In Full Bloom—Entrepreneur Sees Business Blossom
Just a mile outside the gates of Mobile County’s world-famous Bellingrath Gardens stands a business that–like its glorious neighbor–is a vibrant, living monument to the entrepreneurial spirit.At first glance, passersby might not think the 5.5 acres of greenhouses that make up Shore Acres Plant Farm have much in common with the sprawling gardens. But those who have the privilege of spending a few minutes with owner Oliver Washington III, soon realize he possesses the same business savvy and passion for flowers that gave birth to the Bellingrath estate.”The joy (of this business), for me, is watching plants grow,” said Washington as he strolled through his greenhouses, pausing to direct workers and answer phone calls from customers. “I like growing new plants and seeing people’s reaction when they have success with their plants. And, I like spreading the gospel of gardening and its therapeutic value.”For Washington, floriculture is a ministry that began almost three decades ago. His dream of one day owning a successful greenhouse operation, however, first took root at a small nursery that his father and grandfather started from the back of a pickup truck. “Before the war, my father worked at Flowerwood Nursery. That’s where the idea started,” Washington recalled. “When he came back from serving in the Merchant Marines, he started a backyard nursery in Mobile. He was the first licensed black nurseryman in the state.”Each spring, he rented this property (near Bellingrath Gardens) and set up a roadside stand,” Washington added. “Before first-grade, I remember sitting out here with my grandmother and mother selling azaleas and camellias. That’s what got me interested in plants and motivated me to get a horticulture degree.”After earning a bachelor’s degree from Alabama A&M University in 1974 and a master’s in ornamental horticulture from The University of Florida the following year, Washington flirted with the idea of pursuing a doctorate. But his love of production agriculture drew him back home to Mobile County. By then, his father and grandfather–exercising great foresight–had purchased the property where they operated their roadside stand for 20 years.Washington took a job with the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s Ornamental Horticulture Substation in Mobile, and a short time later, began work on his first greenhouse. For the next two years, the young entrepreneur made steady progress establishing his new business. Then, disaster struck, forcing him to start from scratch a second time.”I left (the Experiment Station) in January of 1978 and built six greenhouses,” Washington recalled. “I had a good spring, built more greenhouses and had another good spring. Then on Sept. 12, 1979, Hurricane Frederic hit Mobile. That night, everything was flattened. “It was sort of like a second beginning,” Washington said. “I was able to get a disaster loan from SBA (the Small Business Administration) and rebuild. And, I was back in business by the spring of 1980.”Although Washington prays he never sees another storm of Frederic’s magnitude, the seasoned horticulturist said he learned from that experience. Prior to Frederic, he had been told he couldn’t get insurance for his greenhouses. After rebuilding, he discovered that insurance was, in fact, available–provided the greenhouses were certified to withstand hurricane-force winds.In the years since Frederic, Shore Acres Plant Farm has been buffeted by storms on more than one occasion, but thanks to the tenacity of its owner, the business has stood strong. Today, Washington and his son, Oliver IV, produce more than 400 species of plants for customers throughout Alabama, eastern Mississippi and northern Florida. In addition to the complex of greenhouses, they have 12 acres of fields where they raise one-gallon perennials.”Something is always in bloom here,” said Oliver IV, 30. From fiery poinsettias at Christmas, to dazzling marigolds and begonias in the spring, to brilliant mums and pansies in the fall, there is seldom a time when Shore Acres Plant Farm is not awash in color. Consequently, there are few days when you won’t find at least one of the Washington men busy answering calls, filling orders and supervising their 25 year-round and 15 seasonal employees.”I would say what makes our business unique is customer service,” said Washington. “We are open seven days a week, and we deliver small orders as willingly as we do for large chain stores. We try to have not more than a two-day turnaround from the time the order is placed until delivery.”The Washingtons own their own shipping fleet, which includes three tractor-trailers and two straight trucks. This allows them to meet the needs of large clients like Wal-Mart as well as small, “mom-and-pop” operations within 350 miles of the plant farm. They also still get some walk-in business from tourists who visit nearby Bellingrath Gardens.”We try to survive by doing a mixture of business,” said Washington. “We work with independent stores and garden centers and try to help them be successful in their locations.”Oliver IV, who followed in his father’s footsteps by earning a degree in horticulture from Alabama A&M University in 1998, attributes much of the plant farm’s success to its loyal customer base and recent growth in the housing market.”We’ve made good alliances with our customers, and many of them come back year after year,” he said. “As building has increased, we’ve seen our business improve because people want something pretty to look at when they come home. Flowers just make people happy.”With his father’s encouragement, Oliver IV worked at some of the nation’s largest greenhouse operations after college, before returning to Shore Acres. Today, he manages the labor force and oversees various aspects of production.One of the biggest challenges he faces is finding employees who are willing to work. Shore Acres employs migrant laborers through the H-2A guestworker program. Oliver IV said the company has been able to hire the same team of workers for the last four years, which has alleviated many of their headaches. “It is hard to find local people who are willing to work 40 hours a week in a hot greenhouse,” he said. “I’m about 40 percent lingual in Spanish, which helps, but I hope to become more fluent.”From a production standpoint, the Washingtons control the quality of their products by mixing their own potting soil and selecting genetically superior varieties. They blend pine bark, peat moss, vermiculite, lime, fertilizer and other ingredients in a continuous soil mixer, which produces a nutrient-rich potting mix with a high water-holding capacity. Shore Acres Plant Farm also was one of the first greenhouse operations in south Alabama to market new hybrid varieties of plants that bear the label “Proven Winners.” These plants are developed and tested by an international marketing cooperative comprised of respected plant propagators who scour the globe in search of colorful, fast-growing plants that will perform well for both growers and consumers.The elder Washington’s willingness to explore the cutting edge of the floriculture industry, has earned him the respect of his peers as well as his customers. It’s not uncommon for landscape designers to seek his input when selecting plants for a home, business or even a display at Mobile’s famous Festival of Flowers. He also serves on the board of directors of Mobile Botanical Gardens, and recently, the Alabama Senate confirmed his appointment to Alabama A&M University’s Board of Trustees.For Washington, however, the true rewards of his chosen career are not the accolades he’s received or even the success his business has enjoyed. Almost 30 years after building his first greenhouse, the avid gardener still enjoys the simple pleasure of planting a seed and watching it mature into a beautiful flower. In much the same way, he enjoys seeing young people he’s mentored blossom into successful adults.”Over the years, it’s been rewarding to be able to inspire teenagers to go into horticulture-related fields,” he said. “I try to introduce African-American kids to the field of agriculture and get rid of the stigma that it’s all row crop production. I want them to know that there’s a whole other side to agriculture that includes horticulture, the Cooperative Extension Service and other careers they have traditionally not gone into.”Shore Acres Plant Farm raises more than 400 species of plants from pansies and
poinsettias to petunias and perennials. For more information, call (251) 973-1602.