the job faster but easier for our employees,” Ollinger said.
Sod took center stage at UF’s West Florida Research and Education Center Turf Unit — a former corn field that’s now the largest turf research facility in the Southeast. Associate Center Director Bryan Unruh told Alabama farmers that battling environmental activists while implementing best management practices (BMPs) for the state’s thousand-plus golf courses is a hefty issue for Florida turf growers.
“We have 110 fertilizer restricted ordinances,” Unruh said. “Restrictive ordinances really pertain to landscapes and thankfully haven’t gone over to the golf course yet. I don’t know how I could manage a golf course without fertilizing May-October. If you can’t feed something in the warm season, it’s not going to do too well.”
Unruh highlighted the importance of passing legislation to educate the public on BMPs, noting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law just days earlier highlighting that point.
During a tour of the Turf Unit in Milton, Florida, farmers saw technology in action, including thermal imagers recording data, soil moisture monitors and projects analyzing nutrient disturbance.
Just a few miles from the Turf Unit, the group learned about wholesale tree production at Panhandle Growers, while a pitstop at the Pensacola Oyster Cluster microhatchery showcased farmers problem-solving another logistical puzzle — a bottlenecked supply chain of seedstock to oyster farms.
Federation GNS Division Director Blake Thaxton said the tour had two goals: help farmers improve growing methods and, ultimately, their bottom lines, while increasing camaraderie among growers.
“The feedback we’ve received from this tour has been excellent,” Thaxton said. “Everyone really enjoyed visiting with and learning from each other, and each stop had unique insights that will help Alabama farmers continue to improve their operations while growing exceptional products.”