Business blooms as Medary Acres Greenhouses enters third generation

This piece is presented by Prairie Family Business Association.

Brian Darnall had a decision to make.

His wife, Lynn, had told him: “You can be either a rural mail carrier or a greenhouse guy, but it’s one or the other,” he said.

“She said, ‘If you really concentrate on that greenhouse, I think you’ll be a lot better off, but it’s your choice.’ ”

He took her advice, picked the plants, and they’ve never looked back.

Their business, Medary Acres Greenhouses, has grown from a single small greenhouse to 12 greenhouses selling tens of thousands of hanging baskets, annuals, perennials, vegetable plants and more.

“We feel our plant quality is why people drive from 60 miles away,” Darnall said. “We grow everything ourselves, and it’s incredible what we do to make sure we have the healthiest plants.”

Business takes root

It all started in 1952, when Darnall’s former in-laws, Jean and Arlene Mehegan, added patches of strawberries, asparagus and tomatoes to their property on the south end of Brookings.

They sold the produce out of a truck along the road and then began growing gladiolas.

“He was ordering transplants from a greenhouse someplace, and if he had extras he’d put an ad in the paper saying he had plants available,” Darnall said. “And he was making more money doing that than he was doing all the work of growing.”

So the family added a small greenhouse onto a chicken coop, “and that’s when it was born.”

In 1971, “they got the bug to go into the florist business and opened a flower shop at the same location along with the greenhouse,” Mehegan said.

Darnall married the Mehegan’s daughter, Pat, and earned his business degree from USD.

Mehegan, though, always told Darnall he viewed the the greenhouse and florist business as “for beer money,” he said. “He was a rural mail carrier and had his afternoons free.”

In 1976, he offered to sell his son-in-law the business.

“He said, ‘Come try it and see if it’s anything you like. If you want to move on, that’s fine, and if you want to buy it, we’ll talk about it.’ ”

Darnall agreed, and he ran the greenhouse while Pat ran the flower shop. They split in 1980, “and even though it was her family business, she didn’t want to be involved,” he said.

Four years later, he married Lynn, who joined him in running the business.

“Jean was really wonderful to us,” she said. “He treated us like his own kids and was incredibly instrumental – just really supported us. He was an incredible man.”

Brian and Lynn Darnall

Once the business was sold, though, Mehegan “walked out the door,” Darnall said.

“Sometimes, I’d call for advice, and he’d say, ‘I think you have to figure it out.’ But every time he’d stop by; he was nothing but supportive.”

While Mehegan’s business had been for “fun money,” the Darnalls knew they had to get serious to grow. In their first 10 years, they demolished and rebuilt almost everything on the property.

Their daughters, Samantha and Sarah, were born in the late 1980s, and the demands of family led them to phase out the flower shop and focus on the greenhouses.

“We’ve always just grown as we needed to grow,” Darnall said. “We never built a great big expansion. We just build a greenhouse at a time as we need the space.”

Blossoming beyond Brookings

Medary Acres has established such a loyal customer following that shoppers easily are drawn from a 60-mile radius around Brookings.

“And we have people drive in from Chamberlain, Onida, Minneapolis and Omaha,” Lynn Darnall said. “They bring trailers.”

Many have moved to those areas, “and it’s amazing how many will make the trip back,” Brian said.

A typical season starts in January. The retail business opens in April and is done by mid-June.

“Most people think we work a month out of the year, and truth be known we get a year’s worth of hours in in about five months,” Lynn said.

There are 18 full-time and 12 part-time seasonal employees. All but one is a woman, and many have been with Medary for decades.

“We still carry everybody’s stuff out to their car and pack their car, and on the few days we don’t have enough parking, we carry it around the corner to their car,” Lynn said. “We really have a wealth of knowledge in our staff.”

There’s always coffee on, Brian added. There’s a wheelchair in case customers need it.

“We make darn sure people have a good experience,” he said. “And the staff don’t burn out. By the time they’ve burned out, we’re closed.”

The one employee who stays year-round is their younger daughter, Sarah. After spending almost 10 years in Minneapolis for college and working a corporate job, she asked if she could come home and work in the greenhouse.

“We said absolutely,” Lynn said. “We love going above and beyond for our customers, and our daughter is particularly enthralled with that after living in a big metro area. The hands-on experience drew her in.”

While Sarah’s older sister, Samantha, had worked for the business during high school and then went into medicine, Sarah always had been a lifeguard instead of working at the family business.

“She finally confided why … and it was because she didn’t want people to look at her like the boss’ kid,” Lynn said, “I said, ‘You’re going to be held accountable like anyone else,’ and she came in as part of the team and nobody ever questioned it. They love her. They lover her ideas and respect her, and the respect is mutual.”

A year after Sarah returned, though, a “legitimate buyer” for the business surfaced, Lynn said.

“And we called Sarah and said, ‘You’ve been back a year. You fit in well. You seem to be happy. We’ve got a buyer at the table. What do you think?’ ”

Their daughter gave them an answer a week later.

“She said, ‘It’s absolutely what I want to be doing.’ ”

The plan now is for Sarah, 28, to eventually take over.

“If she wants me to disappear like my dad-in-law did, I can do that,” Brian said. “But if she wants me as an adviser guy who can do what needs to be done, I can do that.”

They recently joined the Prairie Family Business Association and said they were thrilled to immediately connect with familiar faces in Brookings going through similar family transitions.

“It was amazing,” Lynn said. “We went to our first meeting in early June and we’re really excited. We’re looking forward to our first convention. Our first webinar on succession planning was really interesting.”

The business is a welcome addition to the association, executive director Stephanie Larscheid said.

“Medary Acres is such a wonderful success story already, and we’re looking forward to connecting them to resources we know are going to help them as they keep evolving as a family business,” she said. “We know our members will want to learn from them, too.”

Business blooms as Medary Acres Greenhouses enters third generation

Medary Acres Greenhouses has grown from a single small greenhouse to 12 greenhouses selling tens of thousands of hanging baskets, annuals, perennials, vegetable plants and more.

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