THE GREENHOUSE industry in the Toledo area is highly competitive, with more than 80 in Lucas County and nearby counties selling flowers and vegetable plants locally and to garden stores and big-box retailers in several states.
But greenhouse operators are learning to cooperate with each other too. “We all pretty much work together,” said Larry Ohlman, president of Ohlman Farm & Greenhouse Inc., a large greenhouse on Hill Avenue that has 10 acres of growing area under plastic. “We trade back and forth and supply products to each other.”
For the last five years, area greenhouses have shared resources and knowledge under the umbrella of Maumee Valley Growers, aided by a federal dollars.
“It has definitely helped, especially on advertising,” said Greg Barrow, who manages Barrow's Greenhouse, a 118-year-old fifth-generation family business, with 1.3 acres of growing area on Northwood Avenue near Toledo Hospital.
The growers' group, which sponsors cooperative ads to promote local products, stemmed from a project begun seven years ago by two area professors — geographer Neil Reid at the University of Toledo and economist Michael Carroll at Bowling Green State University. They used grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A study they did found Lucas County ranking in the top 5 percent of counties nationally in terms of greenhouse output.
The growers' association in part resulted in area greenhouses receiving more than $5 million in federal funding, funneled largely through UT, said Frank Calzonetti, UT's vice president for research and economic development.
And the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service, he said, has spent nearly $14 million on greenhouse and hydroponic research in this region and has committed $11 million so far on what may someday become a $25 million research facility at UT that will include a greenhouse-research center.
Mr. Reid and Mr. Carroll studied the area's greenhouse industry in 2004 and found 82 greenhouses in Toledo's four-county metro area (Lucas, Wood, Fulton, and Ottawa counties) plus Erie County, contributing nearly $100 million annually to the regional economy. Their study showed that the greenhouses employed 440 directly and an additional 320 indirectly.
Of the greenhouses, more than 30 are in Lucas County alone, including 14 inside Toledo's city limits.
Still, area growers face challenges, including high energy costs, competition from other regions (particularly southern Ontario), and the constant need to upgrade technology. An example of how technology has changed in recent decades is the use of “soil-less media” to replace dirt. Growers use varying mixes of peat moss, sand, tree bark, and minerals.
Area greenhouses range from very large ones such as Bettinger Farms Inc. and Schmidt Brothers Inc., each with 12-acre operations in Swanton, to small ones like Bench Farms in Curtice, which has 25,000 square feet of growing area, or just over half an acre.
While the largest ones tend to sell wholesale only, Bench is strictly a local retail greenhouse, said Cindy Bench, co-owner along with her husband, David.
“We'll never get rich, but we meet the greatest people,” said Mrs. Bench.
“We can't compete on price with the big-box stores, but we can offer better-quality products and service.”
Among wholesalers are the likes of Brodbeck Greenhouse, with 6 acres under plastic, and Wenz Brothers Farm, also with 6 acres. They are across from each other on Wenz Road in southwest Toledo.
Brodbeck marks 100 years in business this September, and Wenz evolved from a family-owned produce-farming operation that dates to the mid-19th century and is now in its sixth generation.
Bruce Bordbeck, president and owner of his family's greenhouse, said his firm sells to independent garden centers in the Southeast, including in many suburbs of Washington, and to other stores within 500 miles of Toledo.
His son, Matt, manager, representing the fourth generation, said, “In a small farming business, you wear several hats. You have to do the watering, managing, shipping. You have to do a bit of everything.”
Kathy Wenze, manager of Wenz Brothers and a sixth-generation member of the family, said, “I'm hoping there will be someone from the seventh generation to help me.”
Among others that are a century or more old is the Ohlman greenhouse, which evolved from a farm established in 1882 and is now in its fourth generation. Hecklinger Greenhouse Inc., on Seaman Street in East Toledo, celebrates its 97th birthday this year.
A number of the growers say business has held up well during the recession.
“Last year was one of our best ever,” said Mr. Ohlman. “Because of the downturn in the economy, people are spending more time decorating their homes and doing more gardening.”
The local growers' group has a Web site, www.maumeevalleygrowers.com.