Workers Trained as Gardeners : Oil Firm to Sell Flowers to Brighten Bottom Line

United Press International

Times are tough for the oil industry in Louisiana, so executives of the International-Matex bulk-oil storage facility in St. Rose are turning to flowers to brighten their bottom line.

In the shadow of huge oil storage tanks and a diesel refinery, International-Matex--with the help of a Danish horticulturist--is going into the flower business.

Recently, oil workers-turned-gardeners began planting begonias, petunias, geraniums, impatiens, zinnias and daisies in the first stage of what eventually will be a 50-acre greenhouse operation producing nursery plants and cut flowers.

"We are starting as an experiment, but we feel it is economically feasible to do it," said Ole Strigel, general manager of the new St. Rose Nursery.

He said he hopes the initial $100,000 for construction of the first greenhouse and materials will grow into a$1.5-million to $3-million investment on the Mississippi Riverfront land lying idle next to the bulk-terminal operation.

"It is amazing the area is that clean. I can grow flowers next to tanks with 10,000 barrels of crude inside," Strigel said.

The initial greenhouse and other garden facilities have been built by the tank farm's welders, plumbers and carpenters. The oil workers also have been solicited for a retraining program, learning to grow, water, fertilize, spray, cut, grade and pot flowers.

"Nobody is going to get fired, but we want people who are interested in the (gardening) business," Strigel said. "We are selecting them on a volunteer basis."

Once the greenhouse operation takes off, Strigel said the company foresees dual-trained crews that can switch from tank farm operations to the nursery as business on each end of the operation fluctuates.

Strigel, whose family owned and operated major apple, pear and cherry orchards for generations in Denmark, earned a horticultural degree at the University of Copenhagen while exhibiting jumping horses throughout northern Europe.

Strigel said he hopes to build St. Rose Nursery into a business to challenge the cut flower market, now almost exclusively supplied from Holland.

American competition comes from Florida and California, but Strigel said there are no significant growers anywhere in the mid-section of the country.

Although the Dutch government subsidizes the country's flower industry, Strigel said his operation will be able to compete by offering a fresher product.

It takes nearly two weeks for a Dutch flower to be cut and reach a retailer in the United States. Strigel said his operation will offer wholesalers next-day delivery of cut flower orders.

"Flowers only live a limited time," he said. "Retailers can expect four to six days longer life expectancy (of blooms) by buying domestic flowers. And we're going to stress 'buy American.' "

Strigel predicted his cut-flower operation will be in full swing by the end of the summer with daisies, snapdragons, zinnias, iris and several types of day lilies ready for sale.

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