Holland transplants thrive in Franklin County
|Published: 10-10-2023 9:18 AM
A recent Home & Garden column featured Supreme Microgreens, a burgeoning home business founded this year by two UMass Amherst students in their early 20s. It seems fitting, then, that today’s spotlight is on a Deerfield-based company founded 30 years ago by two friends in their early 20s.
The proprietors of Pioneer Gardens, Arjen Vriend and Jaap Molenaar, not only launched a farm that continues to thrive, they’ve expanded their project in ways that significantly benefit scores of horticulturalists and growers, as well as business owners and workers in many industries.
In the mid-1980s, Vriend and Molenaar attended a three-year community college in their native Holland, each majoring in horticulture. They had no inkling that, before long, they’d work in the U.S. for the same flower bulb company as sales reps, nor that — a few years later — they would co-found their own business.
Vriend came to the U.S. in 1988 at age 19 to work as a sales rep without knowing that Molenaar had just secured a similar position with the same firm. “It was entirely coincidental that we both ended up in this area,” said Vriend, who was hired to cover northern New England and northern New York State, while Molenaar was responsible for southern New England and southern New York State.
Vriend’s father owned a flower bulb company in the Netherlands, so the younger Vriend had experience working in horticulture, mainly exporting gladioli to Italy. When he started the job in New England, however, he found it challenging. “That was before the internet, and before big box stores started selling bulbs,” said Vriend, a Greenfield resident. “I spent a lot of time knocking on doors, looking up businesses in the yellow pages, and going from retailer to retailer. It wasn’t an easy start, but I learned a lot.”
In 1992, Vriend and Molenaar wanted to start their own farm and chose Deerfield as the site for their project. “Connecticut River Valley farmland is excellent, and Deerfield is halfway between where we each lived,” said Vriend, who at the time lived in New Hampshire, while Molenaar was in Connecticut. “Any further north would have been too cold, and further south was too expensive.”
They each commuted 90 minutes to their shared farm on weekends while continuing their sales rep jobs, maintaining that schedule for a couple of years until going full time with their own business.
Pioneer Gardens produces and markets high-quality perennial starter plants, providing both field-grown bare root and greenhouse plugs directly to wholesale growers and finishers throughout North America. “We sell to growers who sell to retailers,” said Vriend, “and at this time of year, we do a lot of shipping.” He noted that New England has retained more independent garden centers than any other part of the country. “There are some in the Midwest and a few in the south and southeast, but the industry has dramatically changed since we started out. A lot of it has gone over to big distributors, so we had to change with the times.”
Although the company doesn’t market to individual growers, local flower enthusiasts are encouraged to take a look at the Pioneer Gardens website; their product pages are feasts for the eyes and will likely fire up those who seek ideas for enhancing gardens and jump-starting landscape design plans. One could get lost in a blooming reverie while perusing species of achillea, anemone, astilbe, campanula, dicentra, heliopsis, hemerocallis, heuchera, hosta, hydrangea, lavandula, phlox, salvia, veronica, and so much more. (I even found a veronica that shares my first name!) But keep a hankie handy, folks: you’re probably gonna drool.
Guiding principles of Pioneer Gardens include conducting business in an environmentally responsible fashion and investing in employees’ skill development. They also continuously improve efficiency by opting for mechanization and automation when appropriate. And they listen to customers, responding to feedback with curiosity and creativity.
Given recent devastating rainfalls, one might wonder how Pioneer Gardens may have been affected. Vriend said, “Our farm was soaked with well over 20 inches of rain this summer, and the daylilies love it. As a result, we have a bumper crop of Hemerocallis.” That sort of glass-half-full attitude typifies Vriend’s approach to business and to life.
Another impressive example of positivity is the way Vriend and Molenaar have adapted to major shifts in business and distribution trends, while simultaneously supporting independent plant breeders in bringing products to market. They do so through a network known as GardenChoice, an alliance of four horticultural companies providing focused and cost-effective ways to introduce innovative ornamental plant genetics to the North American market.
When a plant breeder comes up with a new specimen, trials must be run to determine whether it’s truly different from or better than what’s already on the market. Officially introducing a new plant is a rigorous process involving not only breeding, but also propagation, marketing, and branding. “Large-scale breeders can do all of that more easily and are inclined to market their own products rather than promoting small-scale breeders, including hobbyists,” said Vriend. “Big companies don’t want to share royalties, so independent breeders tend to lose out, since they don’t have the same means to bring their plants to the marketplace.”
GardenChoice gives those breeders access to labs, product marketing, and expertise. “If a breeder is approved for a patent,” said Vriend, “it’s good for 20 years, giving them protection and access to royalties. Otherwise, there’s no incentive. It’s a competitive and difficult market to crack.” Vriend added that large companies may sell lesser quality products, but can do so for lower prices.
In addition to running a wholesale plant company for three decades and advocating for independent breeders, Vriend and Molenaar recently added another whole aspect to their operation. “Just over a year ago, we became the exclusive New England and New York distributor of LiveRoof Green Roof Systems,” said Vriend. “Territory became available, and we took advantage of a beautiful opportunity to diversify our business.”
Founded in Michigan 20 years ago, the company provides live roof modules in the U.S. and Canada. “Green roofs have a cooling aspect,” said Vriend. “We build [the modules] four, six, or eight inches deep, and install them on roofs fully grown.” The modules contain a mixture of sedums and other plants, but the 8” option can also support small shrubs. Vriend cited a wide range of benefits that come with live roof installation. For example, many municipal stormwater systems are overloaded due to the preponderance of concrete and asphalt; green roofs can absorb a great deal of rain water, depending on the area.
“Ours is a better climate for green roofs than, say, California,” according to Vriend. “Rainfall here is generally spread out over the course of a year, and green roofs can reduce stress on sewer systems while cleaning the water, acting as a sponge and filtration system.”
Depending on the plant mix and soil thickness, the irrigation required for green roofs in our area can be minimal. “It’s different in Atlanta or San Francisco,” said Vriend. In addition to reducing stormwater runoff, upsides include increased oxygen and reduced carbon dioxide levels. Green roofs can dampen and reduce noise — a boon to occupants of buildings situated near industry and traffic — while cutting the costs of air conditioning in an era of climbing temperatures. The modules also can reduce the risk of fires.
The addition of plants and soil to roofs provides habitat for bees, butterflies, insects, and songbirds. Another plus is that LiveRoof modules, pavers, edging, and other accessories are all manufactured in the United States, according to their website. And although flat roofs are ideal for this sort of project, Vriend emphasized that it can work well on pitched roofs, too. “There’s even such a thing as green walls,” he added.
It would be an understatement to say that Vriend’s entrepreneurial projects keep him busy, yet he prioritizes family time. With his wife, Aija, and their seven-year-old daughter, Vriend loves to spend weekends cycling and taking road trips to Vermont and other nearby destinations. “I enjoy life’s simple things,” he said, “and even though I have a farm business, I also garden at home. On one hand, a home garden can feel like work, but it also feels good. Gardening is excellent for mental health and relaxation. I think we should emphasize that more in my industry: the rewards and stress reduction of growing plants.”
Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, musician, and mom. Readers may contact her at email@example.com.