From the Scorched Earth Battlefield Farms Rises Again By Kara Wipf

Grower Profile

Years in business: Built in 1982; purchased by Jerry Van Hoven in 1990

Size: 11 acres under glass, 3 under poly, 10 acres of outside production for fall crops

Crops grown: Pot crops, cyclamen, primroses, bedding plants, spring baskets, mums, pansies, kale, cabbage, poinsettias

Customer base: Mass merchandisers and chains

Market area: Mid-Atlantic States (Pennsylvania to South Carolina)

On Nov. 11, 1999 at 7:00 p.m., Jeri LeMay, the general manager at Battlefield Farms in Rapidan, Va., was completing her usual nightly check of the property. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first. But then, as she walked up the driveway, she saw what looked like flames on top of an exhaust fan in the greenhouse. She thought it might be something wrong with the fan itself. Then she realized the greenhouse was on fire. Flames were engulfing the structure, and fast.

After calling 911, LeMay tried to figure out what she could do to fight the fire, or at least limit the fire's damage. “I wanted to do something, but it burned so fast there wasn't a lot I could have done.”

Despite the concerted effort of 14 fire companies and hundreds of firefighters, the blaze ravaged 10 acres of Battlefield's 14-acre gutter-connected, glass and poly greenhouse range.

The fire also completely destroyed the barn, which housed the operation's equipment, supplies and offices. So intense was the inferno that it was still smoldering on Monday, Nov. 15. Battlefield Farms sustained damages of about $5 million.

According to LeMay, Florists' Mutual, Battlefield's insurance company, later determined that the blaze started as an electrical fire. As the sequence of events was reconstructed, the fire was sparked on a battery-operated cart-charging station positioned along a wall between the barn and the greenhouse. The wind was brisk that night, fanning the flames, which made contact with what LeMay terms excellent kindling Ð poinsettias in the greenhouse, soil amendments, plastic containers and rolls of roof plastic.

Starting Over

Though Battlefield Farms suffered an almost total loss, LeMay says that everyone connected was determined to rebuild from the onset. “The fire happened right before Christmas, so our first priority was to meet our Christmas commitments,” she adds.

Battlefield set up temporary offices in the garage of the operation's owner, Jerry Van Hoven. Help soon started pouring in. Van Hoven's wife Lona was a Van Wingerden before marriage; naturally the Van Wingerden family came down to help. Van Hoven's son, Ed, owner of nearby Monrovia Growers, lent equipment and greenhouse space. Several neighboring greenhouses, including Blue Ridge Growers and Willow Run Growers, also lent a hand. In a heartening example of neighbors helping neighbors, these growers sold Battlefield product and helped with shipping to enable the operation meet its customer commitments.

They also provided Battlefield with the basic resources without which a company cannot conduct day-to-day business. “It's amazing how you don't know what you need until it's gone,” says LeMay. “But we didn't have phone numbers, Rolodexes or contact names Ð all those things that seemed so second nature.”

Good Samaritans were not only drawn from the grower community. Vendors also offered support. “We knew the fire had devastated them, and we wanted to help them keep their heads above water,” says Jim Fowler of Bouldin & Lawson, based in McMinnville, Tenn. “They had already lost valuable production time, so within two to three weeks we delivered some standard production equipment.”

These kind offers of assistance paid off. “We met all of our Christmas commitments, and we anticipate no problems for spring,” says LeMay. She adds that all 14 acres were fully operational by the end of February.

“Of course we're still fine-tuning,” says LeMay, mentioning that some rebuilt houses are still without computerized environmental control systems, and that crops are still being hand-watered. Likewise, they are still in the process of rebuilding the barn. LeMay is optimistic that all production equipment will be in place by the end of March. “By then, we'll be producing at our normal volume,” she predicts, which would put the timeline in which Battlefield was resurrected from ashes at under five months.

Battlefield underwent several changes through the course of rebuilding. However, the Van Hovens did not perceive the fire as an opportunity to upgrade equipment or expand in size. “The original facility was built in 1982, but it was modern [from the start],” says LeMay. “It was equipped with boom irrigation and computer-controlled environmental zones.”

