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Grower profile: Organic Landscape Plants for Sale

by Susan McCue, editor, Small Farm News

"All these plants have a story," says Solomon Teklu as he surveys his organic plant nursery on a tiny plot in Davis, California. Teklu, who owns Belless Nursery in Davis, started his enterprise 10 years ago armed only with cuttings from the UC Davis Arboretum and neighbors' yards.

Teklu used his cuttings, and eventually seeds, to grow an incredible array of organic edible herbs, ornamentals, and vegetables that he sells in 3-inch, 4-inch, and gallon sized pots or in pony packs to retail outlets in the Davis/Sacramento area.

But his plants aren't the only ones with a story. Teklu came to Davis from Ethiopia, where he served as a community development worker whose clientele primarily included peasants. After spending time in Boston, Teklu came to UC Davis where he earned a bachelor's degree in soil and water science in 1982.

Following graduation, he spent four years as the coordinator of the UC Davis Student Farm Demonstration Garden. But his desire to spend more time with his growing family led to the idea of starting his own organic nursery. There he could use his soil and water science background and also maintain more flexible work hours. A member of the California Organic Foods Advisory Board, Teklu grows his potted landscape plants in accordance with the California Organic Foods Act of 1990. He sells his organic plants to wholesalers for less than conventional landscape plants because he develops his own fertilizer and biocontrol.

"This much waste matter I've converted into $1.50," he says as he proudly holds up a handful of his customized fertilizer. Adds Teklu, "I use conservation biology methods. If I have a problem, I try to find the solution naturally. If the problem is caused by insects eating my plants, then I develop habitat for natural enemies of those bad insects."

Teklu says that the difference in his pest management program is this: rather than physically moving the predator to the pest, (the conventional method), he introduces the predator to his nursery and lets nature take its course.

Conservation biology methods continue in his small greenhouse, where he keeps row upon row of plug trays. Again, his methods save him money. "If you have been in other greenhouses and the plants are at this stage," says Teklu, "and you ask what their pest control protocol is, they would say they spray three times a week year round. I don't have pest management as an expense."

He also relies totally on solar energy to heat his plant structures. He currently is building an outdoor plant shelter using sheet metal recycled from neighbors' roofs.

Teklu says he could sell whatever he grows during March and April, and is working towards improving his operation's organizational methods to meet that demand. Explaining his success, he says, "I've been able to find a niche," "I tend to sell more plants for the same footage." Instead of the traditional flat containing 16 4-inch plants, Teklu sells 25 3-inch plants per tray. "Wholesalers like that," he says.

For now his growing enterprise remains limited to the land lent to him by his community on a use permit basis.But Teklu has big plans for the future. "I need my own land," he says, where he will continue sharing his conservation biology methods with growers and the public.

Sidebar: Solomon Teklu's Views on the Organic Industry

"In paving the way for the implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the proposed (Organic Program) rules should not burden, disqualify, or shortchange organic production efforts based on principles and practices of conservation biology," says Teklu. "Currently there is ample scientific information that explains how agricultural crops and livestock can acquire production inputs instead of industrial chemicals. Among these emerging alternatives, the most promising and sustainable are production practices based on conservation biology as the basis for biologically integrated production systems.""

Regarding potential demand, Teklu thinks organic food and fibers will be preferred commodities in the next century. According to Teklu, conventional production practices are widely recognizable as unsustainable and continually generate lower returns with higher inputs. (In 1997, Teklu states, at yields of 32 tons per acre, California processing tomato growers lost about $3.44 per ton, totaling a loss of $110.08 per acre.)

"There is a ready global market for anything organic, provided the product has certified integrity and preferential appeal, both in substance and quality, " he says. Therefore Teklu reasons that organic operations implemented soon have a strong chance of capturing lucrative markets, particularly in the areas of organic livestock products, medicinal herbs, apparel, and nursery products.