The next level

Features - Generation Next Class of 2015

Matt Foertmeyer has been around growing operations his whole life. Now he’s eager to take his career, and his family’s company, to the next level.

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November 24, 2015

Matt Foertmeyer wants to grow the highest quality plant for his customers.
Photo courtesy of Matt Foertmeyer

When Matt Foertmeyer was in middle school, his father gave him a project. Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse had opened a few years earlier, when Matt was five. The company grew mostly annuals. As a fun side project, Mark Foertmeyer, Matt’s father, asked Matt to grow a perennial crop. His brother would assist him in growing the plants and the duo would be able to split whatever profits they generated.

“We made a ton of mistakes,” Matt says. “But it was fun. We didn’t get much profit because we made mistakes, but it was still fun to do.”

It was Matt’s first taste of growing. And he knew almost immediately that it was what he wanted to do.

Grabbing the reins

Foertmeyer and Sons has been expanding rapidly. The company primarily grows annuals for fundraising groups, but also sports a healthy retail operation. An additional acre of production was just added to their Delaware, Ohio facility.

Matt went to college at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated in 2006 with a Bachelor’s degree in crop science and after a short stint away returned to his family’s company. He is now one of the company’s two head growers and the production manager. His days are hectic. During his “crazy” season, he arrives early in the morning and meets with the company’s other head grower and discusses cultural strategies. Then the duo meet with the rest of the staff, explain the plan and spend the rest of the day implementing it.

Matt is also the production manager, so his responsibilities extend to the shipping and handling of the plants, which brings him away from the greenhouse.

But office-bound work isn’t where he finds his reward. Matt prefers to be with the plants, getting his hands dirty. He says he does a lot of scouting and examining plant health. If he finds something, he devises a response strategy and then a future prevention plan. His favorite plants to grow are annuals, which account for approximately 75 percent of Foertmeyer and Sons total crop output.

Matt says they specialize in hanging baskets. “Those tend to be our biggest sellers in the fundraising program,” he says. They begin their baskets in early January, earlier than most other growers in the region. Then they grow hanging baskets until May. He says he tries to encourage slow, compact growth within the crop.

“It’s a long season, but we put a lot of effort into our baskets,” he says. “I think that’s one reason why they look the way they do and why we are known for them.”

Foertmeyer and Sons has also been offering a new container for the fundraising market. They call it a “mumkin,” a pumpkin container filled with mums. Matt says that they started the program in 2008 and since then the growth has been rapid. He estimates that in 2008 they sold 12,000 mumkins. In 2014, they sold 80,000.

“We’re at the point where we can’t really grow any more crops in our facility,” he says. “It’s almost maxed out.”

Water and digital eyes

While he knew that his career would eventually land at his family’s company, in 2006 Matt spent time as an intern at Westhoff, the greenhouse vegetable grower and breeder in Germany, after he graduated from college.

“I interned with them for three months. They were a mega grower, super technologically advanced. They had all of the bells and whistles,” he says. “Ever since then, I’ve been really interested in that side of our industry, the technology.”

When Matt returned to Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse, he brought his newfound love of technology with him. “I’ve really tried to build that side of our company and advance us in those areas,” he says.

Almost three years ago, while pursuing technology developments, an opportunity arose. His family’s company wanted to invest in irrigation booms. Matt was looking for a very specific feature in the equipment, he wanted the booms to be “smart.” For Matt, that meant booms that knew when and how much to water individual crops.

“I was looking at all of these different companies and none of their booms were really doing what I wanted,” he says. “I have an environmental control company that I work with out of Quebec. Basically, I went to them and said, ‘I need a boom that can do this,’ and they were willing to work with me.”

Foertmeyer says one of his favorite parts of his job is scouting.
Photo courtesy of Matt Foertmeyer

Matt’s boom works like this: It always knows its position in the bay and it and it always knows what crop it’s watering.

“For example, if I had a 10,000 square foot bay of plants, I might have three different types of crops in there. This boom is intelligent enough to know when one crop ends and when another crop begins, and it can irrigate according to crop,” he says. “If I’ve got a crop of petunias that need to be irrigated and a crop of marigolds that do not, the boom will irrigate the petunias and nothing else. I can also irrigate crops differently. So I can irrigate the petunias more, the marigolds less, or vice versa. There are a lot of parameters I can set for this boom.”

Matt says that several companies have created booms that use some part of this technology, but none have molded it together. “It’s all being controlled by flow moisture sensors, so things are happening automatically,” he says.

A beta version of the boom was installed at Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse three years ago. This year, Matt’s company decided to install a full-scale bay of the booms and has been extremely pleased with the results. Visser, an American supplies company, and Damatex, the Quebec-based company that helped him design the boom, released it to the public this year at Cultivate’15 and have already made a couple of sales.

“I feel like this technology could revolutionize the industry,” Matt says.

Rooting for better communication

Since assuming a larger role with the company, Matt has similarly grown within the industry. He sits on the Growing Committee for AmericanHort. He hears what other growers are struggling with. He hears the possible solutions, the ideas for industry-wide growth. And, for him, there is a need for better communication.

“You’ve got all of these rooting stations all over the United States and they’re rooting plant material for you to grow in the spring. But it’s always a crapshoot as to whether or not you’re going to get the plant material you need, on time,” he says. “You question whether or not you’re going to get the plant material as advertised.”

Photo courtesy of Matt Foertmeyer
Foertmeyer spends much of his off-time with his family.

He says that there have been issues that better communication would have resolved. If you received a call a week before the material is supposed to arrive, it can really throw off your planning and scheduling, Matt says.

“I have been really trying to push for better communication from rooting stations to the end-user. I’m trying to get feedback. I’ve talked to a quite a few people about this,” he says. “There seems to be this mentality that the rooting station isn’t allowed to communicate directly with the grower. Everything has to be filtered through the seed company or the breeding company. There are lines of communication, before they get to us, and that can slow things down significantly.”

To help remedy the issue, Matt is hoping to organize some roundtables on the subject, potentially for the next Cultivate.