Podcast interview with Steve Beeman, owner of Beemats Floating Wetlands™ in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Steve’s son Forest operates Beeman’s Nursery.
ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Host Mitzy Sosa interviews Steve Beeman, owner of Beemats, the inventors of a patented floating wetlands system for managing nutrients in waterways. Steve has been growing and innovating with native plants for decades, and is a founding member of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (FANN). His son Forest runs Beemans Nursery, which specializes in aquatic and shoreline plants, and grows plants for Beemats and other customers. This family-owned business in East Central Florida is well respected for the owners’ knowledge and experience in planting challenging ecosystems. Steve offers a lot of good advice for what you need to know and do. Don’t forget to make a few mistakes and learn from them!
ABOUT OUR PODCAST
Go Native: the Business of Native Plants interviews seasoned native plant business owners and experts to help others learn from their successes and failures.
Find monthly episodes wherever you find your podcasts, here on our blog or at https://rss.com/podcasts/gonative
Now listen to Episode 4 or read the transcript below to learn more. Go native!
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 4
Host: Mitzy Sosa
Interviewee: Steve Beeman, owner, Beemats Floating Wetlands™
Mitzy Sosa 00:02
Hello and welcome back to another episode of Go Native, the Business of Native Plants. I am Mitzy Sosa, your host. On today’s episode we are talking to Steve Beeman of Beemats Floating Wetlands. Steve has worked with native Florida plant communities for 39 years. As a biologist with Florida environmental agencies he studied and regulated impacts to wetland habitats in East Central Florida. Then, in 1978, he founded Ecoshores, a company that built and planted over 2500 acres of native wetland and upland forest. Steve is also a founding member of the Florida Association of Environmental Professionals and the Association of Florida Native Nurseries (now FANN). He is here today to tell us the ins and outs of those stories and what he’s up to today. All right, so we’re gonna get right to it. So I like for us to start with a quick, simple introduction. Tell us about yourself, who you are and what you do.
Steve Beeman 01:16
Okay, I’m Steve Beeman. I started a company in 1974 called Ecoshores. I went to college in Hawaii. I got a job working for the state for four years. And then I started this company called Ecoshores and we planted native shorelines. When my son Forest got out of college, with his degree in Environmental Horticulture from Texas A&M, we started Beeman’s Nursery in 2000. And in 2009, we started this company for planting and growing floating wetlands for water treatment. In the last several years, Forest has taken over the nursery. He owns Beeman’s Nursery, and I’m running Beemats, the floating wetlands company. So he produces all the plants for me for the Beemats, and we put them out and maintain them. And most of our clients are municipalities, counties, although there are some private development companies and some homeowners associations that use them for water cleanup as well.
So that’s pretty much where we are. We’re constantly tweaking our system. When we first started the nursery 20 years ago, we wanted to have floating wetlands growing in ponds to take up nutrients and keep the ponds clean without worrying about the water levels in the pond. That was our issue, when planting shorelines, is that water levels made our work uncertain. We didn’t know whether we would have a drought or whether we would have a flood that impacted the health of the plants growing on the shoreline. We didn’t realize until we started floating wetlands, just how good they were at actually taking up nutrients. Because it’s like growing hydroponically except that you’re not. If you’re growing tomatoes, hydroponically, you add nutrients to your to your mixture. When you’re growing hydroponically in a stormwater pond, the nutrients are there and they’re actually your target. The idea is to harvest those nutrients out of the water so that you don’t have a food source for algae and hydrilla, duckweed and other nuisance plants. And every stormwater pond in the state eventually ends up in a creek or a stream or a ditch that goes ultimately to a big lake or estuary. The bottom line is, we need to keep as much of that nutrient load out of the estuary as possible. And the way we do that is by reducing it at its source, which is stormwater and treated wastewater.
Mitzy Sosa 03:57
And that has connections to the algal blooms.
Steve Beeman 04:01
Oh 100%, yeah, yeah, 100%. That’s the causative factor, nitrogen and phosphorus primarily, but there are other constituents, but primarily those two and we throw nitrogen on our agricultural fields. We use phosphate fertilizers. And those two are the main culprits. And you know, we spray our yards to get the grass green and landscapes, golf courses, all that contributes in some way.
Mitzy Sosa 04:34
Could you tell me a little bit more about the nursery and the Beeman’s Nursery business?
