by Sally Colby
Farms with a rich history often become community staples, and that’s the case with Miller Plant Farm in York County, PA. What began as a 35-acre farm with greenhouses added over the years is now thriving under the leadership of the fourth and fifth generations.
Dave Miller, fourth generation, talked about how the family farm has expanded since its start in 1912. “We’ve grown vegetables here for as long as I can remember,” he said. “My grandfather built the first greenhouse in 1928. At the time, everyone was starting crops in the field with seeds; he started to transplant and gained three or four weeks. His friends at market asked him to grow plants for them, and that’s how the business got started.”
After high school, Dave stayed on the farm, and today, the fourth and fifth generations of the Miller family are running the 200-acre operation that produces plants in 29 production houses and vegetables on 50 acres.
Dave’s son Dustyn returned to the farm after graduating from Penn State with a degree in agribusiness, and after a few years with Dustyn and several other family members handling various aspects of the business, Dave realized he had the right people in place to fulfill his goal of adding a retail store.
Although Miller Plant Farm had a successful retail business selling directly out of the production houses, Dave said constructing a dedicated building was a big step. “When we were selling out of the production houses, if something didn’t look its best, people saw it,” he said. “Now everything we bring over is nice. We planned for two years and built it in 120 days. We visited a lot of retail garden centers, talked with people and got their advice. That was research we couldn’t afford not to do.”
One of the most common mistakes Dave noticed while visiting other retail greenhouses was floors that were too flat and didn’t drain well. “Our target customers are mostly women, and they don’t want to walk through puddles,” said Dave. “Each bay is drained to the center so we can water in the morning, and by the time we open at 9 a.m. the floors are dry.”
The 15,000-square-foot structure, which opened in 2011, includes a greenhouse, garden center and farm market. To optimize customers’ shopping experience, the Millers designed the retail space to accommodate large shopping carts. “We bought the biggest ones we could find because people buy more when they have more room,” said Dave. “The aisles are wide enough for two people (with carts) to pass.”
The spacious greenhouse area showcases vegetable transplants, bedding plants, specialty annuals, hanging baskets, mixed containers, tropicals and perennials. Shade cloth keeps the area comfortable for shoppers and the front walls roll up, making the interior greenhouse area visible from the road. The building design includes ample warehouse space for inventory and seasonal storage.
“The first two years we tried to stay open year-round, but our bottom line was better when we closed for a few months,” said Dave, adding that plants can be a tough sell in January and February. “We produce most of what we sell, so that starts early. And there’s always maintenance to do.”
Since the production houses aren’t directly adjacent to the retail store, Dave thought transport to the store might be an issue. However, he and the staff found that moving products to the retail store is easy in an enclosed trailer fitted with racks.
Seeds get a good start in one of several temperature-controlled germination chambers in the main greenhouse. “We start all of our seedless watermelons in here,” said Dave, explaining the benefit of climate control for starting seeds. “They’re hard to germinate, so it helps a lot.” After sprouting, young plants thrive on heated beds.
Houses are kept warm with natural gas, and flood benches with tanks under each bench allow custom fertilizer formulated for various species. As houses are emptied, each is cleaned with a pressure washer before being sanitized.
Dave said he and Dustyn considered starting a CSA when the retail store opened but decided to wait a year. The Millers designed their CSA for simplified pickup that allows customers to fill their own shares. “We don’t pack boxes,” said Dave. “People come to the store to pick up their share. Everything is arranged and a chalkboard indicates what’s included in the share and how many of each. We have several CSA options including cut flowers, free-range eggs and Amish cheese.”
Pickup for small shares, which work well for two or three people, is on Tuesday; large shares, for four to five people, are picked up on Wednesday. “The two biggest benefits we get from our CSA is an outlet for what ripened over the weekend, and guaranteed traffic at the store,” said Dave. “People come to pick up their share but they’ve already paid for what they’re getting. They walk past the bakery area and pick up more.” The one-way path for CSA customers keeps foot traffic away from the busiest part of the retail store and allows easy shopping to fill their weekly share.
Realizing that not everyone will be completely satisfied with what’s in their share, Dave offers a trade option. “A prime example is kale – you either love it or hate it,” he said. “We have a trade table at the end of the pickup so people can take more of what they want and leave something else.”
Last year the farm had more than 700 CSA members, with a member retention rate close to 80%. “We form a relationship with our customers,” said Dave. “In that respect, our model creates a sense of community.”
Dave takes fresh produce to one farmers market and said most customers know what they want when they arrive. He’s found that keeping an attractive booth is critical for sales – people want to see a lot of produce displayed nicely. Miller Plant Farms also sells produce wholesale to several area grocery stores.
Dave and Dustyn agree that training employees is critical for success and noted that many seasonal employees were customers prior to joining the staff. Dave said that if an employee likes plants and people, they’ll do fine. “Management deals with the headaches,” he said. “Employees get to talk with customers about plants.”
Dustyn said the most important trait for retail employees is the ability to work with people – being friendly, welcoming and patient. “They’ve already gotten that as a customer before, so we tell them to not worry about the plants because we have plenty of staff who can answer questions,” he said. “Knowing about plants will come with time, and they’ll have fun learning that. We need people to be people-people, and having the right candidates takes care of a lot of the training.”
Visit Miller Plant Farm online at millerplantfarm.com.