Plan B

An Arizona couple “reinvented” themselves and their nursery to create a thriving, multi-faceted business.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Paul Connors

Katie and Harold Christ

Katie and Harold Christ

Raised on a farm near Albuquerque, Harold Christ has a knack for scratching things out from the dirt. Whether they were residential developments in South Florida and Arizona or alfalfa on the family dairy in New Mexico, he’s spent a lifetime growing businesses and crops.

Yet his latest venture, Florence Farms Nursery, which he runs with his wife Katie, is also a showcase of something else Christ is good at—reinventing himself and his enterprises. The 60-acre operation, located on the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert just outside Florence, Ariz., began in 2001 to provide landscaping for his residential developments. Since then, however, the Christs and company have remade the business into a nursery better known for its heirloom vegetables and as a winery and scenic setting for weddings and other gatherings.

“I learned years ago, as a developer, that I couldn’t be one-dimensional,” says Harold. “I needed to think out of the proverbial box and ask, ‘What other skill sets, what other talents do I have.’”

“I also learned to be a problem solver while on the farm,” continues Harold. “That’s what farm life is all about. I watched my dad and other men still farming grapple with little things and bigger issues everyday. You typically don’t have anyone there to help you, so you have to do it yourself.”

Blake Mastyk, owner of the The Deli, uses produce grown at Florence Farms.

Blake Mastyk, owner of the The Deli, uses produce grown at Florence Farms.

That willingness to try new things and a can-do attitude was what eventually led Christ into the nursery business. “We were doing big developments,” says Harold, “some as large as 2,000 homes, and we needed nursery stock for the landscaping. But the demand was so intense that if you ordered a 15-gallon plant, you were getting a 1-gallon plant, because people couldn’t grow them fast enough.”

That need eventually led the Christs to start the nursery at Florence Farms, which solved the more immediate problem of acquiring landscaping materials. Though they didn’t fully realize it at the time, it also provided the couple with a plan B.

They started the nursery in 2001 and developed two consecutive 3-year plans, which not only helped them get the business off the ground, but also weather a coming storm. “The economy went south in 2007,” says Harold. “We saw that the building business I was in was just going away. Not only did it affect what we were doing, but everybody else in that business, too. Without homebuilding, the greenhouses and the native stock that we were growing, there just wasn’t a market for it.”

DeWayne Frelix

DeWayne Frelix

Enter DeWayne Frelix, a former fireman and a man with a passion and know-how for growing heirloom vegetables. “He had this kind of eclectic following,” says Harold. “There were chefs and higher-end grocery stores that were his clients. So he approached me about growing them here.”

It was around that time that Harold and Katie had begun to rethink their nursery. “We began to ask, what can we do?  We have land.  We have water.  We have greenhouses.  We have some smart people.

“It didn’t take us a week to figure out that it could be a decent match here,” says Harold about working with Frelix. “We began to focus on the fact that if an individual cannot … buy a home, he’s not going to be buying a tree, but he will be eating. And that’s how we began to get into the heirloom side, saying ‘Okay, here’s a product that we can grow using the resources we have.’”

Today, some 2 years later, Florence Farms regularly provides fresh, heirloom produce—from bell peppers and tomatoes to mint and herbs—to about 12 restaurants and hotels. With considerable interest from potential customers, says Christ, expansion is on the horizon. Florence Farms still sells landscaping materials to wholesalers and developers, but that only accounts for about 20% of the business today. The rest is retail landscaping and heirlooms. “We consider ourselves a boutique nursery,” Harold says.

Those components, however, aren’t all there is to Florence Farms. Katie and Harold also operate a winery on the property, and they host weddings and other events in a restored 100-year-old barn they moved from Wisconsin, where Katie grew up. While the winery serves wines made at vineyards elsewhere, much of the produce it serves is raised just steps away at the nursery. They’re also planning new facilities to expand the event-hosting business and a new line of salt-dried herbs that will be sold to restauranteurs and at retail.

Harold says the various businesses complement each other. The winery enhances the offerings for event attendees, all the while showing off Florence Farm’s produce. “We created the gardens around the barn [using plants] out of the nursery so it could double as a backdrop for weddings and for people who were shopping in the nursery,” he says. The gardens create a lush setting for events and allow customers to see what plants grow in shade or sun.

 Florence Farms features a winery and a 100-year-old barn moved from Wisconsin.

Florence Farms features a winery and a 100-year-old barn moved from Wisconsin.

Noting the land that Florence Farms now occupies was once used as a dairy and the barn’s connection to Midwestern agriculture, Harold says, “We’re a unique venue that’s also attempting to preserve agricultural history. It’s just a different environment from practically anything else in this area.”

It’s a re-invention, if you will, of the standard nursery. “A nursery in this economy would not do it,” says Harold. “I don’t think any piece of it [as a stand-alone] would. It’s that diversification and how these different disciplines of winery, wedding, nursery and vegetables work together.”

“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had opportunities in other businesses. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked them, but Katie and I have found something here that’s special. It’s funny that after the other ventures, I’ve come back in some ways to my roots, and I’m providing others the chance to experience a working farm, too.”