Mark Wilson, Florida

Mark Wilson migrated to the United States in 1972 and gave up a promising corporate career to live the American dream as owner and operator of his own successful plant nursery.

Wilson runs the 30-acre Greendale Nursery in Homestead, Fla., produces plants that are sold throughout North America and also exports plants to customers on Caribbean islands.

As a result of his success as a nursery grower, Wilson has been selected as state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Depending on the season, he employs 27 to 50 people. When he started the nursery, production required one employee to cover one acre. With improved technology today, one employee now covers four acres.

Wilson selected the Greendale name because his mother liked it and because it evoked a natural green valley setting. His nursery is located near many other plant nurseries. “Anyone can get into the nursery business,” says Wilson. “Our strategy has been to concentrate on tropical exotic and unique plants.”

His major plants include Heliconias, gingers, Alocasia, Cordyline, Croton, Birds of Paradise, bamboo, ground orchids and orchid trees, ornamental and edible bananas, Philodendron, tree ferns, dwarf umbrella, several varieties of Schefflera and several flowering Hibiscus varieties.

He also grows tropical fruit—pineapples, avocados, jackfruit, ackee and longan. “We didn’t want to grow what everyone else grew,” says Wilson.

Water conservation is a big issue in South Florida, so Wilson began growing native desert agave plants that produce attractive flowers, along with other drought tolerant plants. He has been converting from overhead to drip irrigation to conserve water. Plant trays also allow water to be reused.

Air blast or turbine sprayers that atomize pesticides into fine droplets allowed him to reduce chemical use by 80%. South Florida is often an entry point for new pests in the U.S., so he scouts for pests and this also reduces chemical use.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed his shade houses. He hoisted up the frames, welded and repaired the structures, installed new shade cloth, and was one of the first nurseries back in business. This experience served him well in 2005 when he quickly recovered from Hurricane Wilma.

When Wilson entered the foliage business, he sold most plants to regional chain stores and garden centers. In the 1990’s, big box national stores started selling houseplants. In the late 2000’s, recession hit and the big box stores rationalized or streamlined their vendor base by relying on just a handful of growers. At the same time, commercial office buildings started using fewer plants.

“Our marketing strategy was adaptable,” says Wilson. “So we went to a mix of what we call interior plants and patio plants, and concentrated on exotic and unique plants.” To offset the decline in sales, he developed new markets in the Caribbean and certified his clients with the Export-Import Bank.

Today, his customer base is diverse as is the product line. He sells to garden centers in the southeastern U.S. and Canada, to theme parks near Orlando, and to resorts in the U.S. and the Caribbean. With his company’s reputation for quality control, his is one of few firms allowed to export to certain Caribbean islands.

“We do marketing research to get an idea of the types of plants in demand,” says Wilson. He’s focusing now on using social media to reach and deliver plants to members of the millennial generation.

Growing up in Jamaica, he never dreamed he would end up in the U.S. During the 1970’s, Jamaican political instability prompted his parents to send him to Canada for his last year of high school. There, he saw his first snow, and stayed to earn college degrees, including a Masters of Business Administration. He was offered a lucrative job as a senior financial analyst with a major corporation, but had doubts about whether he wanted to work for big business.

At the time, a relative had a nursery in Homestead, so Wilson checked out the industry and used savings from previous jobs to buy a five-acre nursery. Sweat equity helped him pay off this mortgage. He put up his first shade house, and mixed and poured cement by hand.

He has since brought his brothers Steve and Peter into the business. Steve is the nursery’s production manager. Peter is in charge of sales and marketing.

Mark also served on an advisory board of a local bank that was recently purchased by another bank. As part of his work in the banking industry, he took on consulting assignments. This evolved into recommending real estate sales, so he became a licensed real estate agent. Wilson now specializes in handling sales of agricultural property for the commercial division of the local Keller Williams real estate office.

Wilson is active in the Boy Scouts of America, Dade County Farm Bureau and Dade County Public School Advisory Committee. He was active in the Dade Chapter of the Florida Foliage Association. He has been an advisor and supporter for Miami-Dade County Cooperative Extension. He served on a South Dade economic development commission. He serves on the Community Development Agency of the community of Naranja, Fla.

He has supported the Feed the Children charity, served as an usher at Christ Fellowship Church and has been a founding governing board member for AgroTech Academy charter school.

On the state level, he has been a director of Florida Farm Bureau, served on the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida and chaired the state committee for USDA’s Farm Service Agency

His wife Susan works as a nurse. Mark says Susan played an important role by raising their three sons, Christopher, David and Matthew. Her career as a nurse allowed her to use her talents and skills to volunteer within the community.

The older sons, Christopher and David, are working on University of Florida doctorate degrees. They do research in high performance and reconfigurable computing. Matthew has been active in Boy Scouts and recently earned the rank of Eagle Scout.

“Farming is one of America’s best kept secrets. We wouldn’t have the life we do without American farmers,” says Wilson. “Agriculture has been good to me. I escaped the corporate rat race and ended up as a contented farmer with my own nursery business.”

Jason Davison, director of the Field Services Division of Florida Farm Bureau, coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Wilson was nominated for the honor by Eva Webb, Florida Farm Bureau field representative.

Webb admires Wilson for his intelligence and determination and how he started and expanded his successful nursery business. She also admires how he encouraged Dade County Farm Bureau to become more involved in Florida Farm Bureau activities. “He has always been willing to lend a helping hand,” says Webb, “especially if people need plants for special community projects.”

As the Florida state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Wilson will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from
Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, 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 Golden Boy “American Farmer Tribute Edition” rifle from Reinke Irrigation.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 28th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,080,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010; Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011; Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012; John Scott Long of Palm City, 2013; C. Dennis Carlton of Tampa, 2014; Vic Story, Jr., of Lake Wales, 2015; and Paul DiMare of Coral Gables, 2016.
Florida has had seven overall winners: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; and Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit Wilson’s nursery, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges for this year are farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; and Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.