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Fledgling Orchid Industry Blooming in Maryland

Associated Press Writer

Thomas Handwerker leans close to a young orchid, just over from China, to inspect its deep green leaves. He knows exactly where a long, flowery spindle will sprout.

He’s a career horticulturist, but he doesn’t know about growing phalaenopsis orchids.

Handwerker is counting on eastern shore farmers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to do the work of cultivating 30,000 orchids. He and Dan Kuennen, a fellow University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, faculty member, are hatching their second agricultural incubator. If it works, it will spawn more than a dozen orchid farms on the shore. “From the farmer’s point of view, it’s a dream,” Handwerker said.

In a model long used by the poultry industry on Delmarva, orchid farmers will contract directly with Jet Green, the Beijing company that ships the young plants to the United States. Growers would be guaranteed a price when they turn the plants back over to the company.

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That’s the long-term goal. For now, Handwerker and Kuennen are getting the engine started by taking care of the huge shipments of year-old, bare-rooted plants and easing them into the East Coast climate inside this university greenhouse. In a few weeks, the plants will be ready to ship to farmers, who will contract with Jet Green.

The network’s goal is to take advantage of a growing international market and diversify farming on the shore -- and eventually the East Coast -- by giving growers alternative crops, Handwerker said. “This is not a research project. This is economic development.”

Their first brainchild, a bedding plant network, was a success. It recruited 27 growers, 20% of whom were first-time farmers, and generated $24 million over five years for Bell Nursery Inc.

“They schemed it up, and it worked out pretty nicely,” said Gene Casey, a retired auditor in his fifth year of growing marigolds, petunias and ageratums for Bell. He’s doubled his original half-acre of plantings.

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The major risk for the farmer trying to cultivate the phalaenopsis is the initial investment -- $250,000 to $300,000 to build a greenhouse to the company’s specifications. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture backs the loans, and most growers aim to pay them off within five years.

“In any capitalist system, there’s risk,” said Kuennen, director of the university’s Rural Development Center. “We’re trying to minimize the risk as much as possible.”

To keep farmers on the right track and guarantee healthy orchids, they’ll get weekly visits from Jet Green’s horticulturists.

“There are a hundred different ways to raise these orchids,” Handwerker said, but using company experts as mentors eliminates much trial and error.

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The expertise is the key to making the contracts work, said Andy Jerardo, a USDA economist specializing in flora culture. “It all depends on the arrangement, what the terms of the contract spell out,” he said. “I’m sure farmers aren’t all that familiar with how to grow orchids, so they need the expertise.”

The flowerless plants for now are taking up only about a tenth of the 2.5-acre greenhouse nestled in the pastures alongside the campus. One of Jet Green’s expert growers is experimenting with the temperature and light as he tries to make a comfortable bed for the transported orchids.

In a few weeks, the plants will show tall flowers shaped like flattened daffodils, with delicate white petals and butter-colored centers. The retail price is about $20 each, but Maryland growers may eventually raise varieties that sell for as much as $300.

Handwerker and Kuennen envision the greenhouse filled with 200,000 orchids before Jet Green’s five-year lease is up -- enough to supply plants to as many as 15 farmers at least once a year. Farmers are already asking about joining the network.

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The two are confident in their incubator model after the success of the Bell Nursery experiment. The only apparent downfall looms in the long run if the network fattens out of control and growers become “indentured servants” of the company.

A criticism long held by poultry farmer advocates is that a handful of giant companies control the industry, leaving growers who raise chicks with little choice but to renew unfavorable contracts.

Handwerker and Kuennen believe that they may be able to head off that crisis by continually incubating new networks of growers. Their model could work with culinary herbs and specialty vegetables, they said.

“The goal would be to diversify the industry so farmers are not so dependent on one firm,” Kuennen said. “So when push comes to shove, when the master gardener puts the squeeze on the grower, the farmer has somewhere else to go.”

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