The following short history was written by Stan Cope, the grandson of the late Livingston and Bonnie Paulk and the current President of Bonnie Plants. It was revised on 11-14-17.
In 2018 Bonnie Plants will celebrate 100 years in business. Our company has been through many changes since 1967 when I began working here at the age of 15. I remember my dad, Jerry Cope, driving me to a nearby field after school to help pack cabbage and tomato plants in wooden crates and load them on flatbed trucks to be transported to the packing shed some seven miles to the north.
At that time our product line was made up of field grown vegetable plants — cabbage, collards, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Tomato plants were pulled from the ground by hand and tied in bundles of 25 plants each. At the packing shed, they were put on a conveyor belt and workers on each side placed wet sawdust over their roots, wrapped them in brown kraft paper, and secured each bundle with rubber bands. The bunches, as we called them, were then placed back on the belt where they moved to the end of the line where another group of workers placed them in wooden crates. The crates were hand stacked into delivery trucks and sent to market.
Our customer base in the 1960’s was primarily independent farm supply stores and farmers cooperatives. Each Sales Rep was assigned a specific territory and was responsible for loading their truck, delivering plants, opening new accounts, and collecting the money from each one.
In the early 1970’s, customer demand for greenhouse-grown potted plants led us to a different product line, individual plants in pots. To meet this shift in customer preference from bare-root field grown plants to container grown greenhouse plants, we began to invest in greenhouses. Initially, it was a relatively slow transition from field to greenhouse plants, but in the 1980’s we expanded beyond the eight to ten southeastern states that had been our focus for years, and by 1983, we were selling plants in 13 states.
In the early 1990’s, mass-market retailers began to expand into the home garden trade by opening garden centers. We saw this as an opportunity to grow sales at an even greater pace and began to buy property and build greenhouses in more states. In 2000, we had grown to 24 greenhouse facilities and a sales force of 175.
Herb plants became a popular selling category in the late 1990’s and today makes up 30% of our sales. We also grow flowers for some customers, but this category makes up only 1% of total sales.
Today we operate 72 greenhouse facilities in 40 states, owning 63 and leasing 9. During peak season we employ 625 sales reps and a production staff of 3,500. Our vegetable and herb plants are delivered to 15,000 retailers in the 48 contiguous United States.
Yes, we’ve seen much growth and change in our 100-year history, and we look forward with great excitement and anticipation to continuing to grow the Bonnie Plants legacy.
The Early History of Bonnie Plant Farm
The following was written by Mrs. Bonnie Paulk in 1940 and tells the story of the founding and growth of Bonnie Plant Farm in the early part of the last century.
My husband and I were married in Boynton, Florida, in 1916, and I went with him to live on his small truck farm, which was located six miles from Boynton in the flat woods of Florida. That was the beginning of the Bonnie Plant Farm, although it was not called that at the time. It was the winter following our marriage that the farmers of Florida suffered a great loss.
The hardest freeze in thirty years swept through and in one night wiped out all growing vegetables and fruits. In one brief night the work of a year was completely destroyed. One day the fields were green and promising with growing vegetables; the next day everything lay flat and brown from the freeze the night before. We were naturally discouraged but knew that we couldn’t sit back and grieve for something that was gone forever. Besides, we still had our youth and our energy and our ambition. We chose the only course open for us: we moved into Boynton and both got jobs. It was not long before we had saved enough money to buy tickets to Alabama to Livingston’s hometown, Union Springs.
On June 6, 1917, we arrived in Union Springs by train. We had exactly $50 in cash and the clothes we had. With these as our sole possessions we moved in with Livingston’s bachelor uncle, who had a home in the country in the Sardis community. It was late in June when we began farming. Being too late for general farming, we planted 30 acres in peanuts and managed to gather a good crop. The next year we planted cotton, corn, and peanuts and raised some hogs. We found that from these products we could realize a fair crop and a bare living but nothing more. It was difficult to get through the long winter with no income. It was then that we began looking for a crop that would bring in some cash during the winter months.
Livingston remembered that when he was a boy his father raised cabbage plants in the winter months and sold them to local merchants. This was an idea that we decided to develop. In the garden in back of our house we planted two pounds of cabbage seed, a huge amount it seemed to us at that time. The plants were fine, and we found that they were easy to sell. We hauled them in our buggy into Union Springs and to Inverness.
Our experiment was working successfully thus far, so the next year instead of two pounds of seed we bought twenty-five pounds. This crop was as fine as the first and by advertising them in the local paper we sold every plant we raised and could have sold more. Our advertising brought in orders from surrounding towns and we used our buggy to haul them to the post office and express office to be shipped. That year we took in $500 from the sale of our plants. Each year we planted more seed and each year business increased steadily. My training and experience as a bookkeeper proved valuable because with the growing business there was a great deal of writing to be done and we had to keep books. We bought a typewriter and had letterheads printed. It was the printing of the letterheads that caused us to give our farm a name.
When Livingston went in to town to arrange for the printing of the stationery, the printer asked, “What name have you given your business?” Livingston answered, “We will name it for my wife. Call it the Bonnie Plant Farm.”
