Geography, sociology professors part of multi-state effort to help greenhouse industry

November 13 2006

Greenhouses and other family-based agricultural operations can survive and prosper in an era of large corporate farms and big box retailers if they collaborate with one another and embrace business practices, according to professors at Indiana State University.

"By creating entrepreneurial farming practices, you can sustain and expand the historical family farm, but you have to be creative," said Jay Gatrell, associate professor of geography. "You have to develop and identify policies, practices and strategies that will allow family farms, broadly conceptualized and reconfigured for the 21st century, to compete against mega farms."

Gatrell and Tom Steiger, professor of sociology at Indiana State, are among 15 faculty members from four universities who are working with greenhouses in Ohio.

Primarily family-owned businesses and sole proprietorships, the greenhouses are not only facing increased competition from larger-scale corporate operations in Canada, but find their operating costs increasing as growing suburbs of such cities as Toledo encroach on what a few years ago was cheap, rural ground.

"These are places where farmers are being pressured because of higher taxes. In addition, a lot of growers are now selling to big box stores such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's, so the entire culture of their identities as growers has changed and the types of communities they're living in have changed," said Gatrell.

Family-owned operations tend to be located in rural areas, while larger corporate-owned entities are generally found in urban areas, he noted.

Gatrell has been charting the location of greenhouses and their competitors for three years of the four-year project; Steiger was brought in this year to help conduct focus groups.

His discussions with those groups revealed an understanding by those in the industry of the need to change practices that no longer make - or perhaps never made - economic sense, but also showed a reluctance to break with tradition.

"One of the guys who married into the business said some incredible things that he's worked out. He said, "We shouldn't be doing this, we know, but Dad would have a fit,'" Steiger said.

"They don't do cost accounting. They have no idea what it costs to make a plug chrysanthemum ready for market in a four-inch pot," Steiger explained. "They don't know how to do it. They don't have the standards. There's not enough known about the business and so they operate based on what they did last year. They only know if they're profitable at the end of the year if they have money in the bank."

The project, now in its fourth year, has led 40 greenhouses and suppliers in northwestern Ohio to turn to "cluster-based" economic development and establish a collaborative organization, or cluster, called Maumee Valley Growers, which serves as a support network for the industry.

Members of the cluster meet regularly to share information about best practices and develop a cooperative marketing campaign.

"We could use that same model in Indiana to develop networks of farmers to share information and techniques and to talk about ways in which they are changing their practices and becoming more competitive," Gatrell said. "On one level all growers are competitive but their overall sustainability depends upon everybody identifying their own niche."

In addition to Gatrell and Steiger, four graduate students in ISU's geography program worked on the project.

The Ohio greenhouse cluster initiative also involves faculty members from Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo, as well as the Michigan State University Extension Service. The project is funded through 2007 by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture administered by The Ohio State University Research Foundation.

Contact: Jay Gatrell, associate professor of geography, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2713 or jgatrell@isugw.indstate.edu ; or Tom Steiger, professor of sociology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3426 or tsteiger@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Two Indiana State University professors in the areas of geography and sociology are part of a multi-state project aimed at helping the greenhouse industry. The project has resulted in greenhouses in northwestern Ohio forming clusters in an effort to remain competitive in a changing industry and one ISU professor says that model could be used in Indiana.

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