"There is a difference, come see it," shares Del Rae Cushman of Cushman's Greenhouse in Belmont. With more than 1,000 varieties of annuals, perennials and vegetables in stock over the course of the year, Cushman's has been a staple in Southwest Wisconsin's green industry. Loyal customers have been coming back to see them for over 30 years.
It all started in the 1970s, when Steve Cushman and his father started growing vegetables, flowers and houseplants at their family home. Business blossomed in 1977, when the father-son team quit their jobs and built the first of what would over time become a total of 20 greenhouses.
Today, Steve and his wife Del Rae own and operate the business with the help of a dedicated team of employees.
"It is safe to say that 80% of our product is sold in a six-week period during the spring," says Steve. During the peak of the season, more than 45 employees work at the Belmont location as well as three other remote locations where the Cushman's sell their products.
"You have to wear many hats as a small business owner," notes Steve. "Not only do you have to deal with the day-to-day operations of a business but you have to deal with the same issues everyone in agriculture has.-- dealing with a perishable product, crop timing, insects and disease. Maintaining control is the key."
One of the ways Cushman's keep their plants healthy is by using a soilless potting mix to provide ideal growing conditions, free of disease.
While the spring provides a vast majority of business, fall and winter have bright spots too. Over 8,000 poinsettias are started in August to be ready for the holiday season.
"Customers don't realize how early we have to plan ahead in order to deliver the products they are looking for in the spring," says Del Rae. "Spring really starts for us in August as we begin planning and ordering for the next season. January and February is when the materials start to pour in. Once spring sales have wrapped up in June, our fall materials start coming in."
Change happens over time. During the past decade, Cushman's have seen a dramatic change in where their products are sold. In the past, a majority of sales were on a wholesale level to stores and distributors. Today, Cushman's relies primarily on retail sales from their main greenhouses as well as the remote seasonal locations, including one in Dubuque, Iowa.
"We are seeing a push from customers for homegrown and local food and plants," says Steve. "The buy local movement has been driving some of our increased retail activity. Markets continue to change and customer preference evolves. It's our job to monitor those wants so we avoid wasting valuable space in greenhouses."
Not only do consumers today want to buy locally, they want plants that require less work. Larger pots and pre-arranged planters have been a growing trend over time. Larger plants tend to be hardier and more consumer friendly because many customers today do not have time to care for plants.
"I like to grow things that customers will have success with," said Steve. "We want to see people continue to enjoy gardening and growing flowers. We enjoy what we do and plan to be in this business for years to come."