NEW HOLLAND, Pa. — Times have changed in the greenhouse business. Take it from Dave Miller, whose family has owned Miller Plant Farm in York County for the past 100 years.
Much of the farm’s history has been selling wholesale plants and vegetables to local retailers throughout the county, who then resell them to customers during growing season.
But with more and more big-box stores able to sell annuals, perennials and even vegetable plants for cheaper prices, many retailers have found it hard to stay in business, and that’s forced Miller’s to change how it does business as well.
Speaking in front of more than 200 growers at Monday’s New Holland Vegetable Day at Yoder’s Restaurant, Dave Miller described how he and his family have transformed the business from almost exclusively wholesale into a fledgling retail business.
Miller’s Plant Farm has been in Dave Miller’s family since 1912. He is the fourth generation on the farm.
It includes 120 acres of land, 40 of which is used to grow vegetables, as well as a small herd of beef cattle.
The business employs eight people year-round, but balloons to around 30 part-time and seasonal employees over the growing season.
Much of what is grown is done in greenhouses, 63,000 square feet worth. Dave Miller’s grandfather, Jacob, built the first greenhouse in 1928 and over the years the amount of greenhouse space has grown considerably.
Much of the farm’s business has been selling wholesale bedding plants to local retailers throughout York County.
But things changed, Miller said, when stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s started offering the same bedding plants for much cheaper prices.
He said it forced his business to shift its focus to offering a wider variety of annuals, vegetable transplants, hanging baskets, produce, poinsettias and herbs.
About 60 percent of what the farm grows is sold wholesale, much of it going to small independent grocery stores in the county.
Everything from lettuce, broccoli and seedless watermelons to 19 varieties of hot and spicy peppers and various types of flowers are grown at the farm.
Miller said that two years ago, when a new retail center was opened at the farm, it forced him to change his business mindset from selling wholesale to providing his retail customers with a good shopping experience.
Wide aisles were put in to accommodate more customers. Floors were designed to be well-drained. And everything was sold on one floor.
“It was very important to design this as customer friendly as possible,” he said.
An in-house bakery was also put in.
Giving customers a good shopping experience is one thing. Getting them to even stop at the store is another.
“There has to be a special every single week,” Miller said.
That has included offering peaches at wholesale prices and providing hayrides in the fall.
In 2012, the farm started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture with 122 members.
While most of the products are grown at the farm — members can get up to six items a week, depending on their level of membership — Miller said it was challenging getting started, since he had to learn how to grow a lot of new items, including leafy greens and various types of melons.
Many items offered through the CSA aren’t even grown on the farm, including most of the fruits, which come from neighboring farms.
Members can also buy add-ons, including items from the bakery, desserts and this coming season, free-range eggs.
But the fact that the farm is able to offer so many products, Miller said, is something that makes his CSA stand out.
“Members really enjoy the surprise. It really is an adventure for them,” he said. “We give the members the best quality produce we can.”
For more information on Miller Plant Farm, visit www.millerplantfarm.com.