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Something Special Taking Root

Something Special Taking Root

Orchid Deal helps University of Maryland Eastern Shore generate revenue, expand academic programs and foster regional economic growth


Two hours east of Washington, D.C., across the Chesapeake Bay bridge, through rural Maryland past produce stands loaded with ripe peaches, plums and watermelons from nearby farms, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), a historically Black land-grant institution, is abuzz with the development of an industry new to the region.
Thousands of orchids in various sizes and vivid hues of yellow, pink, purple and white are blooming inside the 2.5-acre $4 million UMES hydroponics greenhouse facility. And some of these plants imported from China are still in nascent stages with thick green leaves that have yet to flower. Eventually, imported orchids worth $2 million — shipped from China in groups of 200,000 — will grow in the greenhouse.
“This is a brand new industry for Maryland, for the Eastern Shore,” says Dr. Thelma B. Thompson, president of UMES. Thompson says that one of the main advantages of the partnership between the school and the U.S. Orchid Laboratory & Nursery Inc. is that it is “in the early beginnings (of the enterprise) and not competing with anyone else.” These increasingly popular flowers are grown in the United States primarily in Hawaii, California and Florida.
The recent pairing between UMES and U.S. Orchid, the American arm of Jet Green Horticulture in Beijing, China, will serve as an additional revenue stream for the university, help expand its academic program and provide economic opportunities for the surrounding Eastern Shore region. 
 And as all 30,000 of the orchids blossom, so do short- and long-term plans to fulfill the five-year lease agreement Thompson signed in April with Dr. John Hou, president of U.S. Orchid.
The orchid program will take advantage of a network model for growers that has already proven successful for the university in a previous contract agreement with Maryland-based Bell Nursery, which vacated the premises at the end of its five-year contract with the university. The network model developed at UMES provided an ample supply of plants and flowers for Bell Nursery, and can be adapted to growing vegetables and producing poultry, too, explains Daniel Kuennen, director of the UMES Rural Development Center. The Bell Nursery/UMES collaboration resulted in a network of more than 25 growers. 
“This program helps the whole region,” Kuennen says.
“The network brings expertise that would not normally be available to small farmers so they can go ahead and be farmers,” says Dr. Tom Handwerker, horticulturalist and UMES officer of technology deployment who, along with Kuennen, created and implemented the grower network system. The grower network system is designed to “deploy technology to small farmers,” who are then able to develop alternative crops for themselves and because of the network don’t have to bother with the marketing end of the process, Handwerker says. “Our original partner, Bell, was able to use this concept to begin to market to Home Depot,” he adds. “The network concept mitigates the risk for both the major marketer and the small farmer,” says Handwerker, who is referred to by his UMES colleagues as the “architect of the greenhouse.”
The network grower model, in combination with the 20 years of technological and marketing expertise U.S. Orchid brings, positions UMES as the primary provider on the East Coast for these exotic plants that can range in cost from $15 to $4,000 for rarer varieties. Over time, the infrastructure of grower/marketer will generate enough product for the university and the region to become globally competitive in orchid production.
“Estimates of the university’s revenue stream from the fully deployed network and tissue facility may exceed a half a million dollars per year,” Handwerker explains. He adds that at this point in the project, U.S. Orchid leases the UMES greenhouse for approximately $150,000 a year and participates as a collaborator on research grants submitted by the university.
In addition to generating additonal revenue for UMES, the program simultaneously provides economic and diversification opportunities for communities throughout parts of Maryland and Delaware.
“The impact it’s going to have throughout the region is going to be phenomenal. UMES is proud to be a part of it in its infant stages,” Kuennen says.

One of the major long-term goals of the orchid project is to establish a tissue culture laboratory on campus, Kuennen says. UMES has applied for funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to construct a $5-million lab on campus.
Tissue culture, Handwerker explains, involves the creation of a “clean, identical plant” that is propagated by “taking a small undifferentiated group of cells from a single mom plant” and then dividing them. “Each cell initiates an identical plant so one plant becomes the mom of millions,” Handwerker says.
Once the tissue culture lab is in place, imports from China will cease and orchids will be propagated at UMES. Citing the troubling trend of American jobs moving overseas, Handwerker notes that the UMES/U.S. Orchid partnership has an additional, unusual benefit.
“What is unique is that our Chinese partner is going to invest international dollars and bring new agricultural technology to Maryland,” he says. “This ‘reverse investment’ represents both money and advanced technology that we don’t have. The tissue culture lab will anchor this new industry in this rural community,” Handwerker says.
The tissue culture lab will also allow UMES to expand its academic program, Thompson says.
“This is not just a commercial deal. It has an academic piece,” she says. “This is high-level botany, breeding orchids, growing different varieties created by cross-fertilization. Professors and students will be engaged in research to develop new breeds. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means we are like a hub — orchids will end up all over Maryland and the U.S. That type of industry is academic activism. The research is not just esoteric but has a practical, economic piece,” Thompson says. 
Thompson says it is important for students, regardless of their discipline, to understand the economic piece — aspects of commercialization and entrepreneurialism.
“There is a business side to each discipline,” says Thompson, who established the UMES commercialization office shortly after she arrived on campus as president two years ago. “Even if you are an artist, there is a business side to the art that if you don’t master, your creative juices will suffer.” The orchid project, she says, will allow students to identify with the practical side of research, adding that the quality of the orchid program also provides a number of other lessons from which people can benefit, including the importance of global participation, the public university’s responsibility to its surrounding community and even the concept of diversity.
“It is in the plant world that we prove diversity as the natural order of life,” she says. “In the world of horticulture, diversity is real whether you like it or not.”
The greatest challenge Thompson sees for the UMES endeavor with U.S. Orchid is to educate the public about the new collaboration on campus, and its implications for the future, especially those who were familiar with the previous partnership between Bell Nursery and the university. The new greenhouse agreement with U.S. Orchid, which grew out of an unsolicited bid — from Hou’s company and connections between the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the UMES Rural Development Center — demonstrates that “nature does not allow a void,” she says.
“People accustomed to our bedding plants and poinsettias are just now learning we have a new tenant,” Thompson says.
The UMES/U.S. Orchid collaboration is in place just as orchids are gaining popularity in the United States. Although they may be pricier than other flowers, Thompson notes, orchids can bloom for four to five months at a time and are durable in spite of their delicate appearance.
The UMES president is excited about all of the real benefits of the program, especially as it allows the university to fulfill its mission, particularly its land-grant component. “It’s different from just dealing with esoteric things we wish were so,” Thompson says. “This is a good role for the university to play.”  

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