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Starting a Greenhouse Business

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UMass Extension frequently receives inquiries from people interested in starting a greenhouse business. As in starting any business, the decision to start a greenhouse should be made after you have carefully investigated the potential for successfully starting a greenhouse business in your area. The following information should serve as a guide in helping you make that decision. The information provided is by no means meant to be all-inclusive, but it will, we hope, provide some useful guidelines to help in your decision making.

A good place to begin is with a reference book.  Various editions of "Ball Redbook" from Ball Bookshelf (18 edition, vol. 2 by Jim Nau) have  been a used by the greenhouse industry for many years. Other reference books include "Greenhouse Operation and Management" 2007. 7th ed. P.V. Nelson and "Floriculture: Principles and Species" 2005 by J. M. Dole and H.F. Wilkins.

Attend the Northeast Greenhouse Conference or similar educational program. See the list of educational programs on our website. These programs provide an opportunity to network with growers and product suppliers.

Subscribe to one of several trade magazines and purchase a good reference book. "Grower Talks", "Greenhouse Grower" and "GMPro" are trade magazines that will provide insight into the industry. "Ball Red Book" is a general overall reference book for greenhouse production. See these and other resources at the end.

The Massachusetts Flower Growers Association provides workshops, newsletters and membership directory.

Greenhouse Production Experience

Do you have experience growing plants on a commercial scale? If the answer is no, we strongly urge you first to acquire some experience by working for a commercial grower. Actual field experience will prove invaluable in learning about some of the subtleties of commercial production that cannot be learned by taking courses or reading. It will also help you determine whether you wish to make the additional commitment of time and financial resources that will be required if you decide to start your own business.

Business Experience

Legal and Tax information specifically for greenhouse horticulture businesses (provided by Massachusetts Flower Growers Association)

UMass Extension Beginning Farmer Resources and UMass Extension Business Resources for Those Starting to Farm or for an Existing Farm provides many resources for agricultural businesses in Massachusetts such as

  • Finding Land for Farming
  • Financing Options for Beginning a Farm
  • Land Use Regulations and Taxation
  • Water Regulations
  • Pesticide Regulations
  • Other Regulations
  • Budgets
  • Income/Property Taxes
  • Collecting Sales Tax
  • Labor Laws
  • Zoning           
  • Farm Business Planning
  • Agricultural Marketing/Promotion Organizations in Massachusetts for Farmers
  • Organic Certification and Farming
  • Food Safety
  • Government Agencies

Do you have any experience in business management? If not, you should consult local agencies (listed below) that work with small business owners. These agencies can inform you of local regulations for small businesses and provide information on small business accounting and other information needed to start a business in your area.

The Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network's State Office headquarters are located at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

MSBDC Network - State Office
Tillson House
University of Massachusetts
23 Tillson Farm Road
Amherst, MA 01003
413-545-6301
Fax 413-545-1273
website
(In addition, the MSBDC is affiliated with fambiz.com, formerly known as the NetMarquee Family Business NetCenter. Their the FamBiz.com website includes a library of 300 family business articles.)

Family Business Center
Director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center: Ira Bryck

email: Ira@UMassFBC.com
phone: 413-545-4545

UMass Family Business Center
Continuing & Professional Education
100 Venture Way, Hadley, MA 01035

http://www.mass.gov/portal/business/
Massachusetts government website for starting a business in Massachusetts.

Labor

What is the current availability of labor in your area? Local greenhouse businesses or the Massachusetts Flower Growers Association are good sources of information on the availability of labor and alternative sources of local labor.

Also see: Resources on labor laws

Greenhouse Structures

Planning for a new greenhouse is one of the most important steps a grower will have to take. Proper site selection and location with relation to markets, labor, utilities and future expansion make the difference in how profitable the business becomes. Begin by reading these publications available from our list of engineering fact sheets on-line: Design and Layout of a Small Commercial Greenhouse OperationSelecting and Building a Commercial greenhouse and Greenhouse Best Management Practices.

