by Gail March Yerke
Not many of us can say that we knew our calling in life at the age of 9, but Mark Ebert of Ebert’s Greenhouse Village said he did. It was then that he discovered his passion for growing, helping his father and older brother, Ron, at their family farm in Ixonia, WI. Like many others, their family agribusiness did not start out as a greenhouse. The Midwest farm began as a dairy operation until their dairy cattle were sold in 1959.
In 1975 the farm again changed direction when they began growing field crops for farm markets in southern Wisconsin. “At first we only grew cabbage, carrots, sweet corn and potatoes. We sold them at the nearby Jefferson Fair and Watertown Markets,” said Mark. At that time their father, Milton, had a full-time factory job and the young brothers helped with the family’s growing truck gardening operation. Tomatoes and peppers were soon added, along with other varieties of vegetables. Attending the most well-known farmers markets in Wisconsin, the West Allis and Dane County markets, they gradually built their vegetable farm business.
The First Greenhouse
It wasn’t long before the first makeshift greenhouse appeared, adapted from an old shed. Soon after, a 15-by-15-foot covered lean-to was added to one side of their barn and the first hint of today’s business began. “Our dad started vegetable plants for the farm in those greenhouses and ended up selling plants to the neighbors too,” Mark said. “That’s how the greenhouse started.”
In the late 1980s the brothers took over the family business and began to add greenhouses. At that time, Ron was 33 and Mark was 24. Mark said, “My brother Ron said, ‘I’ll grow it if you sell it!” They expanded the business together each year until Ron’s unexpected death in 2015. It was now up to Mark to continue the family vision of a “greenhouse village.” With a college degree in marketing, his focus had been sales and advertising. He had helped with the growing and day-to-day retail operations but was now faced with overseeing all aspects of the business. With help from family and a dedicated staff, Ebert’s Greenhouse Village continued to expand.
Today the property covers 58 acres and is a destination for Midwestern gardeners. Over 30 greenhouses offer more than 130,000 square feet under cover. The grounds are designed for easy access to the many outdoor display gardens and different sales areas. A customer-friendly paved parking area for over 200 vehicles sits at the main entrance. Always looking to improve, last year saw the addition of concrete walkways in the perennial and nursery sales areas. The most recent addition is a 10,000 square foot glass Nexus greenhouse they call the “field house.”
“We feel strongly that if people come out here and like what they see, they’ll tell others about us – word of mouth advertising,” Mark said. Opening weekend showcased blooming tropical plants, houseplants and early blooming annuals in the field house. One of their staff is a talented display artist and multiple vignettes were set up there that weekend. Butterflies, bees and a flower shop were just a few of the themed areas that looked like colorful sets from a theatre stage. Coordinating plants were displayed in those areas and bright, blooming pansies covered benches along one side of the building.
When asked about their product mix, Mark explained that 60% is a combination of annual flowers and floral hanging baskets. Other sales categories include 16% each for both perennial and nursery departments. The remaining 8% is represented by a combination of herbs, vegetable plants and hard goods. Ebert’s typically grows 13,000 to 14,000 hanging baskets each spring, with planting sizes ranging from 10- and 12-inch baskets to the specialty 16-inch coconut-liner and moss hanging baskets. Monoculture baskets are produced as well as combination floral designs. A second strong season for Ebert’s is autumn, with mums, fall decorations, pumpkins and myriad activities at the Kids Village. They also grow their own pumpkins on acreage across the road from the greenhouse village.
“Last year was phenomenal. With all departments up 20%, we definitely upped the amount of annuals grown for this season,” Mark said. He also indicated that their April opening weekend had very strong sales. “We had a lot of new customers last year and noticed even more so far this season,” he said. “More people are gardening.” Their typical customer is in the 35-to-54 age range. Ebert’s educational programs have gone virtual this spring, with webinars featuring everything from container gardening to general landscape tips.
Marketing & Mission Statement
Unlike those that believe mission statements are unique to big corporations, Ebert’s drafted their own mission statement based on personal beliefs and business goals. It states “Our guests are special and will receive the finest flowers, plants, garden accents and service. We are thankful for the opportunity to serve you and are blessed to share God’s creation with you! Your friendship and satisfaction are our #1 priority!”
When it comes to marketing, it’s easy to see how it’s changed course over the years at Ebert’s. “We used to do a lot of radio, television and newsprint,” Mark explained. “In the past we spent four to five percent of sales in marketing and advertising. Today we have really cut down on TV and radio and are using a lot of that money on social media and improvements on the grounds.” When the greenhouse village opens each spring, a direct mail piece is sent out to surrounding ZIP codes. The postcard offers customers discounts in April and each month they bring it back throughout the summer. In addition to frequent Facebook and Twitter posts, their weekly email newsletter reaches over 10,000 subscribers.
Mark’s wife Renee has a degree in elementary education and coordinates the Kids Village activities and public relations. She explained that she’s been helping at Ebert’s since she “married into the village” in 1991. Their daughter, Sierra, is attending college and majoring in business. She plans to join the family business full-time upon graduation. Besides family, the greenhouse has the help of as many as 80 employees in May. Of those, 10 are year-round staff and 25 work full-time February through October. Additional seasonal staff is mostly adults, with about 20 high school and college students hired for the spring and summer months. Besides key personnel pictured on their website, you’ll find images of their official greeters: Buddy the dog and cats Copper and Todd.
Future plans include adding another 6,000 square foot building this summer. They also hope to add more office space, restrooms and an area for up to 10 registers. While Mark’s passion is working with annual flowers, he oversees all aspects of Ebert’s Greenhouse Village. He appreciates how far they’ve come and what has been achieved. “I look at how everything has gone over the years,” he said. “We’ve been very blessed. I don’t mind the long hours and love everything we do. I’ve seen many changes to the farm since I’ve been a kid and it will be exciting seeing the new ideas happening in the future!”
It looks like nine-year-old Mark was right; he really did know what his calling in life would be. It turned out to be a greenhouse village.