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A Story of Failure
Ed Snodgrass and the Success of Emory Knoll Farms

March 2012

Dansko proudly occupies its LEED Gold Certified headquarters located in West Grove, Pa.

Taking over the family’s 140-acre farm from his father in 1972, Ed Snodgrass  was traveling the well-worn path of six generations. His ancestors settled in the area after emigrating from Scotland, and like his father and grandfather before him, Snodgrass worked the farm until it became his own.

It was the mid-1980s and commodity prices fell dramatically as double-digit inflation increased operating expenses. Nationwide, over 235,000 farms fell victim to the economic maelstrom and Emory Knoll Farms became  a statistic.

“My current success is largely a story of failure – the great cradle of innovation,” Snodgrass admits. “When it was obvious the farm was no longer going to make it,” he adds, “I had to go out and find another way to provide for my family. I worked for seven years at a nursery and another seven as the director of education for the Living Classrooms program in Baltimore, but I was always looking for a way to make it back to  the farm.”

Not happy with the confines of the present day farming model, Snodgrass was interested in doing something different. He explains, “There’s a package you have to follow to grow a certain crop. This pesticide goes with this seed. There’s really no deviation from the formula, and you can’t control your expenses. It’s a modern form of sharecropping or indentured servitude. That being said,” he quickly adds, “I would still be doing it if it had been successful.

“I was looking for another model where I could still use my land, but set my own prices. Control that part of the equation, more independently and in a more sustainable model.”

Notable Projects
>>National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Satellite Center (NOAA), Washington D.C., 170,000 square feet
>>Library of Congress, National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC), Culpeper, Va., 100,000 square feet
>>Wal-Mart, Chicago, Ill., 64,000 square feet
>>Carnegie Mellon University – Hammerschlag Hall, Pittsburgh, Pa., 4,500 square feet
>>Walter Reed Community Center, Arlington, Va., 10,000 square feet

Green roofs in the form of a sod roof have been used for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Germany invented the modern green roof as a storm water management solution and to combat the increased temperatures of a sprawling cityscape. The popularity of the modern version quickly grew across Europe with many cities adopting compliance policies in their building codes. In 1999, the green roof idea finally crossed the Atlantic and caught the attention of Snodgrass. He attended a conference on storm water management in Ottowa, Canada, and noticed that the room was full of engineers, architects and landscape designers.

“I looked around the room and didn’t see any plant people,” says Snodgrass. “I thought to myself, ‘I could be the plant guy. I’ll be the smartest guy in the room!’” Using only 10 acres of his 140-acre farm, Snodgrass returned home and started growing green roof plants.

Ed Snodgrass

Not an expert in green roof plants, Snodgrass relied on his farming and nursery experience in propagation and horticulture to start his crop. “It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning,” he admits. “I knew the characteristics of a green roof, so I guessed at the plants – drought tolerant, thrives in low substrate … things like that. I learned along the way and got educated on the different requirements of each variety. We started with the easy ones and added harder ones as I learned more. We now have hundreds to choose from.”

In 2000, without any advertising or marketing, he sold his first order for 4,000 plants. “I met a woman through a mutual friend who worked for HOK, a global architecture firm in Washington, D.C. She told me what she was looking for, and I had most of what she wanted.” In 2001, he fulfilled another small job along with the 63,000 plants ordered for Montgomery Park, an eight-story, 1.3 million-square-foot complex in the old Montgomery Ward Catalog House near downtown Baltimore. He ended 2011 producing over 2 million plants.

“I started my company just when the Internet was starting its ascendency. I knew that the designers who would buy my plants were early adopters of technology, so I built a website from a Microsoft template and purchased the URL, Back then, if you searched for ‘green roof plants’ you would only get four hits, and we were one of them. Now you’ll get over 1.5 million results, and we’re still at the top of the page,” he says with a grin. While is a catchy name, it is in fact just a website address.

