'Start Me Up!’

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Del. Couple Corner Market Growing Starter Transplants

 While most farmers are still waiting for a nice bout of warm weather to get in the fields, the season never ends for Bruce and Carmen Pape of Greenwood, Del.

And for the hundreds of vegetable growers they serve, that’s probably a good thing.

They specialize in growing organic starter transplants.

“This transplant thing, we do this well. We went into an area we really enjoy and we love to grow vegetable transplants,” said Carmen Pape, co-owner of Deep Grass Nursery.

Some vegetable growers may balk at the idea of paying someone else to start their own plants, especially considering they can put up their own high tunnel or greenhouse. But the couple have cornered a niche, focusing on good customer service and the fact that they’ll grow almost anything for anybody.

“Basically, I think we’ve grown almost everything there is to grow,” she said, laughing.

The couple grow starter transplants in five greenhouses on their 20-acre farm.

Originally from New Jersey, they’ve been in the business since the late 1970s, growing vegetable transplants, cut flowers and even raising some chickens for local grocery stores and farmers markets.

They moved to the Eastern Shore in 1990, where they started a farm in Sharptown, Md., developing a wholesale market for flowers and vegetables, and at the same time, custom growing for some growers. They became 100 percent certified organic in 2001.

In 2007, after spending his entire life in farming, Bruce Pape decided to retire. But like many “retired” farmers, it was only a matter of time before he handed in the golf clubs and returned to the fields.

After attending the 2007 Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show, or MANTS, in Baltimore, the Papes ran into many old friends who expressed sadness at the fact they weren’t growing transplants any longer.

“So we decided to just sell to a few people we knew,” Carmen Pape said.

The couple purchased a 20-acre farm, 40 miles from their Sharptown farm in nearby Delaware and put up a couple of greenhouses.

Word spread that the couple had decided to get back into the starter transplant business, and before they knew it, hundreds of growers from around the country started contacting them about growing starter transplants.

“Soon enough, the business got big. Now it’s getting pretty large. It’s starting to get out of control,” Carmen Pape said.

This time of year is extremely busy, as the Papes begin filling orders for growers needing to get crops out in May and June. But the couple grow transplants the entire growing season until late summer and early fall, when things start winding down and the couple get time to clean out the greenhouses and recover for the following growing season.

They begin taking orders in October, and the variety of plants they grow is extensive. Just taking a look at their website, they start dozens of varieties of plants and vegetables, ranging from herbs to broccoli, kale, lettuce, onions, peppers and, of course, tomatoes.

It works like this: A customer calls requesting a certain type of starter transplant and as long as the couple can get it from the various seed dealers they use — such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds or Harris Seeds — and they have the room, they will grow it.

“We understand what your needs are because we’re farmers ourselves. We have our own niche market and we have customers come back year after year,” Pape said.

It might sound like common sense, but the key to making the system work, she said, is communication and knowing when customers need their transplants. It can be tricky, given the fact that growing seasons can vary greatly. So they plant transplants according to the climate their customers live in.

“We tailor to their needs. Maybe their frost isn’t until after Memorial Day. We can tailor it according to what the customer wants,” she said.

Growing a good quality product is another one of the Papes’ selling points. They don’t use sprays and instead rely on good soil conditions and the right amount of fertilization and water to minimize potential issues.

Visitors are not allowed in the greenhouses because of the risk of bringing in disease and insects, and when problems they can’t control do arise, she said they’ll ditch the plant and start over.

“Seedlings have to be coddled. They’re like babies and each plant requires tender loving care,” she said. “If your soil conditions are right and everything else is right, we should have a good crop.”

Transplants start out in a germination house and are moved from greenhouse to greenhouse, where humidity and temperature are gradually lowered. She said it works to acclimate plants to sunshine and wind before they are planted outside.

“So when the client receives the plant, they are already acclimated for them. We optimize the plant growth for you so you get off to a good start,” Pape said.

In the greenhouses, transplants are organized by shipping date. She said this is done not only for organizational purposes, but to make sure plants don’t sit in their pots too long.

“If the plant sits in a pot too long, it can become rootbound. It is really important that root system be just perfect,” she said.

Growing starter transplants might be their specialty, but the couple do other things as well.

They have what she calls a growing program designed to serve CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture operations, where a customer can sign up to get certain varieties of vegetable transplants every week or two, which she said can help extend the growing season for some producers.

They also plant some full crops, which she said works for producers who are new to the business and want to offer an extensive variety of products right away, but might not have the acreage or know-how to grow a certain vegetable.

“We’ve always been here for the grower. Whoever is selling our product, we want to support that,” she said.

Being there for growers, though, comes with its challenges. Getting plastic transplant trays, she said, is expensive, which she said makes it even more crucial to keep at least some product in the greenhouses during growing season.

The weather can make fulfilling certain orders a challenge, especially when it is cold and rainy.

Some seed can be hard to find, especially organic varieties.

“There was a time when it was really difficult to get good organic seeds because there weren’t a lot of people who had that available,” she said. “But because of National Organic Program, that’s no longer the case. It’s really fueled the industry to produce a quality seed.”

And with the couple getting up in years, the future of the business, she said, is in doubt. Even though the couple have six children, one boy and five girls, none of them has shown an interest in coming back to the farm full time. Bruce Pape employs three workers.

Still, the fact they provide a service that’s crucial to growers is what keeps them going.

“Sometimes, a person who is growing it themselves maybe really knows what to do in the field, but not necessarily what to do in the greenhouse,” she said. “Some things are difficult to grow, and so it’s easier to have someone grow it for you.

“As long as you have a quality grower that will give you a good product, it might be more cost-effective. I think it’s just a preference and really depends on how much you do,” she said.

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