A visitor to Battlefield Farms in Rapidan, Virginia, can expect to see thousands of colorful annual and perennial flowers, which makes plenty of sense at a flower farm.
Maybe less expected are the bubbling vats of entomopathogenic nematodes—microscopic worms that replace harmful pesticides by attacking major greenhouse pests that otherwise kill plants.
President Anthony Van Hoven says rearing those hungry nematodes is just another step in his ongoing effort to be sustainable, progressive and open minded.
Van Hoven, a second generation Dutch American, says his family had an early glimpse into the importance of sustainable growing on one of their regular visits to Holland. Not only do the Van Hovens visit their home country for fun, but also to import young plants and find cleaner approaches to floriculture.
Van Hoven says he noticed that Holland and other Western European countries had started outlawing harsh pesticides between 2009 and 2010. “We knew it was a matter of time before the laws came to the States,” he says. Battlefield began growing green in 2010 and has decreased its pesticide use each following year through alternative methods and better management practices.
“We’re trying to go more biological and stay green,” says Van Hoven. “That way we’re not applying harsh chemicals to our products and the environment.” Bio-controls are also safer for the employees who use them.
Bio controls save money and flowers
Hence the nematodes. These microorganisms are injected into the farm’s irrigation system and applied on flowers, where they feast on pests and bacteria without leaving a chemical residue. Van Hoven calls these kinds of natural alternatives “bio-controls.”
Another bio control Van Hoven uses is climate regulated greenhouses. More than a glass box, these facilities have fog machines that regulate humidity, sensors that automatically adjust heat and even entire roofs that open up to promote air flow.
Recently Van Hoven has started experimenting by placing certain species of flowers in coolers equipped with LED lights. Battlefield Farms has had coolers for years—essentially giant refrigerators for storing and preserving bulbs and bare roots.
Van Hoven and his team tried installing LED lights, humidifiers and supplemental liquid CO2 in some of the coolers to keep the environment as ideal as possible. Van Hoven says the new method can be life-saving for certain species.
Before, rooting young Heucheras in the greenhouse was a struggle, but by keeping them in the controlled environment of the cooler and under sole source LED lighting, the farm has decreased losses by roughly 32 percent.
The Van Hoven family also sells young perennial plants, called liners, to small farmers and flower sellers from Texas to New York. Their coolers and bio controls allow them to keep a larger and longer-lasting supply of these flowers than smaller growers. As a result, Battlefield has made a business of selling liners to smaller growers after they’ve run out.
In 13 years, Battlefield Farms has grown the liner-selling business from a few thousand dollars in sales to nearly $9 million.
Ahead of the curve
Beyond just equipment, Van Hoven attributes Battlefield Farms’ success to a mentality instilled in him by his father.
“My dad started this business and one of the things he always said was you’ve got to be ahead of the curve or you’ll be behind it,” he says.
That means entering new markets, trying new growing methods and experimenting with new plants.
Van Hoven did just this when he and his family decided to import wax-covered amaryllis bulbs from Europe and sell them in the States. The bulbs were a new and slightly unconventional product—customers simply buy them, set them out and wait for them to bloom without any watering or maintenance.
Battlefield approached several retail outlets with the new product and though several businesses were interested, they were all hesitant. This hesitancy cost Battlefield Farms tens-of-thousands of dollars in product they’d imported but couldn’t sell.
“It started off shaky and we lost noticeable amounts of money,” says Van Hoven. “But we knew from the beginning this was something that may or may not work.”
Battlefield Farms persisted though, and after a year, found a retailer for the bulbs. He says they’ve taken off and that all the customer feedback has been positive. Van Hoven says he is happy that the risk paid off; however, the core of Battlefield is not all about dollars and cents.
“We want customers to know what we stand for,” he says. “We always strive to make the right decisions.”