by Christine Hansen
Emory Knoll Farms sits on 140 acres of lush greenery in Harford County.
When Emory Knoll Farms was founded, the company’s goal was always centered around sustainability. So when Maryland became the first state to create a benefit corporation designation, it made sense for Emory Knoll Farms to apply.
Emory Knoll Farms began as a nursery operation in 1998 after Ed Snodgrass began growing perennials and container gardens and selling them at local farmer’s markets. It was his visits with other nursery owners where he learned about green roofing. After doing research, he discovered that no nurseries in the region specialized in the growing of green roof plants and decided to fill the niche. In 2003, he touched base with John Shepley, an old friend and colleague who was interested in starting a sustainable business.
The business, Emory Knoll Farms, Inc., also known as Green Roof Plants, was officially formed in 2004 and has been growing green roof plants for the North American region ever since.
“Water has become one of our most important natural resources. Clean, drinkable, usable water has become rare in a lot of parts of the world with population growth and the increasing demand on all of our resources,” Shepley said. “One of the biggest public health benefits of green roofing is that they help mitigate storm water runoff, which creates erosion. It helps eliminate an enormous amount of pollutants. The plants retain the pollutants and the plants use it as food. It helps preserve the bay and our environment. And they help green our cities.”
The company is responsible for a number of projects in Maryland, including the Montgomery Park building, the Barbara Mikulski Center at the Living Classrooms Foundation, the National Aquarium, and several universities. The company has also done a number of projects across the U.S. including a chiropractic office in Pennsylvania, and the National Audio Visual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress. Shepley, vice president and co-owner of the company, oversees many of the day-to-day activities of the farm, including finding ways to stay innovative and remain competitive.
The Barbara Mikulski center of the Living Classrooms Foundation has a green roof by Emory Knoll Farms.
“Our biggest competitor is a large wholesale nursery out in the Pacific Northwest. For them, the green roof business is a small part of their operation, but they have hundreds of thousands of acres of plants that can be sold for the green roofing business,” Shepley said.
In order to have more of a national reach and to even out the competition, the company has partnered with some of the best of the nurseries across the country.
“It’s not always sustainable for us to deliver plants to California or Kansas City, for example, so we have a partner that we work with in the Midwest, and he grows the plants to our standards and ships them directly to our customers in that region. It’s a win-win,” Shepley said.
Emory has also continued to innovate with their products in the size of the plants they grow and the potting mix that they use. The potting mix is made up of 100% reclaimed materials, such as by-products of the rice industry and the coconut industry. The farm is powered by wind and solar energy, and waste vegetable oil is used to heat the farm’s offices and greenhouses. The farm also believes in reusing materials. Old bath tubs, toilets, and other miscellaneous items can be seen throughout the grounds as potting containers.
Emory Knoll reuses old materials, such as a bathtub, to pot plants in their nursery.
This attention to detail and to preserving the environment extends throughout the 140 acres of lush greenery, and within Shepley’s own belief system. When Snodgrass and Shepley founded Emory Knoll Farms, sustainability was always at the forefront of their minds – not only for the environmental impact, for the social impact as well.
“When we founded this company, we included sustainability in our plans – not only environmental and ecological, but also prosperity – the three legs of the stool that makes up sustainability,” Shepley said.
The company’s website explains their company philosophy: “Rather than focus strictly on financial performance, we look at three different bottom lines: Environmental, Social, and Financial. Each has its own measures, management practices, and values. It’s not only important to try to maximize performance in all three areas, but we must also maintain a balance. We cannot be environmentally responsible to the degree that our business is no longer viable and we put people out of work. All three areas must work together to maximize the sum of the parts, and they must be in balance in order to do that.”
Emory's greenhouses are heated by waste vegetable oil.
So, a few years later, when Maryland became the first state in the Union to create a new corporate form creating benefit corporations, Shepley and Snodgrass jumped on the opportunity to define their company even further as a sustainable corporation. The new law can apply to those businesses whose mission is to drive a material, positive impact on society and the environment.
“When I heard about the benefit corporation, we saw it as a way to exhibit leadership in this field,” Shepley said. “The whole benefit corporation movement allows businesses to take steps to become sustainable, but it protects businesses and shows businesses that there are other ways to do business besides looking at the financial bottom line.”
The process, Shepley said, was simple. Companies already in existence need to amend their Articles of Incorporation, making sure to add the specific language created by the law designating it as a benefit corporation. New businesses can use the same language when drafting their Articles of Incorporation. The law does require benefit corporations to make an annual sustainability report – assessed by an independent third-party – publicly available.
Emory Knoll Farms, Inc. was officially designated as a benefit corporation on October 1, 2010. Today, the company employs 10 people and offers benefits including a healthcare and retirement package.
“I hear the argument a lot, especially in the business community, that a lot of the things we do is not possible – but I think what we do is demonstrable. Anyone can do what we are doing and get the same benefits we get. Everything we have done in our business in regards to sustainability has improved our profitability,” Shepley said.