Facing challenges, dealing with disasters, and toughing out hard times are not things Hank Richardson enjoys, but he is good at them. Born on a modest farm in Centre, Alabama, Richardson and his two older brothers, Harlan and Jerry, always worked together seamlessly. But they needed to branch out from the family operation that grew row crops and raised cattle and hogs because it wasn’t big enough to support them all. Gathering advice from a friend who owned a greenhouse and garden center, the brothers came up with a plan to go into the flower growing business.
They started Richardson Greenhouse in 1974 with a quarter of an acre and some geranium and other cuttings from their grandmother’s yard. Hank Richardson remembers, “We built a 28 X 96 foot greenhouse and started learning how to grow and sell plants and delivered them on a pickup truck with a camper shell on top. We got a lot of support from our friends and neighbors in the community and just learned as we went along.”
Building incremental success over those first few years, they merged in 1979 with another local greenhouse, Foliage Farms. That’s when Dixie Green came into being. Richardson says, “That first year we had about three acres of greenhouse and two delivery trucks but continued to expand our facilities and markets.”
Today Hank Richardson and his two sons, John and Daniel, have 35 local employees and add more during the busy seasons. John is head grower; Daniel is in charge of irrigation and trucking and shipping; Dad Hank runs the office and keeps up with invoicing. Altogether they have twelve acres of heated greenhouse space and around eight acres of outdoor pad growing space. Yields are as follows: 250,000 poinsettia plants yielding $56,440 per acre; 250,000 fall mums yielding $50,363 per acre; 325,0000 caladiums yielding $116,667 per acre; 40,000 calla lilies yielding $152,925 per acre; 15,000 ferns yielding $35,590 per acre; and 735,000 assorted flowers and plants yielding $196,206 per acre.
Dixie Green grows annuals for national store chains and produces up to half a million spring plants per year. Richardson says, “We sell our products directly to wholesale consumers and contract grow most of our production for Young’s Plant Farm in Auburn, Alabama. We anticipate sales on non-contract crops based on previous year sales and expected growth in sales.” Since this is a soil-less growing medium, plants are grown in peat moss, a blended soil with some additives that originates in peat bogs in Canada. Richardson notes, “That’s a lot of peat moss—approximately fifty tractor trailer loads per year.”
Over the last four decades Dixie Green has obtained some high-profile accounts, including being a major poinsettia supplier for Walt Disney World in Orlando, which purchases over 80,000 plants per year—poinsettias and caladiums—mostly used at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. The varieties can come in half a dozen colors. They also sell to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville and to the home of university president at Jacksonville State, as well as independent garden centers.
Because the business owns six tractor trailer trucks, five straight trucks with van boxes, and a small van, they deliver their own flowers all across the southeastern US. Seventy to eighty percent of what’s grown is pre-sold and the other 20 percent is used for annual fundraiser sales.
Richardson adds, “We are proud of our sales to schools, churches, service organizations like FFA, and clubs for their various fundraisers. Sometimes it’s a high school football or baseball team using our locally-grown flowers. They can pretty much double their money on things like spring ferns, variety baskets, fall mums, and poinsettias, and we deliver what they sell.”
The Richardson’s have experimented over the years with as many as 80 to 90 different types of poinsettias. The so-called Picasso, for example, is known for its mixed color, a white leaf with red dots. The Jingle Bells is a red leaf with white flakes. Once the plants are rooted in July, they’re watered (using mostly overhead irrigation) and treated for aphids, fungus gnats, spider mites, and white flies. Richardson comments, “We keep a close eye on temperatures of course and the amount of sunlight plants get. You must have the right day length to produce red leaves.”
As to conservation efforts, Richardson comments, “We try to save energy by opening up greenhouses section by section as space is needed, and heat only what must be heated. We recycle plastics and use a steam generator to sterilize pots and trays so they can be reused. We also utilize old greenhouse poly tops as divider walls inside the greenhouses, which were built to conserve energy, and use some electric vehicles. Most of our structures are natural flow ventilation houses that don’t require fans to cool them. We’ve also built a two-acre pond to store water that catches rain water runoff from an adjacent hillside.”
As with most agricultural enterprises through the ages, Dixie Green has had its fair share of ups and downs. In November 1983, in the early years of the joint venture, the brothers had to deal with a devastating warehouse fire. “The structure,” Richardson recalls, “was wood frame with fiberglass sides and double-decked. It was full of spring supplies. Afterward, nothing of the 40 X 320 foot structure was left.” Another hunker down and salvage effort was required to rebuild the business.
