Differentiation, not Diversification

Taking the road less traveled at Peace Tree Farm
By J.F. Pirro

Lloyd Traven says they did it once on Peace Tree Farm (www.peacetree farm.com) in Kintnersville, Pa., and there's still a photo somewhere of him pushing a wheelbarrow with butternut squash harvest. One year there were runs of tomato plants and peppers and other typical crops.

Peace Tree Farm propagates and grows 220 herbs and vegetables, and 750 different plants in all, counting flowers, tropicals, foliage and what Traven calls "weird stuff."
Photos courtesy of Peace Tree Farm.

Long ago, wholesale propagated herb plants became the staple crop at Peace Tree Farm, and since 2009 it has been USDA-certified herbs and vegetables, all grown in a sustainable, sophisticated, environmentally controlled greenhouse operation.

In addition, with just shy of 2 acres of greenhouse space, Peace Tree Farm has grown an international horticultural reputation that's especially well regarded for its ever-differentiating varieties of prefinished and young begonias, poinsettias, specialty annuals and blooming potted crops that are grown for other growers. The finished plants are destined for independent garden centers, estate gardeners, botanical gardens and museum clients as noteworthy as Longwood Gardens, New York Botanical Garden, Winterthur Museum, Washington National Cathedral and the Smithsonian Institution.

However, the news here - where Traven is already a veritable regular on "The Martha Stewart Show" - is plans for a homecoming that will return a portion of the family's 26-acre farm to cultivated fields. Things are changing "dramatically," Traven says, with the return of his son, Alex, a spring plant science graduate from Cornell University, where last year he managed the school's organic Dilmun Hill Student Farm.

"Now, he's saying he wants to make Peace Tree Farm a real farm again," Traven says. "I said to him, 'What part of this 24/7, 365-day-a-year farm hasn't been real? Didn't this farm just pay for your education?'"

Cornell holds a special place in the history of Peace Tree Farm. Traven's graduate degree in floriculture and ornamental horticulture is from Cornell. When he met his wife and business partner, Candy, she was a plant breeder in the department of plant breeding and biometrics at Cornell. One of their three full-time employees, Stephanie Whitehouse-Barlow, the sales and marketing manager, is another Cornell alumna.

Alex (their youngest; the other, Abe, once studied ethnographic botany at the University of Hawaii) should return by January after working in upstate New York at a cut-flower farm, and then traveling to Israel and Scotland, where a Cornell alumna has been working on an organic farm.

Alex is talking about beekeeping, orchards and growing brambles. He wants to grow vegetables on what was once a vegetable farm. He wants to model collaborative farming models that he practiced at upscale, upstate New York farmers' markets. With his parents' experience, reputation and existing land, he'll have more than a head start.

Still, it's quite a differentiation - one of Traven's favorite words - from what his parents have done. They've been plant scientists; Alex will be a dirt farmer.

Returning home

Alex spent his first year at Cornell as an international agriculture major. No matter how proud he was of his parents and their business, he wasn't about to follow in their footsteps and spend his life at home. Then, the more he studied the world's bleak food and economic scene, he concluded that he had to farm responsibly in his own community and make his own region more resilient and sustainable.

Other epiphanies: He was afforded an incredible childhood, and his parents modeled the flexible be-your-own-boss lifestyle he sought. "It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a farmer," he says.

Alex also admits to a dose of reality: He couldn't afford to start his own farm elsewhere. So he made peace with the stigmas of returning home, mostly because his parents allowed him to come to the realization on his own. "What I'm doing is noble," he concluded, "and others should be doing it, too."

The chunk of Peace Tree Farm that Alex intends to farm was farmed the longest by the previous generations-old farming family, the Kreschs. It figures to be fertile, but he plans on doing soil tests since the region is known for its heavy clay. He'll plant cover crops the first two years.

Shorter-range plans dovetail into what the Travens already do. First, he's planning to trial fresh-cut basil and arugula, and maybe parsley, mint and rosemary, mostly to take advantage of a current waste product at Peace Tree, which is more interested in the bottom half of plants, but also to estimate the harvest he'll be able to generate.

"It will also get people used to the fact that Peace Tree Farm is not just about plants anymore, but also food," Alex says.

He spent years cutting basil tops, say 200 pounds of it in a day, and Peace Tree - propagators - never had an outlet for the bounty except for the compost pile. "Everyone would carry home as big a boxful as possible, but I've eaten pesto until I've turned green," Alex says. "We definitely know how to grow, but now we'll have an outlet."

The additional investment will require equipment: washing and packing lines and a storage area and, of course, a substantial buyer, like a Wegman's or Whole Foods.

Before the fields are ready, Alex is planning on high-tunnel growing of specialty crops, which makes sense with easy access to Philadelphia and New York. He's thinking of immediately incorporating ginger, but also fruits like figs, a hearty kiwi and dwarf cherries.

Lloyd is a veritable regular on "The Martha Stewart Show."

"I've never been of the mindset that doing more of the same thing could save a business or even an entire industry," he says. "I just don't think that some new line of bedding plant will suddenly change everything. I think that you need change. I could take a couple years and get experience elsewhere, but now is a critical time and we're getting into this before others do the same."

