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For The Bigger Picture

Lloyd Traven strives to empower the next generation and do business his way at Peace Tree Farm.

by Chris Manning for Nursery Management Magazine

Lloyd Traven didn’t plan on working in the horticulture industry. The son of a Russian Jewish immigrant father and an American mother, Traven originally planned to become a doctor. In fact, Lloyd was in college taking medical classes and plants were not on his radar.

“For us, it was all about education,” Traven says. “So if you work hard enough and apply yourself, you can be a doctor and if you’re not a doctor you don’t have a job. At least that was my father’s idea.”

“That was where I was headed. I was going to be a thoracic surgeon. It was all ordained and decided and organized. And then I met a girl.”

According to Lloyd, it was within a few minutes of meeting Candy, his now wife of 43 years, that he was going to marry her. Candy was into plants — she says she gave him a coleus that he almost killed once they started dating — and Lloyd decided he was going to dedicate his life to whatever Candy liked.

“It was in the ‘70s and that was the last big plant boom — everyone had to create their own paradise,” Candy says. “I had given him a coleus and he had a great room with a wonderful window. And the plant wilted and he called me all frantic saying ‘it’s limp and hanging, what do I do’. I said ‘try water’ and of course it came back.”

“So I left the medical world in the dust as quickly as I could,” he says. “I went back to school for floriculture. I went to graduate school at Cornell in floriculture.”

After college, Lloyd and Candy moved to Chicago, where he worked for Ball Horticultural and was involved in early plug development. But something changed.

“Once I figured out the people who hired me had left, I figured out the people now in charge of me didn’t understand my personality,” Lloyd says, noting that he loved working for Ball. “I’m always looking at something new, I’m always looking to learn something and try new things. What they wanted to do was shoehorn me into a position. Once you are in that position, that’s what you do. And I didn’t want that.”

Founding Peace Tree Farm

In 1983, Lloyd and Candy started looking for their own place to grow and be their own bosses. After one day of looking, they found a farm for sale in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They bought the farm soon after and have been there ever since. It also brought Lloyd back near South New Jersey where he was raised.

From his time at Ball and the early days of Peace Tree, Lloyd found that he loved horticulture because of how he could apply science and technology.

“You were kind of in control of it,” he explains. “While it was still bottom-line life and death, it’s not the same kind of life and death [as medicine]. Not even remotely close. But it required care and attention. And when I realized that there was a scientific base for everything and that you could work within other biologies and you could make it work for you, it was cool. And when I realized you could go to graduate school for this, it blew my mind.”

Lloyd’s father wasn’t on board at first with the career switch, openly wondering about how Lloyd would make a living and support a family. But with a play of nostalgia, his dad bought it.

“My grandparents, in Russia, were farmers. They raised chickens and had bees and made cheeses and butters. And they were peddlers — my grandma had a horse and wagon and she would drive around to sell general goods and farm products,” he says. “When I knew them, and they had moved to the U.S., they had a farm raising chickens and selling eggs near where I am now.”

“So my father had experienced them being interested [in farming]. And his hobby, of all things, was bonsai trees — the precision of it and forcing this plant to your will. The more we talked about it, the more I was able to remind him what interested him about it. I told him ‘agriculture is a calling and I’m feeling that calling.’” Lloyd’s father died in 1995 and ultimately saw the farm grow and expand for over a decade, inching toward being the business it is today.

Around this time, Lloyd and Candy had a son, Alex, who now works at the business in a managerial position. They also have an older son, Abraham, who lives in Boise, Idaho, and is a world-class rock climber and runs a gear store.

In 2021, Peace Tree Farm is an established business producing a mix of organic herbs, annuals, perennials and houseplants. Plants are mostly potted vs. being sold in flats. Over the course of 30 years, the growing process has been fine-tuned and perfected. In the 1990s and 2000s, as the business made a name for itself, it started moving more towards what it is today.

But in 1983, in year one of the business, it was more chaotic. According to Lloyd, they took over the business in early April — far too late in the game to dive into spring plant sales. That could have left Peace Tree facing a full year without income. But instead, Lloyd used connections he had at Ball to launch a line of plants unique to Peace Tree and, in theory, something different than what was readily available.

“I never wanted to be a bedding plant grower,” he says. “I can’t imagine breaking into the market with packs of annuals when I’ve got Dan Shantz and KubePak and major growers around us. We started out growing Rex begonias, English ivy that we made into topiary, and gerberas. We had a nice business with that.” They took on Ball genetics as well and for a time grew mums and poinsettias. They haven’t grown either in over two decades. They also grew basil in 3.5 inch pots from day one — at the instance of Candy — and sold 5,000 units in year one. Today, Peace Tree sells over 100,000 basil pots in a year, all of them certified organic.

“We figured out ways we could stand out totally from what everyone else is doing,” Lloyd says. “And we did that from day one.”

Empowering the next generation

For Lloyd, a key part of his introduction to the business was learning from the generation of growers that came before him. Back in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, that meant learning from people he worked with at Ball and then connecting with various potted herb growers pioneering the space 30 years ago.

Today, Lloyd works to pay back his knowledge by mentoring and empowering the next generation. One way he does is by working with Dr. Charlie Hall, Ellison Chair at Texas A&M University, and the students Hall works with.