LeMay adds that just prior to the fire she and the Van Hovens were talking about installing pad and fan cooling systems; the rebuilt houses do include these systems.

In explaining the motives underlying one major change enacted by Battlefield during the rebuilding process, the phrase, “Once burnt, twice shy,” can be applied without fear of lapsing into cliche. A cinder block firewall now stands between the gutter-connected greenhouses and the barn. Electrical upgrades should further minimize the risk of another destructive fire, as should the relocated boilers. Prior to the fire, LeMay would not have given a second thought to housing the company's offices in the barn. But as she noted earlier in this article, the shock of losing data as basic as customer phone numbers goes a long way toward enhancing one's appreciation of fundamental risk control and disaster contingency planning. Battlefield's offices will now be housed in a separate facility.

Battlefield re-ordered from almost all the vendors that had originally installed the company's production systems and related equipment. For example, the company stayed with Cherry Creek Systems and GTI Systems for irrigation boom control, Q-Com Corp. for environmental controls, and Van Wingerden Greenhouse Co. for shade systems and polycarbonate greenhouse walls.

“This experience proves how many vendors in the industry have developed close relationships with their customers,” says Fowler of Bouldin & Lawson, which Battlefield again turned to for flat fillers, watering tunnels, transporting lines and soil mixing equipment. “A lot of friendships have developed within this industry, not just business relationships.”

Lessons Learned

If you own or manage a greenhouse operation, how much effort have you applied toward fire prevention? What preparations have you made in the event of a fire?

As she watched a fire destroy millions of dollars of products and equipment, LeMay says she was overwhelmed by her sense of utter helplessness.

She was able to marshal the wherewithal to quickly contact the fire department and assist the fire chief by feeding him physical information about the facility and what it contained.

Nonetheless, LeMay acknowledges that Battlefield should not have presumed that communication with the fire department (or related emergency response resources) is unnecessary until you desperately need a fire truck.

“In hindsight, we realized that we should have established better relationships with our county personnel,” she says. “The fire chief had never been to our facility before the fire broke out.”

LeMay notes, for example, that Battlefield has a pond on its property from which the fire fighters could have pumped water. In all the hubbub, no one connected to Battlefield thought to mention the pond until the fire fighters had been on the site for some time. “We should have requested that they visit us beforehand to do a walk-through and to give us some pointers.”

In addition to the volunteer fire companies, some of the first people on the scene were agents with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. They were there to monitor for soil contamination in the event that greenhouse chemicals were being dispersed by the fire. But Battlefield had planned for that contingency; chemicals were stored in a locked room with a concrete floor and concrete walls. Forming a second line of defense was a drainage system Ð originally built to capture greenhouse runoff during rains to prevent flooding and for reuse Ð that ran from the floor of the room to the containment pond.

Although chemical contamination was not detected, the DEQ did set time limits for Battlefield to clean up chemical debris, and mandated that chemicals must be disposed of by a professional service. “That costs a couple hundred thousand dollars,” LeMay says.

“We had a pretty good method of storing our chemicals,” she adds, “but many people don't realize how important that is. Growers should keep a chemical inventory that is current and usable. Don't buy something if you're not sure it's going to work. Read the label so you don't overbuy.” LeMay also suggests that growers purchase the newer, reduced-risk chemicals (“even if it means giving up old favorites”) and rely on state agencies for help with proper storage and disposal.

Florists' Mutual was also at Battlefield the night of the fire. Battlefield's facility was insured; the company also had crop insurance. A portion of rebuilding expenses came out of pocket, but LeMay says the insurance coverage was critical in enabling the company to finance its rebuilding.

“A lot of growers don't have insurance or don't know what it covers,” she says. “We get complacent and say that everything is fine, so we don't need to worry about our insurance. Make sure you review your policy and see what is covered. You might have acquired something that isn't covered.”

In the face of the financial, business and personal setbacks, not to mention an ongoing barrage of complications, LeMay says that what ultimately inspired and guided everyone involved with Battlefield Farms was not the fire department, the insurance company, or even the unwavering support of family, friends and colleagues. It was faith.

“When the fire happened, we knew that God was in control. We just kept going, one step at a time, and everything fell into place.”

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Kara Wipf

Kara Wipf is special projects editor for GPN.

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