Steve Beeman 04:41
We’re in New Smyrna Beach. It’s a 20-acre nursery. Forest runs Beeman’s Nursery and we grow almost exclusively native plants. We grow some plants that are not native, that we have, you know, people’s demand for that. In floating wetlands, everything we use, pretty much, is a native plant. And when we sell these to places like the Carolinas or Iowa or wherever we encourage them to use their native plants for the nutrient uptake in their area. We just did a bunch in Virginia last summer where we used Virginia plant stock, brought it to Florida, grew it out in our nursery, and took it back to Virginia to plant it. And those are doing well, those wetlands are doing well.
Mitzy Sosa 05:36
And just to recap, Steve is running his Beemats business, his son is in charge of running Beeman’s Nursery and Beeman’s Nursery makes the plants that eventually go into Steve’s Beemats. But it’s incredibly cool to have, you know, the different native plants of these different places that people are getting them to be grown specifically for them. But it does sound a little bit complicated.
Steve Beeman 06:07
Yeah, it would be better if it were grown there. We did a project also on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay in Delaware, where we planted a salt marsh area. And those plants were grown at a nursery across the bay in New Jersey. And so they imported the plants, they brought the plants over. We brought the islands up and planted with those plants from the local source.
Mitzy Sosa 06:37
It’s amazing. So Steve, could you take us back and tell me about the beginning of everything. Tell me about Ecoshores, and you know, what got you into the native plant industry? Was this something that you were introduced to in college or did you just always have a passion for natives?
Steve Beeman 06:54
Actually, no. My master’s degree’s research was on hammerhead sharks. Had nothing to do with plants.
When I moved to Florida, I actually moved here hoping to have an interview at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, working on sharks. But there was a recession going on when I moved here in 1974. So I took a job working for the state as a biologist, what became the agency that eventually became DEP. And as a field biologist, I was moved to Volusia County and Seminole counties. And so I worked for the state for four years. And my main function was biological assessments and permitting for any damage to wetlands. And that was brand new at the time. So it was like the laws had just been changed from it’s okay to go out and dredge and fill wetlands to now it’s not okay, you gotta get a permit.
So it was kind of like the Wild West back then. But people wanted to put seawalls up all along the estuaries. And I kept trying to tell them that if they just planted native shoreline intertidal plants, there were two or three major advantages. The number one major advantage is, you don’t need a permit from us, from this agency. You just do it. Number two advantage is a sloping shoreline. So it attenuates wave energy, it doesn’t reflect it. And the third thing is that you create a nursery for fish and other marine animals. So you’re gonna have a productive shoreline that, you know, fishing next to is going to be a lot more fun.
And I had people say, well, that sounds fine. Who does this? You know, who can I call to do this? And I couldn’t find anybody. So I said, Well, I’m gonna just quit and do it. So I took the leap and started doing vegetated shorelines. First one I ever did was in Daytona Beach for a banker right across from the Chart House. And then it went from there. We started planting estuarine shorelines. And that branched out into freshwater lake shorelines.
And that was were we caught the attention of the golf course industry for doing not only wetlands, but also uplands that were impacted by development for the golf course. They didn’t want to grow grass on them, they didn’t want to fertilize them. You know, they just wanted a place out of play that kind of blended into the natural environment. And to their credit, they put a lot of effort into it. They started a program called the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program in the golf industry. And so we got into that field in a big way. We started doing acres and acres of native habitats. Every time a golf course was built, we got to do, you know, native habitats. It was their cheapest alternative because they didn’t have to maintain it after it was done, it was just finished. And we planted plants that didn’t need any care. You just left them alone, they became wildlife habitat right in the middle of the golf course. So that worked well until about 2006, 2007, when the economy crashed, and all the golf courses that were being built, stopped. All of the golf courses that were on the drawing board came off the drawing board. And we lost about 80% of our business in those two years.
Fortunately for us, we had a huge mitigation project that came on board over in The Villages, which was a 600-acre wetland project. And that kept us afloat. And we also started then working on the floating wetlands in a big way. And then we started doing that, we got the patent for our system in 2009. And then we started slowly building that up and doing a lot of research because, frankly, we didn’t know at all what these things were capable of. And so we got involved with Clemson University, we got involved with Dr. Wanielista at UCF and Harvey Harper, Dr. Harper at his company in Orlando, ERD, he was doing consulting work for Patrick Air Force Base. So we got these studies all going at the same time. And through that, the State of Florida, DEP, adopted best management practices for stormwater. And they actually listed us in there as one of the approved BMPs for stormwater development. Of course, back then it didn’t matter because nobody was building anything. There was no development going on. And most of our early clients were cities who had to meet TMDL [total maximum daily load] requirements laid down by EPA. So we started doing that. And now, actually, there’s some development happening. And we have a couple of decent sized projects that are going in that are actually privately funded. But still, local governments continue to be a big part of our of our project.