The Bonnie Plant Farm continued to grow until it became necessary to broaden our advertising area. Through the help of Mr. J. A. McLeod, the County Agent of Bullock County (now of Luverne), we extended our advertising to include all the leading farm papers in the South. As a result of this increased advertising we cleared enough money, after paying our living expenses, to buy a Ford car. This gave us a better means of hauling the plants. The following year we planted not only 200 pounds of cabbage seed but also some onion seed, and raised strawberry and potato plants. We found these additions to be very beneficial.
We had lived now for seven years on the farm belonging to our uncle. We had three children, a girl and two boys. We decided that now it was time to buy a farm of our own. The transaction was completed and we were prepared to move when, the night before, the house on our new farm was burned to the ground. This delayed our moving only about three weeks. We were fortunate in having kind, generous neighbors and the four who owned the one-room school building, no longer in use because of the consolidation of schools, gave us the building to use as our home. We had it moved to our land and were soon living with our three children in a home of our own.
It was in 1923 that we moved to our home with our own 208 acres of land. There was plenty of work to be done because the land had never been cleared for farming. After the trees and plum thickets had been removed and the land broken, between two and three hundred pounds of seed were planted. These plants came up and survived the early cold weather but in February a hard freeze killed the entire crop. Cabbage and onion plants are able to stand a 16° temperature, but the thermometer that night went below that. There was nothing to do but begin all over again, but we couldn’t wait until the next year to plant something. In the spring we planted vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and turnips being the main crops.
When fall came we put in another cabbage crop. That year we had so many plants that we were unable to sell them all. For several years following we had good crops and were shipping all that we could raise. We were supplying practically all of the South Alabama Plant Dealers.
In 1927 with four children and another one on the way, we sold some timber and added four rooms to our house. By 1929 we had added more to our house and to our family. We had a family of six children and a seven-room house.
One year we found that all of a sudden our orders began to decrease. We were still advertising in every weekly newspaper in Alabama and in the leading farm papers of the southern states. In spite of this we were not shipping as many plants as we had in previous years. Something was wrong and we were unable to understand what it was. Many of our best customers had ceased ordering altogether.
We decided to find out what the trouble was, so Livingston loaded our car with cabbage plants and went to see some of our customers. He found that other plant growers from Georgia and other sections of Alabama were hauling plants in trucks and delivering them to the customers. This made it unnecessary for our customers to order from us. Livingston saw that it was easy to sell his plants if he delivered as the others were doing. He came home, reloaded, and started out again the next morning.
Soon it was necessary for us to buy a pick-up truck. With this we followed a regular route and established trade with our old customers. The personal contact with our customers was valuable in helping us get new customers and keeping the old ones.
In the following years business increased so that another truck was bought and both were kept busy during the plant season. During the spring and summer months we had crops of vegetables, cotton, corn, and we raised a few cattle and some hogs. Something was being raised and sold every month in the year.
In 1936, we added a greenhouse to our farm. This greenhouse is used to raise early tomato, pepper, and eggplants for our own use. In January we plant seed in boxes. When the plants are two or three inches high, they are transplanted in pots. We have annually about 17,000 pots of these plants. In the early spring after the danger of frost is over, these potted plants are transplanted into the fields and early vegetables are raised. By having these vegetables on the market early we can get a better price. Open field-grown plants are raised for the market, but these are not ready as soon as the greenhouse plants.
For the past three years we have been using three trucks to haul the plants from the Bonnie Plant Farm. Each truck has two men, a driver and a helper. Our boys do a great part of our work. The four boys are between the ages of 21 and 12 and each has his job. In this way they earn their own money. By the time each became 10 years old he could earn more than his spending money. Each has his savings account and earns enough to buy his own clothes and schoolbooks. The oldest boy, James, has decided to remain on the farm and make this his life work. Thomas, 18, is saving money for a college education. All these boys are hard workers and are a great help in maintaining the business.
There are a few other general facts about the Bonnie Plant Farm that might be of interest. One crop out of three is lost by freeze. The plant farmer expects this and has to prepare for it. He does this by holding back some of his seed in case the first planting is killed. If both plantings live, we have two crops, a winter crop and a spring crop.
Beginning in January each year our three trucks are loaded and sent out six days a week. These are cabbage and onion plants and are marketed until about the 15th of April. After this, tomato and potato plant season comes in. Last year we had ten potato beds, furnace heated. We bedded 400 bushels of potatoes. From these beds we had early plants and got a good price for them. Our biggest order in Bullock County was from Mr. Birmingham, Enon Farms. The season on potato plants lasts eight weeks. At the present time we have most of the plant business of all seed dealers and plant dealers from Birmingham across the state and south to the Florida line. We have about 2,000 regular customers on our books. We ship to ten southern states besides Alabama. Our largest tomato plant order was for 700,000 to a dealer in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Of this 208 acre farm, 98 acres are in cultivation, 60 acres in plants. The other we have in fruit trees: peaches, pears, and apples, and we have 100 pecan trees. A part is in woods and pasture.
Last year we added a two-story packinghouse, and sealed one room for a seed room. The second story is used to store boxes and crate material. The bottom floor is used in making crates, packing plants, and sheltering our trucks.
The success of our winter crops depends mainly upon the weather. Every member of our family is a part of our business. The history here contains only a brief outline of the facts that have built the Bonnie Plant Farm.
Although we have not made any money, we have made a good living. Our expenses are heavy, increasing as business grows. Our large family naturally increases cost of living. We started out just as everyone does, with the idea of making some money. We are still living and working in hopes.