Vests’ green thumb provides needed TLC for half century of stability at greenhouses

Published 9:45 am Monday, October 7, 2019

By Greg Miller

STAR Correspondent

Through the tender loving care (TLC) of Walter and Joanne Vest, Vest Greenhouses has thrived in Carter County under their leadership for more than half a century.

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Walter and Joanne say the business was started by Omer Rowe. Walter estimates the enterprise has been in operation since the late 1930s. The Vests became the owners in 1968 and will start their 51st year in business this month.

Walter and Joanne and their daughter, Jill Vest Jefferies, are not ashamed to say they utilize their business as a tool to share their Christian faith. Joanne says they receive no negative feedback because of their faith-based stance. “It’s for sure that God has been with us for all 50 years,” she declared. “We could not have made it without Him.”

Joanne credits the Lord with supernaturally healing her in 2006. “I had Leukemia in 2006, and I give God all the glory for healing me and giving me strength to do the work that I do,” she said.

Joanne says God could be considered a silent partner in the business. “And we have Christian music on in there all the time,” she stated. “Anybody who comes in there can hear it. The nice thing is we can hear a lot of our customers singing with the music, too.”

For Joanne, the greatest challenge in getting employees, who want to invest themselves into the work at Vest Greenhouses, a horticultural business.

Walter’s greatest challenge is maintaining the facility’s heating and cooling systems. “It’s a lot of work, keeping the boilers working for the winter and all the fans running for the summer,” he said. “For the stokers, all the companies are out of business, and you can’t buy parts for them. You have to have them made at a machine shop or wherever you can get them. It’s complicated now. That’s the reason all of them are going out of business now. Most of it is going to gas instead of coal, and even the coal is getting hard to find anymore.”

Walter and Joanne enjoy working together as a husband-and-wife team. “I get to tell him off sometimes, what to do, but he doesn’t listen,” Joanne laughed.

“Just being together” with Joanne and other family members is of primary pleasure for Walter.

Walter and Joanne really enjoy interacting with their customers. Having outgoing personalities is “most definitely” a big asset in their business, according to Joanne. “We always speak to our customers when they come through the door,” Joanne said. “Even if they don’t want us to, even if they turn their heads, we’ll say, ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ or whatever it is. We always ask to help them. They cannot walk out the door and say we have not asked to help them.”

Joanne describes herself, “I’m the kind of person that, being in business, I want to treat everybody the way I want to be treated. I want to give them a good product for their money, and if they ever pick out something I’ll look at it and say, ‘Let me find you something better.’

“The Bible says, ‘In everything you do, do to the glory of God,’ and I feel that’s the way we should be as long as we’re in business.” The Golden Rule, she says should definitely be applied in business.

Walter says, “I just enjoy people. If anybody is interested in what we’re doing or what’s going on around the greenhouse, if I’m around, I’m willing to take my time to tell them what we’re doing and how we do it. As a Christian person, I just love all the people and I like to treat them right.”

Since the Vests assumed control of the business, big changes have occurred in the industry, according to Walter. “Over half of the greenhouses were in cut flowers,” he recalled. “When the government opened up the South American market, it put all the cut flower growers in America out of business. So we’ve just been operating with less than half of our greenhouse space in the past 12 years. We were wholesaling to places like Woolworth’s years ago, and they’re even out of business now. We quit delivering wholesale about 20 years ago. So we just sell at discount prices at the greenhouses now.”

Competition among the greenhouses has grown over the years, according to Walter. “At most of the greenhouses now, even the large ones in California, it’s gotten so competitive, all our materials, our chemicals and fertilizers and all the supplies we use in the greenhouses have gone up in price so much, it’s become almost a break-even proposition. The largest greenhouse in America, which was 150 acres, sold out to a Canadian firm to grow marijuana, so the biggest one was just barely making it. The greenhouse growers in America are going out of business. There are just going to be a few large growers left, and people will pay what they say, because they’ll have no competition from us smaller growers.”

Walter describes the types of flowers grown at Vests Greenhouses. “We have many varieties,” he said. “We keep most of the new varieties that’s coming out, the bedding plant flowers that will grow in this climate in our area. Joanne keeps a good selection of those. And we carry most of the vegetable plants that people are interested in.”

Joanne said, “We grow spring bedding plants, lots of hanging baskets, mixed pots, a lot of different kinds of vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers…We do a few cut flowers.” Pumpkins, fall mums and pansies are among the most popular items at the greenhouses during the autumn season, according to Joanne.

Walter notes that during the Christmas season, Poinsettias are delivered to local churches. “We deliver to Johnson City, Kingsport and Bluff City,” he said.

In addition to the greenhouses, the Vests’ business also offered a floral division, which closed in October of 2018, according to Joanne. Multiple reasons went into closing that aspect of the business, including surgery on one of Joanne’s fingers. “It got to where I couldn’t use it much, and I was going to be out of work for so long,” she said. Also, Mark, the Vests’ son, had been providing flowers for arrangements for weddings and funerals. Mark suffered a stroke and was no longer able to provide those flowers.

People’s wants vary from year to year, according to Walter. “It’s hard to go from what you sell and what people want this year to what they want the following year,” he stated. “So we have to be careful and grow the new stuff that’s coming on the market, from year to year. Joanne selects the best of that for our customers to have for the coming year.”

Vest Greenhouses has been in the same location for 50 years. In addition to family, one part-time employee is utilized.

Since Walter and Joanne work so much around flowers, the question arose, “Are you allergic to pollen?” Joanne laughed, “We’re allergic to something, but we haven’t figured it out.”

While Joanne and Jill deal with customers the most, Walter handles the maintenance, physical labor, etc. Walter and Joanne have discussed the issue of retirement. “We have talked about it,” said Joanne, “but we have so many customers who say, ‘Please don’t ever close.’ That makes you feel good, but they don’t know how your body feels.”

If the Vests ever do retire, Joanne says she would probably spend a lot of time in her yard. Walter said he would more than likely spend his time working on projects around the home.

Still, there are no plans to retire. “Unless the Lord comes and gets us,” Joanne concludes, “I guess that will be it!”

Kristina Lyons, Jordan Baker and Cindy Lafollette work in sales at Vest Greenhouses.

Vest Greenhouses is located at 458 Laurel Road, Johnson City (Carter County). For more information, look for Vest Greenhouses on Facebook, e-mail or call 423-926-0946.