WENDT FARM AND NURSERY Modern technology and old fashioned hard work: a recipe for success

Oct 01, 15 WENDT FARM AND NURSERY Modern technology and old fashioned hard work: a recipe for success

Photos and story by Renee Bodine.

Wendt family’s farmers market is right where William Wendt’s dad Earl used to sell his vegetables from a tent-covered trailer under an old oak tree, out on Chumuckla Highway, about two miles north of Pace, Fla. They lived next door and Earl grew his row crops across the highway.

Times have changed. But the Wendt family farms on, only now, where the trailer used to be is an open 2,500-foot market with a walk-in cooler and an automated pea huller.

The family’s farm is no longer across the highway from his dad’s house. After hurricane Ivan in 2004 they sold the land and bought 80 acres 10 miles north of Pace, Fla. William uses every inch of those acres. In addition to growing vegetable crops, in seven greenhouses he raises 7,000 poinsettias in the winter and 7,000 Easter lilies in the spring. They also manage a cutting-edge high-tech greenhouse operation starting transplants for wholesale. The farmer’s market is seasonal, selling vegetables Memorial Day to August, then poinsettias October to Christmas, open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays until 2 p.m.

William became a full-time farmer three years ago. Having worked an eight-year stint for the university extension research service raising specialty crops helped him make a smooth transition to growing greenhouse plants. Wendt’s transplant business supplies producers in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisiana. Growers send plant seed to Wendt’s farm to start for transplanting. One small box of watermelon seeds can cost up to $30,000. A computerized conveyor belt system plants a million seeds in tiny cells that must be carefully timed to all sprout and be ready at the same time. Even growing in environmentally controlled greenhouses, William has to monitor the seedlings three to four times a day. “It is an intense four to five weeks,” he said. But it is paying off. William is gaining more orders and upgrading their planting conveyor system this year. “Between our row crops and greenhouse business, we are always planting and harvesting,” William said. He is third generation farmer and his wife Joy is a fifth generation farmer.

Earl Wendt harvests peas to sell at the market.

If you shop at the Wendt farmers market, you will know where your food comes from. If William didn’t grow it, he can tell you who did. Customers can find corn, peas, squash, cucumbers, butter beans, green beans, tomatoes, eggplants, new potatoes, greens, peppers and melons, depending on what’s in season. “That’s what works for us—local and fresh,” he said.  Social media and word-of-mouth are advertising. The Wendt Farm’s Facebook page has more than 2,800 likes. William’s dad, Earl, said customers’ expectations have changed since he sold vegetables from his trailer. Back then they wanted to pick the peas themselves, but as time when on, they wanted to buy peas already picked. Now customers will only buy the peas shelled.

A typical day starts at 5 a.m. in the field and greenhouses. At 9 a.m. William’s mom, dad and wife go to work at the market until it closes. William’s father-in-law helps part time. William stays at the farm but pitches in at the market when it is really busy, usually Thursday through Saturday, when 20 to 25 people can be seen lined up at the register. Family members can be distinguished from customers by t-shirts emblazoned with “Wendt Farm and Nursery, local, homegrown, fresh.” Often the family prepares and eats lunch on a tailgate parked on the side of the building next to a wrap-around porch. An old fashioned porch swing and a couple of chairs serve as the office on the rare occasions they can sit down.  “We do a little of everything. We stay busy. Everything we do circles around the farm. It is a good life,” William said.

 

Wendt Farm and Nursery is on Chumuckla Highway, about two miles north of Pace, Fla. William Wendt is on the phone with a vendor.

Trent Mathews, district conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service first met William when he worked for the University of Florida extension. “What drew me to William was he is always willing to help people and be a local resource for farmers. He always has something growing!”

Trent said that Wendt Farms have made a full investment in conservation farming since he started working with them in 2008. William applied for and received cost share money from Farm Bill programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The Wendt’s have adopted conservation tillage and grow cover crops to build soil health and reduce erosion. William built terraces and grassed waterways and improved their irrigation efficiency by upgrading from an old traveling gun to a new towable center pivot, cutting down on water use and reducing sediment runoff into nearby streams.  “William is the poster child of small acreage farming. I am impressed with his diversification—how much he is able to do on a small farm while opening a farmers market—he has really done a lot on a small area,” Trent said.

 For more on technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA service center.

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