Differentiation, not diversification

Peace Tree Farm propagates and grows 220 herbs and vegetables, and 750 different plants in all, counting flowers, tropicals, foliage and what Traven calls "weird stuff." The Travens have a trademark, Garden Geek, for its unique, quirky plants. Five years ago the decision was simple: "There was no future for us as another guy selling petunias," Traven says.

Differentiation (not diversification, which he says only means you grow different stuff) sets Peace Tree Farm apart. "Maybe there are five growers in the country that have what we do, or we may be the only one," he says. "It's the type of stuff that makes someone go into a garden center and say, 'Wow. They have really different stuff.' Or they have to look at the tag twice."

That end of the farm's business serves roughly half the nation's major botanical gardens, museums and arboretums, even the likes of the White House. In September, Candy will be at the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., where Peace Tree is helping resurrect the original plantings there for introduction to the marketplace. Until a 1916 flood, the Biltmore had the largest commercial nursery in the world.

The couple has also started attending rare plant sales. "We're getting a lot of attention," says Traven, a veteran seed researcher and practitioner who at Ball Seed Co. developed Spark Plug, pelleted seed products and also worked on the Genesis Seed project. "We set ourselves apart. We do it in everything we grow."

Part of the decision to differentiate was driven by the market. Traven says the common garden center is going under because plants there are no better and no different than those at big-box retailers. "There's a huge shakeout," he says. "There's been no new housing the last five years, and that's where many new plants go."

There's life in organic vegetables and herbs, which fall under Peace Tree's One Earth copyrighted label it launched in March 2009, and the Travens were one of the first to offer herbs in the early '80s. Candy was then working for a retail plant shop in Philadelphia and noted their popularity. "She made it abundantly clear that we would be growing herbs here," Traven says. "I laughed and wondered who the hell would buy them."

They sold 5,000 herb plants the first year, about 10 to 20 times more than he had projected. Five years ago, they hit the 1 million herb plant mark and have always controlled the product from start to finish. "Ours are the real deal from transplants, cuttings," Traven says. "We maintain our own stock."

They patented their own lavender at the end of 2011, Lavender Phenomenal, which has completed European trials, is in U.S. trials and figures to be released for sale in spring 2013. There are just six licensees, Peace Tree included. There's one other patent, too. Coleus Witch Doctor. Candy's gift of a potted coleus early in their courtship began their journey together as growers.

"He's the head, and I'm the heart," Candy says.

Greenhouse technology

Based on labor efficiency, quality consistency and flexibility, in 2004, the Travens broke ground on the "lower" greenhouse, a 32,000-square-foot facility. They didn't want plastic. "Every time the wind blows, you're scared," Traven says. "Glass is forever." It's durable and provides the best source of direct sunlight. They still use three "upper" plastic greenhouses totaling 18,000 square feet, but a couple of them are too warm to grow in during the summer and are used as cold houses in the winter.

The new greenhouse is incredibly flexible: Every bench can have its own fertilizer level and pH. Every bench is considered a separate irrigation zone. It has atrium-style open roof technology, rootzone heating, carousel hanging basket systems, automated booms for mist and overhead irrigation and computer-based environmental controls. There is also ebb-and-flood irrigation, where water is pumped from a holding tank, fertilizer and pH are monitored and adjusted, and it's delivered to specific benches as programmed. All water not used by the plants drains and returns to the water room for filtration, aeration and reuse. Peace Tree Farm uses approximately 25 percent of the water of a conventional greenhouse with no runoff. It's even designed with a central walkway big enough for two carts side by side.

The greenhouse technology also includes a pot dispensing machine, two pot and flat fillers, a soil shaver, a transplanting conveyor, two watering tunnels and a cutting production line. There's also vapor pressure deficit-based programmable mist booms, rolling benches, a 500-gallon compost tea brewer, a clear water filter, HID lighting, a CO2 generator, a state-of-the-art environmental and irrigation control computer and thermal blankets.

In general, equipment has reduced human touches from 13 times to four. "Every touch is a cost," Traven says. Take the pot-filling machine for, say, mums. It's reduced a one-week job to one and a half days. "That was insanely wonderful," Traven says.

Pre-technology, the farm could have 200 flats of transplanted basil scheduled for water after lunch. One human oversight, and the next day all the plants would be dead (costing upwards of what the machine cost, $3,500).

In the greenhouse, Traven points out a few specialties: McMahon's Bird, a small pepper plant that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello; also Fish, a Philadelphia heirloom pepper brought in by the slaves; and black-leafed cotton. Certainly a scientist, he points out biocontrols used for fungi and insects and to evidence that the attracted predators are eating "the bad guys." He says, "This is how we do it without spraying. It's science, and, well, I'm a scientist."

He's a sustainable scientist. "We repurpose everything - sometimes when it doesn't make sense - but we're down to one trash can a week, and it's hardly ever filled," Traven notes.

Almost everything else - plant material, soil, plant identification tags, plastic pots - is either composted or returned to product-specific recyclers, who pay for the used materials. The downside is the clutter and the time collecting and sorting takes. Traven recently pulled a first-year (1983) price list. On it, the word recycling appeared. "We've always walked the walk, and we've found that gets us invited to talk the talk [at about 30 speaking engagements a year]," he says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.