Riding a wave of success
by Sally Colby
In 1970, David and Rose Ruhlig started a 43-acre farm and greenhouse business in Carleton, MI. With four young children to care for as they established their business, the Ruhligs brought their children to work.
Rob, one of the Ruhlig siblings, recalled his early life on the farm. “When we were growing up, my father would give us an acre of ground to grow a crop or a project in the greenhouse,” he said. “He marketed the crops for us, and in many cases, the farm did so well that the crop became part of the farm’s lineup. We got the revenue for it, so we were always excited to see what we could grow and make on a crop. I paid for my very first truck when I was 16.”
Rob and his brother Jason continued their education at Michigan State University where they studied horticulture. “We paid for college from savings, all from special projects my dad allowed us to do,” said Rob. “One year I grew enough jalapeños to pay for a year of college. My sisters had projects too – they grew herbs and flowers for cutting.”
Some of the special projects turned into new products for the business. “We hadn’t grown containerized plants, just flats,” said Rob. “Then we got into hanging baskets. As the trend grew for patio pots, that became one of my projects. I started making combination planters – one year I had 250, then 500 and now we do 50,000.”
Today, Rob is in charge of marketing, promotion and sales of farm and greenhouse products – the position his dad previously had. He took over floor sales at the Eastern Market after graduating from college. “As more family members became involved, I needed to find other markets, so I expanded sales from local in the Detroit area to larger chain stores,” he said. “Now we’re also expanding to out-of-state sales throughout the Midwest.”
Jason is the farm manager and handles planting, harvesting and labor. Sister Kristine Marsai handles office duties including HR, bookkeeping, food safety and greenhouse management. Sister Tammy Dietrich is the grower.
While many greenhouses and garden centers are unsure whether they’ll get what they need for the coming season, Ruhlig Farm and Garden Center has that aspect covered. Their own Ruhlig Farm is the wholesale arm of the operation, and in addition to selling to a number of retail outlets, the farm supplies stock for their garden center.
Planting begins the first week of February with seeding of annual flowers and vegetables, followed by transplanting in March. “During that time, vegetative cuttings come in from different sources,” said Rob, “then we start planting larger containers. Annuals, perennials, vegetable plants, containerized plants and hanging baskets are marketed to independent grocers and garden centers in the Detroit area – including our own retail operation in Brownstown, Michigan.”
After spring, operations switch to transplants for vegetable crops in the greenhouse. “We farm about 1,500 acres and have about 15 acres of greenhouses in Carleton,” said Rob. “Transplants go into the field in March, April and May.”
As summer approaches, harvest of greens begins – collards, turnips, mustard, kale and cabbage – followed by a selection of hot-weather favorites including summer squash, cucumbers and sweet corn. “There’s a little bit of transition time from flowers to planting time and waiting for the first crop,” said Rob. “We start marketing flowers in Detroit, then to the stores we deliver to directly, then transition to vegetables.”
By the end of summer, the greenhouses are empty other than mums. That’s when pumpkins, gourds and squash take center stage. “We bale our straw for fall decorations, and grow a lot of different pumpkins and gourds,” said Rob. “They supply our store as well as the same customers we sell produce to.” For the Christmas season, the Ruhligs bring in finished poinsettias and Fraser firs from North Carolina. They make and decorate their own wreaths, roping and Christmas porch pots.
Rob said about 50% of the greenhouse stock produced on the wholesale side is sold through the retail operation. “Controlling your destiny as far as what you’re producing and where it’s marketed and what you’re selling it for is a grower’s best friend,” he said. “Knowing there’s a viable outlet for the product and knowing what we’re going to get for the product goes toward being successful.” He added that customers also benefit from a consistent product line.
To ensure they’re growing what customers want, the Ruhlig team keeps an eye on the latest style and color trends. “One year pink might sell really well and the next best color is orange,” he said. “We’re looking at colors and trying to guess the ‘next best thing.’” Rob added that the garden center serves as an incubator for the wholesale operation, and when they want to determine whether a new product will be successful, customer response provides automatic feedback. “We don’t grow a lot on the wholesale side until we know there’s a home for it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work for someone else, it isn’t going to work for us.”
Raising 1,500 acres of vegetables requires intensive cultivation and lots of planning. “If we want to be successful vegetable growers, we have to rotate to keep the operation viable,” said Rob. “We partner with a local grain farmer to switch out portions of the vegetable ground with his grain acreage every year on a three-year rotation with corn, soybeans and wheat. We harvest the straw from the wheat, then plant those acres in vegetables again.”
The Ruhligs found that media sources such as Pinterest and cooking shows have helped bring attention to less common vegetables. “Five years ago I couldn’t sell a box of kale,” said Rob, adding that he goes to the Eastern Market in Detroit to market produce to independent grocers and restaurants. “I would take a pallet of kale, 42 cases, and it would take me a week to sell it. But after kale was introduced as a superfood that’s full of vitamins, we now sell around 200,000 boxes of kale each year.”
Rob said when people were faced with the possibility of inconsistent food supplies in 2020, many turned to gardening. “2020 was a year like no other for the vegetable and greenhouse industry,” he said. “Everyone was rushing to local suppliers to find vegetable plants, and that was already trending up. People had free time at home and were getting back to gardening and doing things outside that weren’t risky to their health. It was a bump for the greenhouse industry, and a bump for people consuming vegetables.”
The gardening trend continued into 2021. “We built on 2020 and continued to ride that wave in 2021,” said Rob. “People were still spending more time at home.” He predicts that with rising costs, people will continue to garden as an alternative to other activities.
There’s no question that Dave and Rose’s wisdom helped engage their children in the business. Rob has seen the younger generation in some farm families become disenfranchised because they can’t see the revenue to justify their existence on the farm.
“Everyone likes growing up on a farm, but it has to make money,” said Rob. “Not enough people are creative enough to find ways to upscale the operation or expand into different areas that continue to support the family, and we were able to do that. It teaches not just the hard work part, which isn’t always fun, but when we could work and get money for it, it changes the mentality about what the work is worth. We could see the whole aspect of the business from costs, hours of labor, how many containers it took to sell and the distribution. It teaches all aspects of the farm business.”
The success of the Ruhlig family is due to everyone in the family having a specific role and working independently yet as a team. “We’ve found success in the fact that everyone has their own responsibilities, and we try not to cross over as to who does what,” said Rob. “As long as everyone does their job, nobody worries about what others are doing and everything gets done.”