How Growing Grounds changed it’s business, without changing its direction
As a social enterprise director, you may come across the challenge of restructuring your program or pursuing an alternative business line in order to better provide that balance of a supportive yet productive workplace. Growing Grounds is a social enterprise that operates a native plants nursery and product farm out of San Luis Obispo, providing horticultural therapy, socialization opportunities, and soft job skills training for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. While today they operate a competitive and successful wholesale nursery, this wasn’t always the case. Growing Grounds tested, tried, and retired many business models in the search for the perfect fit for their target operation. We asked Frank Ricceri, the Division Director of Growing Grounds, to share with us how they have evolved their business model over time.
A wholesale nursery wasn’t the first business that Growing Grounds operated. Can you describe the businesses that you have tried in the past and that you no longer operate today, and what were some of those considerations that went into that decision?
Sure. Our farm started in 1984 on some discarded property that was part of the electrical substation in the San Luis Obispo area. We had seven acres and were surrounded by a farming community, so we thought: “Let’s grow some crops.” We did that for 20 years and, as we evolved, we grew and sold predominately lettuce, in addition to some basil and peppers.
Over time, the market changed and our customers – predominately local restaurants – started buying prewashed lettuce. While we got into that business as well, it was hard to make it work because it we couldn’t sell our lettuce as inexpensively as some of these factory farms could. At the same time, our workers expressed dissatisfaction with working on the farm. At the beginning of the work day I’d say, “Okay, you’re all coming with me to pull weeds in the farm,” and I’d hear a collective groan.
However, we had also begun a small nursery that grew colorful plants, but didn’t have much of a market at first. So this combination of the market conditions and our workers letting us know that they were happier working in the nursery was when we decided to make the pivot. Over the years we’ve developed the nursery into a business that is robust and still has a lot of growth potential.
What were some of the reasons it wasn’t a good fit, specifically for the individuals that you work with?
People with severe and persistent mental illness are just like you and me, but they haven’t worked for a long time. The work of farming requires having to bend over and stoop to plant the lettuce seedlings at soil level and we discovered that not only are all Americans’ backs challenged, but especially people that have been out of the workplace for some time. So that became a real big challenge and we wanted to accommodate the natural propensity to work in a more standing position. This informs the way that our business is currently structured – our workers sit around a table and work.
Can you describe the native plants nursery and why you decided to settle on this business specifically?
We tried a lot of different plants over the years – pansies, marigolds, and things like that that are very colorful. Much like the way that the lettuce business evolved, it was another very competitive market and growers would grow so inexpensively that we couldn’t compete in the market.
But over time we found that because of our relation to Cal Poly State University, which has a robust agricultural department, that there was a demand for high quality native plants. We slowly found that people loved to buy our native plants. As other wholesalers went out of business in the area, we found that there were opportunities to fill a niche that they left empty and began growing more native plants – things like native oak trees and manzanitas, sages, grasses, and Mediterranean kinds of plants.
We also started growing succulents and perennial herbs and selling them wholesale to retail nurseries in the area, as well as to landscapers. It’s just proven to be a great model for us as it’s a year-round operation that provides a good, steady income.
While you found a business that really had a demand for the product locally and regionally, how did it work with the individuals that you were employing?
People with mental illnesses can be anxious and nervous around other people. They likely haven’t succeeded in jobs or have been yelled at for being disruptive. Many are interior-bound and tend not to want to go outside.
So a component of our program is horticultural therapy, which is essentially the natural connection between people and plants. Anyone that has ever gardened or even pulled out a weed or turned a compost pile knows that being outdoors with nature meets basic needs that we all have. So nature has a way of cracking open even the most shut-off individual.
At the farm they come to a place with no four walls around them. They’re welcomed to work, and they offer one another support while they’re at work. They’re taking a small plant and putting it in a pot and nesting the plant into the soil. They then put the pots on a cart and roll the cart out to be watered and grow into a plant that we can sell.
That kind of environment lends itself to peer-to-peer support. People can work with other folks and discuss openly and without fear about their own illness and their own challenges. Since there’s no taboo talking about mental illness, natural conversations come up. We talk about how the connection with the plants helps heal everyone and there’s a magical people and plant connection that takes place. So I think we’ve been able to successfully integrate work and therapy, side by side.
What are some of the ways you reinforce that it is a workplace and a work environment while still retaining the very therapeutic and accepting environment?
Every new employee is given an orientation and a handbook that is the same as everybody else’s – so they’re normalized as employees right from the start. We let them know that they’re here to develop their skills as a worker, but at the same time, that we have expectations. We expect them to arrive ready to work. We expect that they’ve eaten breakfast, that they have their water bottle with them, and that they’re ready to go.
We don’t ask anything about their mental illness upfront. If it comes up spontaneously or if they want to talk, that’s a good opening for a staff member or even a peer, a coworker to jump in and share their experience, or the staff can point out analogies. Or if they’re having a hard day, we’ll spend five or ten minutes with an individual and figure out what isn’t working for them that day.
What factors contributed to finding this balance between a business that is delivering a product that’s in demand, while also creating a work environment that is the best fit for the people that you serve?
I would say it starts with our leadership, Executive Director and Board. A lot of people came with a business background, so they understand the basis of doing a business. Next, we always hire professionals in the industry – I was a farmer. We hired nursery professionals to start our plant businesses. So people have to have that knowledge base and build on that by learning about mental health issues. But that wasn’t the focus; the focus was the business.
Having mental health education has been really core. But at the same time, a real place to work is important. We are not a sheltered workshop by any stretch of the imagination. People have to do quality work, and we share that business with our employees so they know that they’re part of something that makes money, and it keeps them working. I think those are the key components.