1903 was a momentous year in American history. The Wright Brothers flew successfully at Kittyhawk, the Boston Red Sox won the first World Series, and two brothers named Carl and Herman Dickman bought 15 acres of land on Archie Street in Auburn. Bred of strong-willed German stock, each brother had a vision for a business. Herman wanted to start a dairy farm, while Carl had his eye on establishing a nightclub. So in the spirit of true brotherly compromise, they did both. After all, what’s more compatible with a dairy farm than a nightclub?
That was 111 years ago. The dairy cows are long gone, and the nightclub closed back in the 1960s. Since then, Dickman Farms has evolved into a nationally recognized, leading edge retail garden center and wholesale plant grower/supplier. It has been named one of the “Top Revolutionary Garden Centers” by Today’s Garden Center – a magazine for the independent garden industry – since 2008.
The heart of Dickman Farms
Across from the retail center is the heart of Dickman Farms – a massive greenhouse complex enclosing approximately six acres. One acre is 43,560 square feet, meaning the complex takes up slightly over one-quarter million square feet – that’s four-and-a-half football fields. In it, seeds are sown and plants are grown, and once matured are repotted into the containers they will be shipped in.
Virtually every square inch of floor space is covered with plants in various stages of development. To the extent possible, every operation has been automated or streamlined with the goal of maximizing productivity, meaning more inventory and more sales. And the strategy seems to be working. “Most commercial growers average three inventory turns per year. We average nine,” owner Dave Dickman told me. So how do you automate a greenhouse?
Plant watering is accomplished by automatic misting units. Additionally, Dickman’s fulltime in-house chemist can mix, adjust and disperse needed fertilizers or chemical nutrients through the same system. As most garden plants grow faster and healthier in slightly acidic soil (pH of 5.5 to 5.8), if necessary, the chemist will add sulphuric acid to the misting mix creating a solution known in-house as “gorilla water.”
Instead of buying the paper pots used for planting seeds or seedlings from an outside vendor, Dickman Farms purchased a Belgian-manufactured paper pot machine allowing the company to cut costs and make paper pots whenever it wants/needs any. For safety reasons, the machine isn’t being operated during greenhouse tours, but it’s an impressive device nonetheless. Tax, tag and title, Dave says the machine cost $2 million.
Also, to free itself from dealing with outside trucking firms, Dickman Farms owns its own fleet of dry vans, refrigerated trailers and smaller straight trucks.
Thrips and aphids
After wringing every cost-saving efficiency out of its business model, Dickman’s has reinforced its commitment to the safety of its customers, employees and the environment by becoming a pesticide-free greenhouse. The practice is known as bio-control, which in layman’s terms means getting good bugs to eat the bad ones.
The two biggest problems faced by greenhouse growers are the thrips and aphids, which quite literally suck the life out of young plants, says Bob Dickman, a fifth-generation member of the Dickman family. Beginning in 2013, Dickman’s fought back by using a particular species of aphid midge whose larvae feed exclusively on thrips and aphids. The tiny adult bugs resemble fruit flies and are completely benign to humans.
To monitor aphid populations inside the greenhouse, sticky plastic cards are deployed at regular intervals to trap aphids. Once the aphid population reaches “critical mass,” the predatory midges are turned loose to ravage them. Better still, customers purchasing hanging baskets or potted plants will find a sachet of midge eggs tucked alongside them. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae will begin eating any aphids that infest the plants at the customer’s home. Bio-control using aphid predators is a relatively new innovation in the U.S., though it’s been used in Europe for several decades.
Deep roots and community commitment
After 111 years of doing business on Archie Street as Dickman Farms, five generations of the Dickman family have forged deep bonds both in and around Auburn. To strengthen that bond to the greatest degree possible, the company hires primarily local people. Many begin working part-time while still attending high school, and continue working at the facility until graduation from college.
Va Va Bloom
Once a year, as a way to strut its stuff, Dickman Farms throws open its doors to host the Va Va Bloom garden show. The event, originally envisioned as a biannual occurrence, proved so popular it’s now held yearly. Typically, Bob leads tours through the massive greenhouses, while Dave hosts guests across Archie Street at the retail center.
Upon entering Dickman Farms the day of Va Va Bloom, colorful plants, like the stunning purple-pink foxglove, were everywhere. Coconut fiber wire flower baskets, garden accessories and displays of the two latest gardening crazes – fairy gardens and glass “bubble” terrariums – filled the space. The combined scents of the various blooms were intoxicating. Local vendors, such as Navarino Orchards, Smokey Hollow Maple Syrup, Montezuma Winery and Muranda Cheese Company, displayed and sold their products as music from the Kambuyu Marimba Band filled the air.
“At Dickman Farms, we continue to change and grow with the times to ensure we are offering our customers simply the best,” reads the company’s website. No one knows what Dickman’s will be in another 111 years, but one thing’s for sure – they’re much better green thumbs than nightclub owners.
For more information, visit dickmanfarms.com. You’ll find driving directions, gardening tips and the 2014 events schedule, including the dates and times for the 2014 Va Va Bloom. The retail garden center is shut down for winter, but will reopen on March 17.
by Rich Finzer