Meet Laura Abrams

Get To Know MFBF’s Vice President: Laura Abrams

J.P. Bartlett Co., Inc., is a fourth generation, family owned, eight-acre greenhouse facility located on its original site in Sudbury, Massachusetts. It provides finished plant material to garden centers and landscape professionals.

The story of this operation started with James Lowell Bartlett, who began growing carnations in Sudbury. His son, John Pike Bartlett took the reins of the company, following years in the service. A farm boy with a mechanical engineering degree, he became known as the ‘geranium engineer.’ He developed and patented the first plastic covered greenhouse with Lord and Burnham, known as the ‘Bartlett Structure’ that revolutionized the industry.

Today, John’s daughter Laura Abrams runs the lab greenhouses and continue to breed new geraniums, along with her son, Fred. The business continues to grow, now selling winter crop of rooted and unrooted geraniums and vegetative cuttings to supply greenhouses across the country.

“Geraniums are our biggest crop year-round but, in the spring, it’s probably one-third of what we do,” Abrams said. “The rest is all annuals.”

All the geraniums grown by them are J.P. Bartlett varieties, she said. They are still creating new ones as many plants found in their greenhouses have numbers, awaiting varietal names. Bred by Abrams and her family, these have been selected for the U.S. market.

“In our geraniums we are looking at garden performance,” Abrams said. “Almost all of our competitors are Europeans, who breed for window boxes because no one has a garden in Europe. We breed for a U.S. garden, where you want something vigorous, you want something to be the focal point of your garden and you don’t want inpatients outgrowing your geraniums.”

She said that she has seen Bartlett geraniums last almost into November as they will take a light frost. By developing such a quality product, Abrams’ business has attracted a wide following.

“The majority of the customers we’ve had forever,” she said. “We have two guys that go out and call on new customers. For example, we picked up a new customer this year that has three locations so that’s huge. We do some contract growing too, including 800 feet for Cavicchio.”

Additionally, they produce 3+ acres of hot peppers on agricultural preservation restriction (APR) land in Sudbury, which are used in Mad Dog Hot Sauce who has a kitchen in Hudson.

“It’s a simple crop,” Abrams said. “We start them here in the winter. We throw them in the field and nothing eats them. It keeps the deer away.”

To manage the eight-acres of greenhouses, Abrams employees 55 workers.

“Thirty of them are year-round and the other 25 are Cambodians,” Abrams said. “They come from Lynn, Lowell, Revere, through a temporary help agency. When they aren’t here, a lot of them are at the fish factories or the airport. So, they go between the three and we’re lucky to get mostly the same ones back every year, so we don’t have to retrain them all.”

While they have been lucky in finding reliable on-farm labor, Abrams said they have found it difficult to find truck drivers to deliver their product but always manage.

“You head into a season wondering how you are going to deliver eight acres of plants and it just always works out,” she said.

Their customers in the spring are almost all in Massachusetts with some in Connecticut and New Hampshire. There are also a couple of trips to New York. Winter is different.

“For the winter it is all over the country,” she said. “So, we either ship via our own truck, roughly 300 miles, or everything else is FedEx or customers pick up.”

Truck drivers are not the only challenge J.P. Bartlett is facing.

“We are out of room, land-wise, without making another purchase or selling this and going someplace else,” Abram’s son, Fred, said. But right now they are working with what they have.

Abrams also echoed this statement while showing a greenhouse towards the back of the property, when she said, “When we built this in 2000/2001, we put a separate head house on, bathroom and electrical. My father thought that if we are going to be foolish enough to get bigger, he wanted a fall back so that if we didn’t have the customers, we could rent all of this out. But now we are out of room.”

In addition to greenhouses, J.P. Bartlett’s includes a loading dock, large boiler room and a compost pile for flowers that were unable to be sold during the season. This year many pansies could be seen in that pile as the weather was too cold in the early spring.

“Once the weather breaks, consumers don’t want to put pansies in,” she said. “They want annuals. We normally sell out of pansies but this year we didn’t. The good news is that this year everyone was very eager to plant everything else.

“What you don’t do in April, you hope to do in June.”

The success of J.P. Bartlett has included a Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) membership for many years and at the last annual meeting, MFBF delegates voted Abrams to be the vice president of the organization.

“We’ve been Farm Bureau members since before I was born,” Abrams said. “It’s because they all were farmers. There used to be so many wholesale greenhouses in Sudbury that it was known as the carnation capitol of the United States, and they all are part of agriculture.”

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