Companies that sell and build greenhouses that have exhibited at the Northeast Greenhouse Conference include:

Choice of Crop and Marketing

Once you have a greenhouse structure, you must develop a detailed cropping schedule that you will use. One way of deciding what to grow is by determining what types of crops are currently being grown in the area. Another is to talk with wholesale buyers to get a feeling for the market. Many factors will determine your choice of crop inventory and how you should most effectively market your crops. These factors may include: The radius of your market (how far you wish to sell your materials), your market clientele and local supply and demand for specific crops.

A grower of greenhouse crops has many choices related to production methods, equipment, cultivars and technology.

Growers need to calculate the costs of producing plants in order to make decisions on the products to grow, the methods of production, the selling prices and the specific markets where plants will be sold.

The first step in cost accounting for a business is typically to divide expenses into two categories: Variable and Fixed. Variable expenses, also called direct or allocated expenses in some situations, are those that vary with the amount of crop you are growing. Variable expenses typically include pots, plugs, seed, substrate, labels, chemicals, etc. Fixed costs are those expenses that have to be paid whether or not a crop is produced, including depreciation, insurance, marketing, management salaries, etc. One method for allocating fixed costs to individual crops is called the dollars per square feet week method ($/ft²/week). The total fixed costs are divided by the total amount of useable space in the greenhouse by the number of weeks the space is used. Greenhouses that keep their spaces full and grow crops in a fast, efficient manner tend to be more profitable, which is reflected by a low $/ft²/week figure. Some growers use $/unit (flat, pot, basket, stem) and divide total fixed cost by number of units. Other use $/unit labor and divide total fixed cost by number of hours or dollars of labor. Either of these methods may be easier for you to use or may make more sense for your operation.

For more information see: Whipker B. and J. Dole. 2008. Calculating Crop Costs. Greenhouse Grower Magazine.

Guidelines for developing budgets and yield information for various greenhouse crops are at:

Crop Production and Scheduling Crops

Crop production information is available from wholesale plant supply companies. Examples are below:

Scheduling information is available at:

Many growers schedule their seed shipments for mid-October to be able to compensate for inevitable backorders and potential crop failure announcements. A spreadsheet will help to maintain records and keep things organized from year to year. In the spread sheet record the following information for each cultivar: Seed source, amount, number of plug trays to sow at each sowing, number of packs to transplant from each sowing, plug trays left over after transplanting, various size containers (4-inch, 6-inch, baskets, etc.). Growers also prepare a master sowing schedule for each week that lists the crops alphabetically that are scheduled to be sown. Each crop can be checked in the spreadsheet to see what cultivars are to be sown and how many plug trays of each. Growers also write down any sowing instructions such as whether seed should be covered etc. Any changes from this list should be recorded.

A file should also be maintained for vegetatively propagated plant material. A spreadsheet could be developed that includes number of cuttings to stick on various stick dates, number of pots or baskets to plant and cultural information for each. From these individual schedules, a master propagation schedule can be put together.

Greenhouse Vegetable Crops

Here are a list of resources for growing greenhouse vegetable crops.

Growing vegetable crops in high tunnels

The following fact sheets can be found here: (scroll down to greenhouse vegetables and fruit)

  • Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) for Food Crops
  • Grafting Techniques for Greenhouse Tomatoes
  • Greenhouse and High Tunnel Tomatoes Resources
  • Greenhouse Raspberry Production
  • Greenhouse Tomatoes: Fertilizing Plants Growing in Soilless Media
  • Growing Vegetable Bedding Plants (Scheduling, Nutrition, Height)
  • Growing Vegetable Transplants and Bedding Plants
  • Herb Bedding Plants: Pest Management for Herb Bedding Plants Grown in the Greenhouse
  • Hydroponic Greenhouse Production Resources
  • Late Blight and Tomato Transplant Production
  • Organic Greenhouse Production Resources
  • Scheduling Greenhouse Crops
  • Starting a Greenhouse Business
  • Vegetable Bedding Plants Pest Management

Greenhouse Tomato Budgets (North Carolina State University)
Organic Greenhouse Vegetable Production (ATTRA):
UMass Extension Vegetable Program also provides educational programming throughout the year.