Mitzy Sosa 12:18
Well, it sounds like you really set the stage for a couple of things there. Is there anything that you wish you had known before you embarked on what this journey has become?
Steve Beeman 12:28
Well, I’ve been blessed as I’ve moved through this process from the very beginning, from the very beginning. I moved to Florida expecting to work for sharks. I got a job working for the state in plants. I saw an opportunity on shorelines, I just took it and I had no idea what I was doing, but it all fell into place. And then when a big golf course company wanted to buy that company, I saw it as an opportunity to expand, but that turned out to be a bad choice.
Mitzy Sosa 13:03
And that was Ecoshores, the company that you sold.
Steve Beeman 13:07
They eventually folded. So Forest and I started this nursery. And then we kind of were dabbling with floating wetlands for years. I mean, 20 years before we actually got the patent. And so each step of this has just worked out. And it’s like Edison’s statement that he figured out a whole bunch of ways to make a light bulb that didn’t work. That’s sort of what we did. We’ve learned by our mistakes. That’s one thing, I guess, if you’re going to tell people in the nursery business, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be afraid of trying stuff. That’s how you learn. We learned a lot of hard lessons. But we we recognize them for the lessons that they were. For example, we had crop insurance at one time. Hurricane Francis came through Daytona Beach in 2004, And just acres of water, our nursery flooded us out completely. And we lost about a half million dollars worth of plants, put in a claim to our crop insurance company and they paid us $50,000. We learned right there that crop insurance is not worth having. So we don’t have it anymore. But it’s a lesson that we learned. We just said okay, fine. We picked up, we had some plants that didn’t get destroyed. We started over and same thing after the crash in 2007. We knew we had literally a million plants where we were planning on a big year when that thing happened. And we basically had to pare down to Forest and me and my daughter Colette, who was running the office at the time, and the secretary, and we did everything. We just didn’t put anything else in the ground. Our goal was just to sell what we had. And so we advertised, we loaded trucks, we drove trucks. And we just made it through those two or three years until the big reclamation project happened at The Villages. I mean, you know, they say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that’s pretty much true.
Mitzy Sosa 15:16
Those are definitely wise words right there. Do you think that there is a common mistake that most new native plant growers make at the beginning? Is something that they should avoid?
Steve Beeman 15:27
Um, no, well … I think as far as native nurseries go, I was part of the very first native association. We met over at Green Images in David Drylie’s garage at the time. It is easy for native plant people to become tunnel vision, and say that the only good plant is a native plant. And if you don’t grow and sell and plant native plants, you’re making a big mistake. Well, that’s true, to some degree. However, you have to be prepared to give your clients what they want. And you have to be prepared to take advantage of plants that are otherwise innocuous — in other words, they don’t spread by seed, so they don’t naturalize in Florida, but they’re good plants, to do a specific job that you can’t do with a native plant.
Mitzy Sosa 16:22
Okay, some really, really great points that I feel like they’re very much to the work that you do, very niche, like you say. So what are some of the first things that someone who is a younger person that’s trying to get into the plant grower business should ask herself or himself before starting? Should they be asking themselves like how hard they’re willing to work, or how many years they have to wait till they turn profit or, or anything like that?
Steve Beeman 16:52
Well, growing plants is satisfying, but it’s expensive.
First of all, you have to have real estate, you have to have property. You have to invest in infrastructure. You have to have a reliable way to grow the plants you want to sell, without other weeds infecting them and turning them into useless green stuff.
So all that is expensive, you have to be careful that you first of all, you have to actually start with something. And that something normally is a piece of property, piece of land, it could be an acre, it could be 1000 acres, whatever it is, you have to start with that. So if you don’t have that, you shouldn’t start a nursery. The second now, you need real estate, and you need to, you need to spend the money. And do it right, to get your irrigation system set up.
First of all, test the water that you’re going to use for irrigation. We found out almost a year after we were here and operating, that our plants were not growing the way we thought they should. We had the water tested and the pH here was off the charts high. And we found out that in order to get the pH down to a point that the plants could then take up the the fertilizer, the nitrogen and phosphorus and the fertilizer we’re putting on them, we had to inject sulfuric acid into the water. That’s a very expensive proposition. So we now have a big acid injection system for this nursery so we can use less fertilizer. And that’s always been our goal. I mean, before we were throwing fertilizer out and it did not go to our plants. It went into our little storage pond here and grew algae. And so that’s or primary importance. How good is your water? Can it be used just the way it is for irrigation? Can you collect rainwater in a cistern and use that, but I’ll tell you right now that the very best water for plants to grow in is rainfall. And so during the rainy season, just take advantage of it because it’s going to be great, that’s the best water ever. But, when you don’t have rainy season, either figure out a way to put it in a pond and store that rainwater and then use it for irrigation. Or in which case you have to line it, you have to line it with plastic or concrete because otherwise you’re gonna get all the other stuff through the sidewall.