Benefits of a Green Roof
>>Decreases the total amount of water runoff and slows the rate of runoff from the roof for gradual release back into the atmosphere
>>Lowers indoor and outdoor ambient temperatures in the summer
>>Attenuates sound inside a building
>>Absorbs and filters impurities in the air
[Source, “Green Roof Plants, A Resource and Planting Guide,”
by Ed Snodgrass]

Snodgrass owns the farm known as Emory Knoll Farms and the company that grows and sells the green roof plants is Emory Knoll Farms, Inc. Just recently, they’ve started doing business as (DBA) as Green Roof Plants in some circles.

Green roof on a residence hall at Swarthmore College

“When I re-established my business, I decided to pursue a different business model. One that operates toward the goal of a triple bottom line – people, profits and planet. I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years, but the most important lesson I’ve learned in business is that hiring good people and taking care of them is a lot cheaper than trying to save money on labor. I have the highest caliber employees. That frees me up to do what I do best. I was just in Germany for seven days for a conference. I can do that because the people who are back at the business are running the business and running it well.”

Snodgrass employs the equivalent of nine full-time employees and pays everyone a better than competitive salary with full benefits including retirement. There are no seasonal workers, but he does hire summer interns. “We’ve had a student getting her master’s degree in fine arts from Yale. An opera singer from the University of Maryland, and a schoolteacher from Seattle. The only thing they had in common was their interest in green roofs. I did discuss the possibility of an international intern with some colleagues while I was in Germany so that may happen, too,” he says.  “As I learned about green roofs, I also learned more about sustainable farming and sustainable businesses. We do our part to reduce our carbon footprint by burning vegetable oil and using solar power for heating, not using hazardous chemicals on our plants, and not printing a paper catalog to sell our plants.”

In 2004, Snodgrass added a partner, former co-worker John Shipley. “I knew statistically that most small businesses die from managing growth, not from not having enough sales. When you run a business by yourself, you get into things like accounting and human resources. My expertise was in growing things, not filling out forms,” says Snodgrass. Adding, he says, “Running a nursery is a manufacturing job and manufacturing is all about keeping a low error rate. If I’m filling out HR compliance forms or doing taxes, my head is not in the right place and errors are bound to happen. There are very few people who can do all that. I didn’t want to worry about it. John was interested in owning something, so it worked out to benefit us both.”

Snodgrass is a bona fide expert on green roof plants, having written three books on the subject and a contributor to a fourth. “I had a green roof nursery two years before there were any green roof sales. The downside is you many never sell item number one. The upside is no one can ever claim to be in business longer or have more expertise.”

Books written by Ed Snodgrass
>>Green Roof Plants: A Resource and Planting Guide (October 2006)
>>The Green Roof Manual: A Professional Guide to Design, Installation, and Maintenance (August 2010)
>>Small Green Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Greener Living (April 2011)
>>Contributing Author: The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening (April 2011)

The books have served as a main source of marketing for Snodgrass. Since publishing his first book, “Green Roof Plants, A Resource and Planting Guide” in 2006, Snodgrass has given over 120 talks to audiences nationally and internationally. The recent trip to Germany was to give a presentation at an international plant conference drawing from 11 countries from around the world.

While Snodgrass has international appeal, he still contributes to projects at home. He works on the advisory board at his alumni, North Harford High School. He provides recommendations on content development for the school’s Natural Resources and Agricultural Science Magnet Program. He is consulting on the Sustainability Demonstration Project at Joppatowne High School that’s turning a football ticket booth into a model of design and building practices for future construction. And, through his relationship with Craig Ward of Frederick Ward Associates, he has provided insight into green roofs for the proposed business incubator resources at the Bel Air Armory.

Looking forward, Snodgrass is optimistic that failure is no longer an option. “This business is still in its infancy. As the industry matures, there’s more and more opportunity. If we only supplied every new construction, we’d occupy every nursery in the country with plants. I told the audience in Germany that the biggest ecological problem with our cities is the ratio of human cells to plant cells. New York City has over 27,000 acres of flat roofs – a huge unplanted desert. We’ve only sold 100 acres of plants in 10 years. We’re going to be busy for a long time.”

Emory Knoll Farms, Inc.

3410 Ady Road

Street, MD 21154