VIRGINIA — John and Karen Brady acknowledge they broke the cardinal rule of retail when they opened a large garden center in a sparsely populated area about 35 miles south of Pocatello.
For any retailer, location reigns supreme: The Bradys have built up an isolated complex of greenhouses supplying a shop by exit 36 of Interstate 15 over the course of decades, and customers still routinely ask, “Are you guys new?”
“We say, ‘Yes, we’re new — 35 years ago,’’ Karen Brady joked.
Nonetheless, Brady’s Plant Ranch, 3525 E. Virginia Road, has somehow maintained a steady clientele of loyal gardeners willing to travel to the sticks from as far away as Salt Lake City for the quality they supply.
Their customers’ devotion has been reaffirmed amid the coronavirus pandemic, while the economy continues to nosedive and people stay isolated in their homes to ride out the health crisis. Despite the turmoil, the Bradys say sales of plants raised in their greenhouses have held relatively constant. Furthermore, deliveries of grass-fed beef from their cattle herd have quadrupled since the start of March.
“I think (customers) want a healthier product, but I think there’s probably a little bit of scarcity mentality, too,” John Brady said.
Karen Brady added, “With this COVID-19 thing, people are anxious to stock up on beef, so beef sales are way up. It’s been crazy.”
Brady’s Plant Ranch encompasses 10 production greenhouses, where they raise their own plants, and a 10,000-square-foot retail greenhouse with four bays. Their garden center is one of the few in the region producing the bulk of its own plants, though the Bradys buy trees from outside suppliers. The nearest comparable garden centers can be found in Logan, Utah, and the Magic Valley.
John Brady, who was raised on a local dairy, said the business started in 1985 from a single greenhouse that was 110 feet long and 18 feet wide. Initially, he and his wife raised hydroponic tomatoes.
“We couldn’t find a market for them,” he said.
Two years later, Brady’s shifted to producing ornamental plants, which quickly caught on. They were among the founding members of the Portneuf Valley Farmer’s Market in Pocatello. They’ve been continually expanding their plant ranch ever since.
Karen Brady said she and her husband found their niche by raising plant varieties that were better suited to Southeast Idaho’s short growing season and high elevation than materials competitors were bringing in from Utah. For example, they chose to stock peach trees that thrive in Maine’s short season. Furthermore, their plants are acclimated to local conditions.
They produce about 3,000 hanging plants for sale per year, along with countless trays of vegetable starts and ornamental plants. During the summer, they raise produce in the greenhouse, selling the vegetables directly from their store or from a food stand along U.S. Highway 91 in Virginia. They also allow customers to pick their own produce from their production greenhouses and surrounding fields, including an outdoor raspberry patch.
At the urging of customers, Karen Brady also started making her own floral arrangements for proms, funerals, weddings and other events.
About 15 years ago, they entered the grass-fed beef business, seeing an opportunity to fill a niche.
Karen Brady describes their beef, which is processed at an area USDA facility, as a gourmet product, and it fetches a premium price. They charge $7 per pound of hamburger, and a ribeye sells for $18 per pound. Their herd has about 120 cattle, with 65 mother cows, which are allowed to graze in lush, irrigated pasture.
Karen Brady said her animals are healthier than grain-finished livestock, as cattle can more easily digest grass.
“What you get out of ours is flavor,” she said. “Our beef tastes like the beef you used to get with your grandmother and grandfather. It’s real beef. It’s not watered down or colored.”
Grass-fed beef is also far richer in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. John Brady said he had his herd tested, and the results confirmed his cattle had more than triple the Omega-3 concentration of conventional grain-fed beef.
They sell their beef directly from Brady’s Plant Ranch, and they’ve started offering curbside pickups of all merchandise in their lot. They also deliver beef to a central location in Pocatello weekly for pickup.
“I think the thing that drives consumers to us is first of all, flavor,” John Brady said. “Second of all, we have a group that’s interested in those health benefits. We have another group that’s interested in local. Another group is interested in ecology and free range.”
Karen Brady added that more customers are seeking to source food from providers who treat their animals humanely.
Brady’s Plant Ranch has been allowed to remain open following the governor’s recent order for certain businesses to close due to coronavirus, as food suppliers and greenhouses are both deemed to offer essential services.