April 12, 2017

SOUTHINGTON – As the thermometer touched 70-degrees Monday afternoon, one sure sign of spring warmth finally arriving was the creaking, metallic sound of greenhouse windows at Karabin Farms automatically cranking open to allow cooler air inside.


“It got a little warm in here so it opened up,” owner Diane Karabin said as the “guillotine” windows and glass panels along the roof were slowly opened by a ratchet system triggered by a thermostat. “It’s probably looking for about 68-70 degrees. If it gets too hot it stresses the plants.”


Within seconds, an audible rush of air made the greenhouse noticeably cooler.


The sounds were welcome ones for Karabin, who like many growers had been eager for warm and sunny conditions to replace the early season’s prevalent cool and rainy days.


“Everyone’s been craving spring and now it finally feels like it,” she said. “This is my favorite time of year.”


As President of Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association, Karabin said it is also a crucial time of year for its roughly 100 members, many of whom rely heavily on spring sales of vegetable and bedding plants, and ornamental flowers and plants.

The state’s greenhouse sector is thriving, she said, despite some “ups and downs” in recent years as the economy slowly recovers.


One of the growers’ association’s main goals, and biggest challenges, is to continually educate the public about the benefits of buying from local growers, as opposed to “big box” stores. 


The association is now producing a promotional ad that will run on state television stations later this year that features an assortment of growers and highlights the different products available in each of the four seasons.


“We know there’s a segment of society that will always choose to go to the big-box store,” Karabin said. “But I believe there is a larger segment that is interested in the quality of the plant they are buying and want to keep their money local.”


A grant from the state Dept. of Agriculture is helping create the ad, which is designed to encourage customers to buy local.


“The greenhouse industry is a large and critical part of our state’s agricultural economy,” Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said. “Its strength is based on the hard work and dedication of growers who offer their customers quality Connecticut Grown products, and we are proud to support them.”


Karabin said personal, knowledgeable service is especially critical in the greenhouse industry to ensure customers are aware of the particular environment and care a plant requires.  


“We take the time to explain what plants work and what don’t in their location,” she said. “If our customers aren’t successful, we’re not going to be successful.”


Even the weather can influence a customer into a misguided purchase.


“You get some warm days like we’ve had this week and people get overzealous and want to put tomatoes in the ground,” she said. “No can do.”


Karabin started growing bedding and vegetable plants, and about 2,000 ornamental hanging baskets she designs herself, in her four greenhouses in mid-February.


This week, most of the plants were starting to show some color, and will be in full bloom in a month or so as the busy weeks around Mother’s Day approach.


While the crop fields on their Andrews Street farm and another 100 acres they lease nearby have been particularly wet so far this spring, Karabin expects to be able to plant crops outside within a few weeks, as is typical.


“It’s been wet but at least the soil has not been overly cold,” she said. “Three years ago we were taking the soil’s temperature all the time waiting for it to get warm enough to plant.”


Karabin and her husband Michael bought the farm in 1984, and gradually planted about 2,000 fruit trees and 10,000 Christmas trees. 


Most of their business is direct retail to customers who visit their greenhouses and rustic farm store, where they also offer a variety of meats raised at the farm, including Red Angus beef.


Karabin said a significant factor in the farm’s success over the decades is the long-term relationships the family has made with so many repeat customers. 


“People go to the smaller grower for a friendly face and a certain amount of handholding,” she said with a smile. “It’s no different than ‘know your farmer, know your food.’ It’s important to trust your grower.”