by Laura Rodley
Jaap Molenaar co-owns Pioneer Gardens in Deerfield, MA. He emigrated from Holland in 1988, bringing the inherent Dutch passion for flowers with him. Perennials are his middle name. He grows perennials that can handle eight different climate zones for nationwide distribution to wholesale growers that are shipped year-round. They also ship to lower Canada and Quebec.
The farm was started in 1992 with Arjen Vriend. A successful business comes with many responsibilities beyond producing healthy plants. He must manage his workers, their healthcare and the intricacies of tax laws, which he discussed with Rep. Stephen Kulik last fall.
There are three acres of greenhouses with young plant plugs, 30 acres of field plants and 30 acres of cover crop. It is the love of producing superior plants and the loyalty of his workers that sustain his business. “The profit margins are low in the nursery business,” said Molenaar.
He employs 40 people year-round, with another 10 to 15 that are seasonal. He needs people willing to work. Much of what is required is skilled labor with site specific skills, including running the greenhouses’ climate control computers. “We are fortunate enough to have 40 full-time workers. We are trying to get local people but that comes with challenges,” as many locals don’t answer the call or advertisements to work on farms. So, he hires seasonal workers.
Some workers have returned for 10 to 22 years. “We need that. It’s knowledge based,” he said. “What we would like to see is that these people come back and we do not have to train the workers every season. My biggest worry when spring is coming is can I find people,” he said. This past spring, he interviewed 50 people, hired 12 and got eight that are still working there.
Healthcare is another issue. Fifteen years ago, premiums for workers’ heathcare per month cost $175 per employee. Now it costs $450 and necessitates more paperwork. “Health care insurance is not my business. I want to run my farm, that’s all I want to do,” he said.
“All my land is under APR (Agricultural Preservation Restrictions). Without APR, I couldn’t be a farmer. We know the heavy pressure for development here,” he said, as his land in Deerfield planted in acres of perennials is considered prime development land.
The plants are also grown in two styles of greenhouses, either open roof or peak vented to handle snow. New England winters easily deliver up to two feet of snow.
He utilizes integrated pest management and beneficial insects. He grows daylilies that are inherently susceptible to thrips, but hasn’t sprayed for them because beneficial insects and host plants of beneficial insects have been planted throughout the fields. In the greenhouse, there are host plants that deter pests and he buys new beneficials each week, including beneficial Steinernema feltiae nematodes that are mixed with water and sprayed on to control different stages of the thrips’ life cycle and fungus gnat larvae. They consult with UMass, UConn and UNH, and likewise, his head growers are consulted and participate in grower panels at conferences.
A superior watering system is crucial. “If you don’t water this greenhouse for two days, you are done,” he said. Inside the greenhouse, they use ebb and flood benches which prevent foliar diseases and collect all the runoff water to reuse it. As a water source, the roof runoff water gets collected into storage tanks. “In a good year, we only had to recharge out of the river only once. We rely on rainwater most of the year. A one inch rainstorm produces 27,000 gallons per acre of roof.”
Another aspect of farming that Molenaar discussed with Kulik was the existing tax valuations on land under Chapter 61A. “The 61A local tax is confusing. They tax you on the value of the crop. I don’t agree with basing it on the value of the crop. They should base it on the value of the land like all other properties are valued at the current value of the property, not by the revenue of a store or a business or rent charged to tenants.”
Meanwhile, he remains busy producing perennials, as commercial growers and landscapers are already planning ahead for next year’s purchases.
What he likes best about his farm is “always trying to grow crops better, more sustainable and profitable with enthusiastic and dedicated employees.” What has been the most rewarding is being able to watch crop cycles and younger employees making a difference within the company.
The most surprising is that there are “always new challenges. You think you know how to grow a crop and many things surprise us over and over.”
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