4 Inspiring Lessons From a Greenhouse Farmer
4 Inspiring Lessons from a Greenhouse Farmer in Georgia
Kaye Usher embodies a true woman in agriculture – tough, hard-working, determined, passionate, and faithful. She loves what she does. Ask her a question about her operation and she’ll tell everything you ever wanted to know about how it works and how she got there. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Her hard work has been fruitful – literally! But it has come with many challenges along the way. The life lessons and wisdom that Kaye has to share is born from years of experiencing both deep stress and joy, failure and success, patience and God’s blessings.
Determination and Tough Choices
In 1985, Kaye was working off the farm and her husband Randy was farming cotton, peanuts, wheat, onions, and tobacco with his dad. That November, Hurricane Kate moved across Southeast Georgia and took their entire cotton crop. Randy’s dad decided to hang it up, and Randy found work off the farm at Plant Vogtle for a few months before taking a job as a security guard with GA State Prison. He worked first on the Joe Kennedy Farm and later at Georgia State Prison aka “the Big House” in Reidsville.
Kaye and Randy always wanted to get back in to farming. In 1989 they decided to put in two greenhouses to start growing pepper and tomato transplants for the Georgia State Prison system. R & K Greenhouses was born. Soon they put in a couple more greenhouses just for tobacco. Kaye loved the greenhouses and took a leap of faith by going to work full-time on their farm in 1993. In the late 1990’s they started growing flowers in the greenhouses, too. It was hard to constantly get out and drum up business, or sell what flowers were ready. She would frequently get up at 2:00AM to drive to Atlanta to sell her flowers, get back at midnight and then get up and go to work again the next morning. When the market for tobacco transplants disappeared she decided to focus on expanding their vegetable transplant operation and to discontinue the flower operation.
The Lesson - "If you do anything, you have to be committed. Don't do it because it looks easy," says Kaye.
"No" Doesn't Mean "Never"
Financing had always been a struggle for Kaye because what she was doing was considered unconventional. When she decided to expand the vegetable operation, she approached AgSouth for help. After listening to her plans for expansion, her loan officer disagreed with her plans and told her “no” to financing. Kaye was angry, discouraged, and at a loss for what to do next.
Without enough money to expand and pay for the additional labor needed, Kaye and Randy had to step back and reassess.
Randy and Kaye were able to secure financing through a local bank. It took five years to build their transplant business up to a point of further expansion. When they approached AgSouth again, the answer this time was “yes”.
The Lesson - "'No' turned out to be the best answer we ever got. Because that 'no' led us in a different direction, which brought us into something more successful than we could have ever imagined."
And as they say, the rest is history.
Doing the Right Thing
As she was struggling to gain a larger customer base, Kaye got a lead on a large vegetable and watermelon grower in South Carolina looking for a new greenhouse to grow their transplants. She drove over and gave her pitch to the buyer. Two weeks later while on vacation, the phone rang. The buyer was calling to place a small order for cabbage transplants. She accepted, happy to take whatever size order she could get.
Kaye worked hard on the plants and when they were ready to deliver they were strong and healthy. Kaye and Randy loaded up the transplants on two old, ragged trailers and pulled off the farm with a deadline to have them to South Carolina by 6 PM. The first trailer got a flat tire in Statesboro. They got it fixed, went on their way, and then the other trailer got a flat tire in Sylvania. Kaye sent Randy ahead to get what he could to the buyer. It was midnight before they got there with the other trailer.
Kaye felt defeated. The buyer was not complimentary at first. “I expect you to do a job. And I expect the highest quality and service.” Kaye braced herself, just knowing she had lost this opportunity.
He continued, “And as long as you are fair with me, I’ll be fair with you. Will you grow 750,000 watermelons plants for me next year?”
Hiding her stunned excitement, she responded with a gracious and confident “Yes, sir!” She didn’t know it at the time, but the cabbage was a test. Passing that test meant getting the whole account.
The Lesson - " If you can't do a good job on the little stuff, no one will trust you with the big stuff."
A Bright Future
Today, Kaye and Randy have 21 greenhouses at R & K Greenhouses – more than she ever dreamed – and they grow transplants of watermelons, leeks, kale, cabbage, collards, and broccoli. Vegetables are hard to start from seed as they are sensitive to water and temperature and subject to disease. Kaye specializes in germinating seeds and caring for the small plants until they are big enough to be transplanted into the field. Farmers rely on her to grow healthy transplants that will grow into strong and productive plants for harvest.
The transplant business continues to grow, but not without challenges. Kaye is tough, physically and emotionally. She can do everything in the greenhouses herself – watering, filling trays, planting, system and equipment repair, and more. She’s endured hard times like losing customers, greenhouse failures, plant disease, and more. Kaye is the first to admit that the success of R & K Greenhouses is dependent on a lot of people, mostly her husband of nearly 40 years and her employees. Always full of wisdom she shares an important lesson for us all:
The Lesson - "When you make mistakes, accept responsibility and make it right."
So why does she do it? "I love nature and seeing God's work," says Kaye. "Knowing I'm part of something so much bigger."
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