Grower of the Year: Loyalty personified

Grower of the Year: Loyalty personified

Features - Cover Feature

With a keen eye and a dedicated spirit, Dan Batson is a devoted nurseryman.

December 9, 2013

Smart growth combined with innovation and some calculated risk helped GreenForest Nursery become a progressive and profitable company. With Dan Batson at the helm, GFN has adapted production techniques to become an efficient operation, as well as adjusted product offerings to meet market demands. And during the past 30 years in business, Batson has dedicated much of his time to the betterment of the industry, not just his own company.

Batson, a classic example of a Southern gentleman, is quick to credit his wife and business partner, Kathy, and his crew for the company’s success. And he’s proud to have his son Brad in the company, who joined GFN last year.

Batson puts a lot of emphasis on training employees, and he’s fortunate to have a crew with a lot of experience. Batson also gives employees the opportunity to suggest improvements and changes in production practices.

“Giving them the freedom to ask questions and make decisions regarding production has [yielded]proven results for us,” he said. “It’s great when you put your trust in them. We’ve gained a lot of efficiency that way.”

One of the most significant projects his crew helped develop was low-bed trailers for easier loading of large containers. GFN worked with a manufacturer in Florida to develop a trailer that’s 14 inches off the ground, so crews don’t have to lift containers 3 feet, the standard trailer height.

Innovation station

Other production innovations include the use of silage wagons to fill pots on-site before planting, and potting liners directly into 15- and 30-gallon containers to eliminate the need for shift-up labor.

“Labor costs are such an issue for any nursery, and we chose to eliminate shift-up early on,” he said. “We’re able to plant 4-inch or 1-gallon directly in the larger containers.”

Containers are then spaced and that product is only handled twice once it’s time to pull it.

“We’re growing in containers, but with this process we use the mindset of growing in the field. We think about the plant size, not the pot size,” he said.

Like all container growers, blow over is a costly labor problem. But Tom Cooper, GFN’s production manager, found a solution outside the nursery industry. He discovered a system that trappers use to hold traps in place. The inexpensive system is made up of a fender washer, a J-hook made from a common nail, a driver for the washer (which acts as the anchor) and some string. The end of driver with the washer is driven into the ground next to the pot. GFN is trying a couple of different ways to attach the string to the trees — tying the string to the tree itself and drilling holes through the pot and pulling the string through the holes.

Promoting conservation

GNF was an early adopter of some pioneering techniques such as water recycling. And during an expansion in 2004 and 2005, the nursery increased the use of sediment and retention ponds.

“It was designed after the research and recommendations of the University of Florida and Virginia Tech, and supported by the Horticulture Research Institute,” Batson said. “The system has performed well for us, and we’re able to recycle a large amount of water.”

Recently, the nursery purchased a boom sprayer to more effectively and efficiently cover plants in overhead irrigation beds, which eliminates most hand spraying.

GFN has changed its media to a forestry product called flail debris. This stems from research funded by the Horticultural Research Institute and supported by GreenForest Nursery. Through studies done at the USDA experiment station in Poplarville, Miss., and Auburn University, limb material and/or smaller whole trees can be mechanically chipped and used as a growing media for nurseries.

“Cost savings can be significant using this type of media, and it greatly expands the number of growing media available to our industry,” he said.


Adapting with the market

For most of its incarnation, GFN has specialized in large landscape material ranging from 15- up to 65-gallon containers. When Batson contemplated expanding in this mature nursery market, he looked to smaller containerized material. The nursery is adding 1s, 3s and 7s to its production mix.

“We’re in the infant stage of supplying smaller material. But most of what we’re growing in the smaller sizes is different than what we grow in the larger containers. We’re growing dwarf shrubs, azaleas and groundcover for the smaller items. We’re still feeling out what mix is right for us,” he said.

Batson watches consumer trends and tries to analyze the needs of next group of plant consumers.

“We’re trying to figure out what the Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials are going to do with their spending habits. That will have such a profound effect on our industry. We’re gathering all the information we can get,” he said.

Batson also wants to find a way to improve plant marketing to the end consumer.

“There’s an opportunity there for our industry because of the awareness of sustainability and how our product can improve the environment,” he said. “But it’s a complex issue — not one that is easily solved. We’re such a diverse industry, so how do we create a central campaign and where do those funds come from?”

But Batson has envisioned a powerful commercial that could impact how consumers view plants. The scene: Two gentleman get on an elevator and begin to make small talk. One asks the other, “What do you do?” The other responds, “I manufacture a product that removes carbon from the air — you know the stuff that cars and industry emits — and replaces that with oxygen for all of us to breathe. Who wouldn’t want to invest in that?”

It’s a clever idea, and Batson hopes the industry can figure out a way to boost marketing and get consumers to think of plants as a necessity in their lives.

“Our future marketing efforts at GFN will include a campaign for carbon sequestration and how plants clean the soil and air. We’ll concentrate on that when our smaller container material is out in the marketplace,” he said.


Continued education

Dan Batson is participating in a business course -- EAGL – Executive Academy for Growth and Leadership.

“It is an MBA for executives in the nursery industry being headed by Dr. Charlie Hall and Kip Creel. The course is four intense three-day sessions during the year which cover strategy, marketing and finance,” he said. “The course puts these issues in a workable package,” enabling participants to say, ‘it’s down on paper, now let’s follow its direction — a direction that will take our business to a better, more profitable level.’”

EAGL participants read and study businesses outside and within the industry, and share ideas and concepts with classmates, some of which are the top nursery leaders in the United States. Each participant forms their own plan that works for their business, he said.

“The program has given me a lot of inspiration because we’re such a diverse industry, and everyone will take away something different. I’ll be able to take away a method to run our nursery by looking at figures, my semi-retirement plan, and entrusting others to do the day-to-day things. I now have a much clearer concept of how I’m going to achieve that.”


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