Horticulture Math

When just starting out, calculations are needed for the number of containers that will fit in a greenhouse based on spacing. Also, a grower will need to figure how much growing media to purchase based on the number of containers. This information is available from:

Managing Pests

A Massachusetts Pesticide License is required in Agriculture when an individual is going to use a Restricted Use Pesticide (RUP). If an individual is using a General Use Pesticide, then he/she does not need to have a pesticide license. However, that individual would need to be trained as a handler to comply with the Worker Protection Standard.This page explains who needs a pesticide license and how to obtain one.
For more information see Pesticide Licensing.

Insects, mites and diseases cause injury to plants growing in greenhouses. For information on greenhouse pest management see the "New England Greenhouse Floriculture Guide". This guide contains detailed information on managing insects, diseases, weeds and growth regulators for commercial growers of greenhouse ornamentals. See ordering information.

For photos of greenhouse pests see the UMass Extension/UConn Extension Photo library

For fact sheets on pest management for herbs, vegetable bedding plants and ornamentals see the UMass Extension Pest Management page.

Organic Greenhouse Production

See the fact sheet with resources: Organic Greenhouse Production

Greenhouse Management

Choosing a growing media, proper plant nutrition, watering and managing plant height are greenhouse management tools. For fact sheets on these topics see the UMass Extension Greenhouse Management page.

Or contact the UMass Extension Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Program:

For information on testing greenhouse growing media, check UMass Extension Grower Services.

Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab

During crop production, growers sometimes have problems with a crop that they need help diagnosing. If you do not know the general cause of a plant problem, contact the Plant Diagnostic Laboratory or an Extension Specialist, University of Massachusetts Extension Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Program.

Sources of Information from UMass Extension

The following Extension Specialists, services and educational resource materials are provided to you by University of Massachusetts Extension's Floriculture Program. This program is supported by a network of faculty at the University and nationwide to provide research results and information on environmentally safe production practices. Educational activities include newsletters, training programs, diagnostic services, research, and partnership with the Massachusetts Flower Growers' Association.

UMass Extension Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Staff

The Floriculture Staff consists of two Extension field staff with University support staff in production, post-harvest physiology, plant nutrition, pathology, entomology, biological control, and integrated pest management. For names, addresses and responsibilities of the Extension Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Staff, click on the following link: Meet the Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Team!

Greenhouse Publications

The following is available from the UMass Extension Bulletin Distribution Center:

New England Greenhouse Floricultural Recommendations; A Management Guide for Insects, Diseases, Weeds and Growth Regulators

UMass Extension Bookstore: https://umassextensionbookstore.com/products/category/57

UMass Extension Web Site

This Web Site is an educational resource provided by the University of Massachusetts Extension's Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Program. For more information, return to our Home Page. There you will find links to:

  • Fact Sheets on Topics of Interest to Commercial Flower Growers: Production of Specific Crops, Greenhouse Management, Insects and Diseases (and their control)
  • Educational Programs/Calendar of Events
  • Links to other Web Sites of interest to growersGuidelines for sending soil samples for soil testing
  • Guidelines for sending plant samples for disease diagnosis
  • Floral Notes, a bimonthly newsletter for commercial flower growers which provides research-based information pertinent to Massachusetts.

Other Resources

Partial List of Greenhouse Supply Companies

Partial List of Suppliers of IPM/Biological Control Products

Trade Magazines

Organizations

Local Marketing Groups in Massachusetts

There are eight "Buy Local" marketing groups in Massachusetts. Find the one nearest you at Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Pesticide Application Education/Training

Pesticide Education Program
Natalia Clifton, UMass Extension
Tel: 413-545-1044

Licensing/Exam Information
Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture
Pesticide Bureau,
100 Cambridge Street, 21st Floor
Boston, MA 02202
Tel: 617-626-1785

Web Sites of Interest

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Prepared by Tina M. Smith
Extension Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Program
University of Massachusetts

Updated 2013, reviewed 2015

Topics: 
Commercial Horticulture
Commercial Horticulture topics: 
Business Management
Crops
Greenhouse Management