The other thing is once you to know how to grow plants, establish a market. In fact, you should establish the market first. Go out there and ask people, what do you need? What do you want? From talking to other nurseries and other landscapers and to contractors, what is in high demand? And what do people have a hard time getting? And then figure out why did they have a hard time getting it? You know, is it because nobody is growing it? It is it because it’s a pain to grow? So, if that’s the case, can you figure out a way to grow it effectively, and sell it for a reasonable price?
And that’s the bottom line. Because you have people all the time who say, Well, I put, you know, $5 into growing this plant just to sell it for eight or nine. Well, the market is at six. Can you do it for six? You got to cut down your cost of growing it down to three. So that’s, that’s really important that you look at all those production costs. So you know, what you’re doing as far as soil and fertilizer and people.
Mitzy Sosa 20:33
Those are amazing points that I think a lot of people are going to learn a lot from. Over the years, have you seen any changes that would make it easier or harder to become a native plant grower?
Steve Beeman 20:45
Well, it’s just like in farming, there are a whole lot of big organizations that have taken over the bulk of plant growing. Same thing in farming, where you have these multinational corporations growing all of our corn and wheat and rice, instead of the family farmer. So I think that, that in and of itself, is something you have to overcome. Because they’re doing it on a scale, that makes it really, really hard to compete pricewise. So you have to compete with availability of hard to find plants, or a niche of plants that they’re not doing because it’s not worth their time. Or something like that. You have to you have to think about where your place is in the big picture. And don’t try to compete with the huge growers, because you can’t. I would caution against looking for and taking money from investors, because then, you owe them. Caution against taking money from banks or mortgages, unless you’re sure that the return is worth it. You know, can you make enough money off of growing those plants that you can pay off the mortgage? I know, I listened to people tell me things. And I thought, well, that’s good advice. And I didn’t follow it. I still made the mistakes. And anybody will. You know, the thing is to not be afraid of mistakes. You know, understand them for what they are. They’re lessons of how not to make a light bulb.
Mitzy Sosa 22:29
And that’s the big idea. So, basically, mistakes are a good thing to make when you’re starting, and they are great ways to learn what to do, what not to do, what works and what doesn’t. Okay, Steve, so one of the last questions that I have for you is a question that I’ve been asking all of the people that, that we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. And in the spirit of talking about learning and teaching, and if you could design a native plant grower program, what would you make sure it included?
Steve Beeman 23:05
The very first thing is a real good working knowledge of the native plants in your area. When I moved to Tallahassee, and was given this job, they took us out with biologists into the field for three days. And basically showed us every plant on the state’s wetland indicator list and told us how to identify them and all that. What saved me, I mean, it’s three days, three days to learn all this. What saved me was I took a camera and every plant, I took a picture of everything they said. And I took notes and I had a list of what they were showing us in order. So I took notes. And then I went home at night and studied it and put it together and made a little booklet. Here’s the plan. And so when I went out in the field, later, I could refer back to my notes and say, you know, yeah, this is this, and that’s how I learned it.
But it would have been much better to have a semester or a year long class that teaches you. First of all, start with the plants from the uplands. And then the plants from the mid areas and then the plants from the wetlands. And in each case, there are subcategories. Like, in the wetlands, there are some plants that are underwater all the time, some plants that are emergent, but still need to be in the water all the time. Other plants that are emergent, but go dry every once in a while. And you work your way up.
Once you have a real good working knowledge of how all that works, now when you start your company, you can … Say somebody says, Well, I’ve got this place over on the beachside, it’s not on the dunes, but it’s behind the dunes, so it gets salt spray. But it’s kind of in a little low spot, so it does get rain and it soaks in there, but it’s salty. What do you got that works? You’ll know. You have to know those environments. And that’s what makes the difference. That’s what people come for. They come for your plants. They also come for your knowledge of how to use those plants. And once you plant them or they plant them, they’re not going to just die because you put them in the wrong place.
Mitzy Sosa 25:32
And nobody, nobody wants dead plants. All right, and that is what we have for you today. Thank you so much, Steve. You can find more on Steve and his floating wetlands at Beemats.com. Again, thank you so much, Steve. We’ll see you around next time.
All right. Bye.
And as always, stay tuned for more podcasts coming your way. You can visit our website at nativeplanthort.org
Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.