Then, in March 1993, at the beginning of the shipping season, Mother Nature decided to dump two feet of wet snow onto northeastern Alabama. It caved in about one-third of Dixie Green’s production space on four acres. The entire area was without power, thus heat, light, and water. Richardson says, “We worked and worked to grow plants among the collapsed greenhouses. Through ingenuity and determination, we kept sales volume up near previous year levels, despite losing a third of our production area.”
In 2007 sales decreased because of severe drought conditions, and in 2011 Hank and Jerry’s brother, Harlan Richardson, then company president, passed away. “Every year we face new challenges,” says Richardson. And every year he and his sons donate considerable time and effort to their local Ellisville Volunteer Fire Department where Richardson is now Chief. Both John and Daniel are also paramedics.
When fires break out in lightly populated rural areas with a lot of timberland, they can be caused by a number of events, both natural and human. The Richardson’s have used tankers to haul lifesaving water to house, cotton bale, hay baler, and woodland fires. “It can be a little inconvenient at times,” Richardson says, “but it’s rewarding to be able to help our neighbors in times of need.”
Hank Richardson is a member of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, past secretary/treasurer of the Cherokee County Farms Federation, and has spent years helping coach local kids baseball and soccer teams. Hank and Sheila, his wife of nearly forty years, are very active in their church, Providence Baptist. Both have been Sunday school and Training Union teachers there Hank has served as a trustee.
Sheila attends Alabama Farmers Federal State meetings as well as annual commodity meetings and is known for her superior Southern cooking skills at the local and state levels. For a number of years she has also been the full-time assistant manager at the local radio station, WEIS, 990 AM. “It’s an enterprise that’s greatly appreciated in the region,” Hank Richardson adds, “one that keeps listeners updated on weather events that are so essential to an agricultural community. They broadcast country music and gospel music on Sundays too, which we enjoy.”
When it’s not all hands to the pump during the slower times, the Richardson’s enjoy going fishing and hunting. Hank says, “We schedule our deer, squirrel, and rabbit hunting trips between mum and poinsettia shipping times.”
Nursery farming and the greenhouse business have taught Hank Richardson some valuable life lessons: “Through the hardships and the good times, I’ve learned never to give up, to stay humble, and to keep my eyes on the goal. While one crop is growing, we’re working on the next one. We can water, fertilize, and spray our plants, but it takes God to help things grow. He is in control.”
Hank Richardson was nominated for Alabama Farmer of the Year by Kyle Hayes. Of his old friend, Hayes says, “I have known him since he started the greenhouse business many years ago and have watched how he has overcome an array of adversities and steadily grown the business through hard work and a refusal to take shortcuts. He is a man of devout faith, with an ever present smile and a servant’s heart. I believe he is an awesome advocate for agriculture and a wonderful representative for Alabama.”
As the Alabama winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Richardson will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Richardson is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Alabama include: Ricky Wiggins of Anderson, 1990; George Kiser, Sr. of Foley, 1991; Allen Bragg of Toney, 1992; Sykes Martin of Courtland, 1993; David Pearce of Browns, 1994; Glenn Jones of Blountsville, 1995; Raymond Jones of Huntsville, 1996; Dan Miller of Greensboro, 1997; Homer Tate of Meridianville, 1998; Eugene Glenn of Hillsboro, 1999; George T. Hamilton of Hillsboro, 2000; Bert Driskell of Grand Bay, 2001; Charles Burton of Lafayette, 2002; Bruce Bush of Eufaula, 2003; John B. East of Leesburg, 2004; James A. Wise of Samson, 2005; Glenn Forrester of Columbia, 2006; Billy Gilley of Holly Pond, 2007; Lamar Dewberry of Lineville, 2008; David Wright of Plantersville, 2009; Shep Morris of Shorter, 2010; Andy Wendland of Autaugaville, 2011; Sam Givhan of Safford, 2012; Annie Dee of Aliceville, 2013; Phillip Hunter of Birmingham, 2014; Ricky Cornutt of Boaz, 2015; Wendell Gibbs of Ranburne, 2016; and Chris Langley of Camp Hill, 2017; John Deloach of Vincent, 2018.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Dixie Green, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.