Editor’s note: Kim Colavito Markesich, our long-time freelance contributor, graduated from the Ratcliffe Hicks School of Agriculture, then went on to earn her bachelor of science in agriculture with a focus on environmental writing. Recently she caught up with some of her fellow RHSA alumni.
Hart’s Greenhouse is a family business with deep ties to the College. Joyce and David Hart are both Ratcliffe Hicks graduates. They met while in school and married in 1979. Joyce continued at UConn, earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education. Their son, Chris, and daughter, Jessica, both received their bachelor’s degree in horticulture, and Chris met his wife Audrey, at UConn. She majored in landscape architecture and works in the family business. Joyce and David have three grandchildren, who may be the next generation to run the operation.
“When we first started, we had absolutely nothing, so it’s fun now,” David says. “We’re very fortunate and happy that both our children are one-hundred percent invested in the business. If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t continue to expand.”
David’s grandparents immigrated from Russia and Poland. They settled in New York City and eventually bought property in Canterbury, where they operated a small family farm. During the week, his grandfather worked in New York City as a chef, while his grandmother held down the farm.
Joyce and David acquired the family farm in Canterbury from his mother and over the past thirty years have purchased adjoining property, as well as acreage for plant production. “We kept the original farm property agricultural, although our greenhouses are on land a mile away,” Joyce says. “We try to preserve the old farm as much as we can and have slowly purchased parcels that were once part of the original farm.”
At first, they hoped to raise livestock, dabbling in sheep, chickens, pigs and beef cattle. Then they opened a small roadside stand, which started them on their horticultural path. “It was a way we could make money and stay in agriculture,” Joyce explains. “Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. It really was the best thing to do, switch gears to plant science. It works in Connecticut. We own square acres of land, not square miles.” But the couple still owns a few animals. “We have horses and a few goats,” Joyce says. “We can’t get away from animals. We love them.”
The family now owns over 300 acres, with six acres of heated greenhouse space and twenty acres of outdoor growing fields. They operate four retail garden centers in Canterbury, Preston, Brooklyn, and Norwich, and two wholesale growing facilities in Preston and Canterbury, where they grow annuals, perennials and poinsettias, employing twenty-five to eighty workers, depending on the season.
The Harts also offer a variety of workshops, including the Bunny’s Breakfast Pot Workshop and the Cut & Come Again Veggie Garden Workshop, that appeal to all ages. “Our classes have been very popular,” says Joyce. The Harts are also dedicated to environmental advancements such as solar panels and efficient heating. “We’re advanced in what we do,” David says. “We were one of the first to install heated concrete floors with hot water, which is very efficient. All our gutter houses have energy curtains.”
Thinking back to her courses at UConn, Joyce remembers a vegetable class that she found very practical, as well as other plant science classes. She’s generous with her advice for current students, saying, “Be open to possibilities. Sometimes life takes you in different directions than you expected, but in the end it’s the best thing that could have happened.”
She continues, “Networking is important. The people you meet can guide you a long way in your life. Sometimes you connect in business with these people later on, so it’s important to know people. Communication is key. There are so many ways to find information these days, but people skills, flexibility and willingness to try new things, these are essential skills. You can get a lot done when you actually call someone on the phone and talk.”