“One of the best things about Lloyd — at least for me — is that you never doubt where you stand with him or what he’s thinking,” says Hall, who has known Lloyd for over two decades and has worked with him for the last 14 years. “He’s as honest as the day is long. It’s one of those things I really appreciate.”

Lloyd works with Hall on the advisory board for the Ellison Chair. Hall says that he invited Lloyd because of his honesty and willingness to call it like he sees it.

“When he disagrees with you, he’ll let you know,” Hall explains. “But if he does, he’ll do so respectfully. A lot of times, the majority of times I’d say, it’ll involve some type of humor. He’s not afraid to disagree and he’ll state his case, but also admit when he’s wrong.”

“With the people he really likes, he’ll come up with nicknames,” Hall adds. “So one of mine is ‘Professor Silver Lining’ because I always tend to find the positive factors in my economic outlooks, regardless of how dire the economic environment is.”

With the younger growers, Hall says that Lloyd offers himself as a consistent resource as a way to give back to what was given to him.

“I have seen Lloyd personally mentor younger growers in the industry about their path forward or how best to control an insect or whatever the question is,” Hall says. “It’s rare for a grower to do so so openly and readily. He’s just very open with someone who walks up to him at Cultivate with a question. He takes time for that.”

Someone he has worked with directly as they climbed the ladder is Brie Arthur. Today, Arthur is an author and horticulturist who focuses on evangelizing gardening to end consumers, giving presentations and detailing her work on Instagram at @BrieThePlantLady. But in 2008, when Lloyd met Arthur, she was working as a grower and propagator at a greenhouse operation. At the time, Arthur says the industry was beginning to embrace networking online and the benefits of digital. She was a member of a Facebook group called ‘Plant Porn’ that Lloyd was helping to moderate.

“Lloyd was such an integral part of that and such a kind and supportive mentor to people of any age or experience,” Arthur says. “He was someone I could come to with questions or concerns and he would give me impartial advice. It was years before I met him in person, but I had this significant relationship with him via digital means and he cultivated that relationship with a lot of people — especially people in my age group who were in their 20s and just starting out their careers and figuring out their lives.”

Big picture thinking

Another part of LLoyd’s ethos dating back to the early days of Peace Tree Farms: thinking outside the box.

On a day-to-day level, Lloyd empowered his son, Alex, to implement an integrated pest management program at the business. According to Alex, Lloyd let Alex shape the program and make it his own. It was something that he felt Alex was right for vs. him taking something on.

He adds that he and Lloyd are different. Both attended Cornell and they work together on all aspects of the business. But whereas Lloyd is more outgoing, Alex is more reserved. They view plants differently, too.

“He enjoys horticulture in a way that I don’t,” Alex says. “I love plants, I love gardening, but my view of it is much more utilitarian rather than mad collector. That has led to occasional conflicts where he loves a plant and I have to be the voice of reason saying ‘ya well, there’s a reason no one else grows it’ or whatever it is. But I respect where he comes from and how far it’s gotten the business, and how it sets us apart.”

“Whatever we grow, Alex wants them to buy it because it’s the best it can be, even if it’s a plant we don’t love,” Lloyd adds. “He’s more production oriented than I am.”

Lloyd has also been willing to work outside of standard marketing norms in the industry. In the past, Peace Tree Farm worked with more established brands, using their marketing programs. But over time, he and the rest of the Peace Tree operation wanted to expand beyond that and highlight more unique plants that don’t fit the cookie-cutter mold.

“How do I figure out how to grow enough stock and reach a number that’s sustainable,” he asks. “It’s one thing to do 10 pots, but it’s a whole other thing to do 500 pots. How do I commercialize so I can get 500 or 1,000 or 2,000? So we had this collection of amazing plants that we would get from all over the world.” When this program developed, word of mouth spread at flower shows and among botanical gardeners about Peace Tree’s unique offerings.

“It gave us huge notoriety,” Lloyd says. “We weren’t making a lot of money doing it. Herbs made the money.” But the business made it through, with Lloyd citing the great people as a reason why. And around 2008, after Peace Tree became certified organic, they began working with retail grocery chain Wegman’s to sell herbs. As part of their partner farm program — which puts Peace Tree in weekly ads and with a set place in Wegman’s stores — the business boomed.

“They came to us for these live organic herbs and we are on the branding on it,” Lloyd says, noting that they do herbs and vegetables for Wegman’s all up the East Coast in the spring. “We still do this now. We do two significant loads twice a week all year. It’s something that paid off years after we got started.”

Last year, Peace Tree went fully organic with its production, temporarily halting ornamental production and going all-in on herbs and vegetables. It was a big step and one that didn’t come without risks in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But thinking big again paid off, as it always seems to do.

“I thought we were going to go out of business — it was really grim,” Lloyd says. “Even Wegman’s cut us off for about three weeks. But within four to five weeks, it was bigger than it ever was. In those sleepless nights, I was waking up at three in the morning and telling myself that Wegman’s was going to be open and any place that sells food will be open. Garden centers selling ornamentals might not. The next day, in the morning, I told everyone in a meeting what we were going to do and how we were going to adjust to it all.”

“I’m not thinking about today, I’m not thinking about tomorrow,” he says. “I’m thinking about three years or five years from now and how I can develop customers that will stick with us.”