Diakon Wilderness Center finds funding success with greenhouse
Every nonprofit looks to diversify funding sources. But how often can one say its greenhouse and wastewater treatment facility provide nearly a quarter of its operating budget?
Diakon Wilderness Center near Boiling Springs can make that claim.
And it wants to expand its Wilderness Greenhouse operations to provide an even larger source of revenue for its outdoor youth services, said Chris Edenbo, the greenhouse director.
"We reinvented a business plan for (the greenhouse)," Edenbo said.
The greenhouse, which uses evaporation to treat wastewater, has been operational since 2005, Edenbo said. He took over the operation in 2010, and the center worked up a plan to sell flowers and plants raised in the greenhouse to Central Pennsylvania businesses. That would also teach the young people — sent there by courts for misdemeanors such as fighting and truancy — about not only gardening, but also employment, customer service and salesmanship, Edenbo said.
"Some of our first (business) clients were cold-calls," he said. "The first year, getting sales was hard work and dumb luck."
By 2012, the greenhouse was selling flowers and plants regularly to landscapers and other companies with some notable success, Edenbo said. Wilson College in Chambersburg bought plants from the greenhouse for its campus, he said.
And so did one of the largest landscaping companies in the U.S.
"We try to help them out when we can," said Mark Supanick, an account manager at the Fairview Township, York County, offices of The Brickman Group Ltd.
The Maryland-based commercial landscaping firm with 160 branches serving 29 states has become somewhat of a partner for the Wilderness Greenhouse.
Brickman has been working with Allentown-based Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries for more than a decade, Supanick said. At the greenhouse, Brickman has given students hands-on and classroom instruction in growing and landscaping, and he has helped them develop interview and résumé-writing skills, he said.
Brickman bought about 700 units of red ornamental grasses from Diakon's greenhouse and will do so again in 2014, Supanick said.
"The grasses were a really good quality," he said, "and we ship them out to use in a six-county area."
Last year, the greenhouse started raising vegetables, too, Edenbo said. Two of Diakon's senior-living facilities, one in Cumberland County and the other in Middletown, Dauphin County, are using the vegetables to augment menus there, he said.
Edenbo and the students grew and maintained a garden at Cumberland Crossings, said Rob Miller, director of culinary services at the South Middleton Township senior-care facility. Miller works for Atlanta-based Morrison Senior Living, a food-services company that manages Diakon's dietary departments at several of its facilities.
Morrison is highly involved with sustainable, locally grown produce for use in the meals and food service it provides around the country, Miller said.
Morrison bought between $150 and $200 worth of vegetables per month in 2013 and plans to buy the same this year from Edenbo and his students, Miller said.
"It's a learning curve," he said. "We had more of some vegetables than we needed."
Extra vegetables, like dozens of juicy tomatoes, are used to make homemade marinara and barbecue sauces so that even excesses don't go to waste, Miller said.
The greenhouse operation is paying off for Diakon, Edenbo said. After more than two years, it's providing $18,500 annually, or about 24 percent of the total cost to operate the greenhouse, he said.
"The plan is to grow that even more," Edenbo said. "But, baby steps first."
Editor's note: This story was modified from its original version to correct that it is the greenhouse is providing about $18,500 annually.