Plant operation a growing business for ARC

By John Underwood / john@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 6/30/17

LOXLEY, Alabama — How does your garden grow?

For clients at ARC of Baldwin County, it is not just about building a business, but providing a stepping stone to being productive members of the …

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Plant operation a growing business for ARC

Posted

LOXLEY, Alabama — How does your garden grow?

For clients at ARC of Baldwin County, it is not just about building a business, but providing a stepping stone to being productive members of the community.

“It’s more than just about learning a skill,” said Austin Young with ARCBC. “It’s about learning to be responsible and learning to work well with others to achieve a goal.”

It’s actually not a garden at all, but a plant operation that has grown into an opportunity to provide substantial supplemental funding for the non-profit organization, based in Loxley, which assists residents with mental and physical challenges.

Ellis Ollinger, CEO of Flowerwood Nursery, says it is a win-win situation for Flowerwood and for the ARC.

“Since we’re both based here in Loxley, we’ve tried several times to find something we could work together on and nothing ever seemed to click,” Ollinger said. “I think this time we’ve found the winning formula. They are able to work at their own pace and use this as a teaching tool, and they provide us with a product that we need.”

It all started about two years ago. ARC’s Daryl Haskew said he was considering applying for an $8,000 grant and was looking for a way to utilize approximately two acres of land on ARC’s property in Loxley.

“I knew (Ollinger) through other projects,” Haskew said. “I told him about the grant and asked his advice about possibly starting a greenhouse.”

While the idea was good in theory, Ollinger said, he advised Haskew against it.

“I said by all means go for the grant, but starting a greenhouse is a risky proposition,” he said. “Running a greenhouse is really a delicate operation that requires a lot of moving parts. You have a lot of upfront costs with really no guarantee that it’s going to work.”

Ollinger said a better idea would be to set up ARC with an operation similar to what Flowerwood does, which is to grow seedling plants in pots.

Workers set up an operation, filling pots with soil, then planting the seedlings in the pots and arranging them in groups. An irrigation system is set up to provide water and the plants are monitored and fertilizer is applied as needed. An open pole barn was also built to provide shelter for the plants.

“He said he could set us up with a few crepe myrtles to get started,” Haskew said. “I’m thinking a few hundred.”

But, Haskew said, workers from Flowerwood showed up with truckloads of dirt and about 4,000 plants.

ARC then approached their clients about running the operation and six came forward. Charlene Sullivan and Billie Englett were hired to oversee the program, which has grown into a 15,000- to 20,000-plant operation with a variety of shrubs growing in various stages.

Flowerwood then takes the plants and incorporates them into its own operation, Ollinger said.

Started by the Smith family in 1946, Flowerwood is a third generation family-owned business with growth operations in Baldwin and Mobile counties, as well as Florida and Georgia. The wholesale plant operation employs up to 800 workers with annual sales of $55 million to supply houses across the United States, including supplying to businesses like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

“(ARC) is a small but important part of our operation,” Ollinger said. “They are filling a need that we have and we are so grateful to have found a way to work with them in giving back to the community.”

Workers at ARC have also started a vegetable garden, growing a variety of plants, Haskew said.

The program is part of a Community Development Program through ARC, said Young. Workers are evaluated on their ability to complete simple tasks and are tested on their ability to get along with others and work together to complete a task.

“Through this program we have been able to place several of our clients in jobs working outside of our operation,” Young said.

The response has been nothing short of amazing, Haskew said.

“If you really want to know about the success of this program, talk to their parents and guardians,” Haskew said. “Since this has started, we’ve heard so many stories about how their attitudes have changed; about how the way they carry themselves has changed. It’s about providing them with something they can take pride in and the feeling they get knowing they can make a difference. That’s really what it’s all about.”