Marshalls’ Riverbank Nurseries shows how it’s done
SALISBURY, Md. — On the second leg of a June 26 tour of two nursery operations in Wicomico County, members of the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association gathered at Marshalls’ Riverbank Nurseries Inc. on Pemberton Drive.
Marshalls’ Riverbank was started in 1999 by John Marshall, his father, Dick, and his brother Mike.
The home property along the Wicomico River, however, has been in the family since 1903.
This Pemberton Farm is site of the company’s office, propagation, perennial production, loading/staging area, mechanic/fabrication shop, part of the shrub production — and home to John and Dick.
The visitors were welcomed by Kennedy Soper, who does a lot of the logistics for moving plants. “We load two trucks per day,” she said.
The average truckload is valued at about $23,000.
A five-man crew does the loading onto shelved trucks.
Removable wooden shelving is color-coded on the ends as to which truck it fits.
Customers are a mix of re-wholesalers, garden centers and landscape contractors — no chain stores. Some sales are to local landscapers, but 90 percent of Marshalls’ plant material is delivered on their trucks to customers from northern Virginia to Massachusetts, west to Pittsburgh, Ohio and even Detroit.
They use software to keep track of orders, but “it doesn’t do what we need it to,” Soper said.
Charlie Breitschwerdt, the head grower, has been at Marshalls’ for nine years. Until 2008 he was production manager at Benke’s on the western shore.
Breitschwerdt continued the discussion of deliveries. Unlike Chesapeake Nursery which the MNLGA members visited earlier that day, Marshalls’ does not have conveyor belts to load trucks. “We load it all by hand,” he said. Marshalls’ has a similar pallet system, but does not batch orders. Plants are tagged in the field, picked up and taken straight to the delivery truck. “We don’t hold stuff after it’s tagged,” he added.
Soper added that all tags are checked as material is loaded to make sure the order is correct.
Breitschwerdt said Chesapeake is larger, but Marshalls’ has a greater variety. Its availability list is eight pages, single-spaced. Production space has grown from the original four acres to more than 150 acres on four sites.
“This is the ‘pretty farm’ because of all the plants with color,” he said. The farm he takes care of is the “green farm,” Breitschwerdt said.
A fifth farm was purchased in 2016, and grading on the 56-acre plot will likely begin soon for production in 2019.
“We have 450 greenhouses between the five farms,” Breitschwerdt said. Some 50,000 square feet of greenhouse space is heated for woody cutting propagation, and 20,000 square feet of heated space is used for winter perennial production.
Although they are adding between 20 to 50 new houses each year, space always seems to be behind production.
On a wagon ride through the farm, Breitschwerdt noted the potting area. There is a potting machine, which “is great when it works,” he said. It typically runs nine to 10 hours per day and workers pot 8,000 to 10,000 plants per day.
“We’ve had a major issue this year getting potting soil. We can’t get delivery before we run out, due to trucking regulations. We use two trailer loads per day.
Inside one of the greenhouses, visitors met Nick Panichella, who has been the perennial grower for three years. Breitschwerdt said, “Nick is a real grower. I’m not. He can grow stuff out there that I can’t.”
Panichella said his goal is to increase production with new varieties and eventually tap into the retail market.
His crew consists of five ladies, he said. They may spend half or three-quarters of a day labeling plants for pick up.
“We aim for four turns of crops in this greenhouse,” he said. He can turn crops in six to eight weeks.
In March, his greenhouse contained liners for wholesale, packed “can tight” before they were moved outside to harden out. At the end of June, the greenhouse held water sensitive crops. The house will be emptied in fall, and hellebores will be moved in.
The source of water for the farm is the Columbia aquifer. Submersible pumps in wells vary in size from 1 to 30 horsepower. Most of the plants are watered by overhead irrigation, with one farm using some drip irrigation in larger pots growing pot in pot.
“Everything drains in one direction,” Panichella said, “and feeds into the drainage system. John spends a small fortune on plastic pipe!” Runoff is directed into collection ponds for recycling, which is playing a larger part in the operation.
Among the hoop houses visitors were introduced to the AgriNomix “trike.” Breitschwerdt said, “We had been moving everything by hand. We might handle each plant 100 times before the homeowners get it. We had to get smarter. We can’t get enough help.”
The solution was the “trike” onto which forks, built for a skid steer, were attached. With four wheels in front and two in the back, the trike can lift 2,200 pounds. It can handle eight rows of five pots each.
“The guys in the potting crew are happy,” Breitschwerdt said. “Our goal is to mechanically put pots onto wagons and be able to move and unload them.”
The forks are the biggest issue. “If you spill one pot, you’re shot,” Breitschwerdt said. “But I think this is the wave of the future.”
In an information sheet provided to the guests, John Marshall explained the nursery has more than 75 employees in the summer, and about 50 staff members year round.
“I have tried to treat our employees like family and foster a relationship that allows everyone to benefit,” he wrote. “For me, it has been fun building the nursery (and a lot of work). I am blessed by the relationships I have with our employees, customers and vendors. Most days I feel lucky to get to do this for a living.”
The challenges are many, though.
“It seems to be more difficult to find people willing to do the manual labor that is required in nursery work,” he said. “We cannot control many things, from government regulation, immigration reform and weather. We do need to better manage the things we can control, like keeping good employees, good customers, growing great plants, providing excellent service and controlling expenses.”
As long as he can continue all that, Marshall thinks the future is bright. “We have a great group of people making sure the work is getting done at Marshalls’. And I am pleased our son, Matt, has returned to work in the family business and is interested in running the business.”
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P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925