Cultivating a legacy

Departments - Meet the Grower: Joe Rahn

Fourth-generation grower Joe Rahn carries on a 130-year-old family tradition at A.J. Rahn Greenhouses.

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February 25, 2020

The Rahn family from left to right: Susan Rahn Patten, Mary Patten Sharp, Katie Rahn Hau, Andrew (Andy) Rahn, Debbie Rahn and Joe Rahn
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DAN SMyTH

A lot has changed at A.J. Rahn Greenhouses since Joe Rahn’s great grandpa started the business 130 years ago. As the crops, processes and equipment continue to evolve, Rahn joins the generations before him to uphold the family’s legacy of producing quality plants.

The business began back in 1890, when John Rahn began growing vegetables to sell at local markets around Cincinnati. In the mid-1950s, as the national highway system brought cheaper veggies from West Coast climates, Joe’s father (and company namesake, Albert John Rahn) began experimenting with flowers. By the mid-’60s, the operation had shifted from lettuce and tomatoes to retail ornamental plants.

Joe Rahn grew up working in his family’s greenhouse during the transition to potted crops and annuals. While learning the growing aspect of the business under his father’s leadership, Rahn studied marketing at Xavier University “to get a better take on business,” he says, knowing he’d be next in line to take over the company.

Rahn became a partner in the business around the mid-1980s. Today, he co-owns the company with his sister, Susan Patten. While sharing the title of CEO, she oversees the retail operations, and he follows his forefathers’ footsteps as head grower.

Equipped with more than a century of growing experience, Rahn continues to lead his family’s greenhouse forward, while preparing the way for the next generation.

Joe's father, Albert Rahn, center, with a tomato plant

Knowledge transfer

Working closely alongside his father in the greenhouse, Rahn learned how to grow a wide variety of healthy plants. As the business grew, adding more employees and more production space, his father also taught him how to effectively manage people.

“I learned from my father how to work with people, how to manage them better,” he says. “He was a sergeant in the Army, so he knew how to get things done. He taught me to expect a lot out of people, but also to understand their limitations and their strongpoints, and apply people where they work best.”

Over time, the operation has grown from a handful of employees to nearly 20. The team still comprises several family members — including Rahn’s son, Andrew, who’s an assistant grower.

Rahn takes a hands-on approach to transferring his knowledge on to Andrew and the other growers — demonstrating tasks by doing rather than just telling, and asking everyone to keep careful notes so they can all stay on the same page.

“They record what they watered and what they applied so the next person who may have to take over can read what was done. You can always fall back on that,” Rahn says. “When we make mistakes, that’s written down, so we don’t make that same mistake again.”

A.J. Rahn Greenhouses started out as a vegetable grower, but pivoted to flower production in the 1950s.

Updating old ways

Rahn is quick to admit that A.J. Rahn Greenhouses “is not a state-of-the-art-operation. It’s an old place and an old-fashioned way of growing,” he says. While many tasks, like transplanting, are still done by hand, the operation has gradually evolved by making small improvements over time.

For example, Rahn is starting to update the greenhouses with automatic ventilation controls. “They do a better job of keeping the temperature right on spot,” he says. Likewise, a new pot-filling machine “fills pots twice as fast,” and a mixing machine “makes larger volumes of soil mixes,” he says. “It just makes us more productive.”

Although the operation is far from fully automated, these updates help Rahn streamline some old-fashioned processes. “Our production area is definitely more efficient today than it used to be 10 or 15 years ago,” he says.

Growth ahead

When Rahn began working in the family business, A.J. Rahn Greenhouses spanned about 40,000 square feet. Gleaning steady expansions through the years, the production space now covers about 80,000 square feet, while retail encompasses about 20,000. The family is planning more growth ahead, on both sides of the business.

“Last year, we built two new gutter-connect greenhouses,” Rahn says. “We put up a 6,000-square-foot range, with the capacity to add another six greenhouses covering approximately 20,000 square feet.

We’re going to build two greenhouses a year, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 square feet at a time.”

After that, the next stage of growth will be expanding the retail space with a new building. Rahn says the 12-acre property offers plenty of room to grow — enabling them to produce more plants and serve more customers. As the business advances into the fifth generation, greenhouses full of healthy plants speak volumes about the Rahn family’s shared passion.

“When you achieve a beautiful-looking crop, that gives you a good feeling,” Rahn says. “People come in and say, ‘Wow, these are really beautiful,’ but they don’t realize all that it took to create. That’s part of your reward in this business, is seeing that living color you helped produce, with all the variables you had to battle.”

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Greenhouse Management magazine.