October 25, 2021
For more information, please visit: merit.com
On a blustery fall day with brilliant trees of crimson and amber dotting the Merit Medical campus, I spotted a golf cart pulling up alongside me in the parking lot! Yes, that’s Laura Flower! “Pleased to meet you!” I said. She invited me to hop in the cart and take a ride. “OK, let’s go!”
Merit Medical Corporate Campus
On the corner of their 30-acre corporate headquarter campus lies the gardens, an orchard, and a greenhouse. All of this is outlined by a perimeter pathway one mile long that encompasses the main site. Merit Medical makes disposable medical devices that facilitate nurses and doctors to be more effective in their hospital procedures. Six years ago, Fred Lampropoulos, founder and CEO, committed to Merit’s Community Garden Project.
Origination of Merit’s Community Garden Project
“How did that happen?” I asked. Laura explained that Merit owns several pieces of property near their headquarters which are still used as active farmland. At the height of harvest season, Ryan Schmidt, the farmer who leases the land from Merit across the street, offered his tomatoes and peppers at the end of the season to employees. An announcement was made to all the employees, and in response, they came out in droves to pick vegetables at the farm. They even invited their spouses and family members to join them.
It was at that point Fred had his inspiration. If his employees cared that much about fresh produce, why couldn’t they establish a community garden right on-site? What would that do to morale, especially for those who work production jobs doing routine tasks? What would gardening do to promote employee health and wellbeing? Fred, a man of vision and action, set to work to make this happen.
In its fifth year of operation, the garden farm has produced 10,000 pounds of food just on a half-acre! This does not include the food the employees have grown in their own raised-bed boxes. There are 82 of these: 100 square foot box gardens. Laura was hired five years ago to translate the concept into reality.
Laura’s journey to Merit
From early on in her education at the University of Utah, Laura had a strong urge to be doing something with people and the environment. She started out as a psychology major - looking at perhaps for an application of eco-psychology in wilderness therapy. She kept searching for the right opportunity. As a result of what Laura considers fate, she stumbled upon New Roots of Utah, a newly established farm in West Valley to empower refugees to grow their own food in their Salt Lake community. After volunteering for a couple of months, she got an internship and was then hired as the farm manager from 2012-2014. She loved it - especially learning from the amazing, hard-working refugees. “I completely fell in love with the people and the knowledge they had to share. New Roots participants are from all over: Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, Cuba, Burma, Bhutan as well as many other countries”, she said. “They brought enthusiasm and willpower. They were committed to succeeding.” Laura learned about hundreds of vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruits she had never heard of. Wow! A whole world was opening up to her.
After leaving New Roots, Laura worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA for Utahn’s Against Hunger, as she worked to expand the use of SNAP (food stamps) at farmers’ markets. In 2015, she pursued an opportunity to work in New Zealand for 4 months on various WWOOF farms. You get to work for free room and board while learning a ton about people, places, and farming. Based on that amazing experience, she knew that agriculture was to be a part of her future. That’s when Merit Medical posted the Community Garden Coordinator position. She knew from the moment she read the job description that “that’s my job!” Sure enough, that has come true. Now she works with nature and people in an urban setting.
Employee Response to the Program
The employees at Merit Medical just love the garden program, and the response has only grown with each year. From its beginning in 2016, it has boosted employee morale, increased access to fresh, free produce, and boosted Merit’s wellness mission. The program grew from garden boxes and an orchard in 2016 to a greenhouse in 2017, to a cafeteria food production site in 2018 from the expansion of a “veggie patch” company garden. In 2019, part of that veggie patch became dedicated to a U-Pick garden. From July through October, employees are invited to volunteer in the garden for ten minutes, and then they get to select produce from the farm-side stand. This year, 2200 lbs of produce were harvested for the cafeteria. At the U-Pick, 5500 lbs of produce were distributed to employees. Laura noted that over 250 people visited the U-Pick this year, totaling over 550 visits!
In addition to vegetable production, Laura and her team also teach environmental and garden education classes. Classes range from water-wise landscaping, cooking and canning demonstrations, fruit tree pruning to small-space gardening. For interested employees, a newsletter goes out to the employees every other month to let them know what classes, plant sales, or other activities are being offered.
The Merit garden also holds plant sales throughout the year for their employees. They facilitate four major sales, the largest being their summer plant sale. As an additional employee benefit, they offer vegetables, flowers, and herbs at an extremely discounted price. For example, near Christmas, they sell Poinsettias. The money raised from these sales goes into their “Candy Cane Program”. Before the Christmas holiday, these funds go to support Merit families who may be struggling.
Food Access to Employees
As we walked through the gardens, we passed through the mid-dwarf fruit trees. “These were planted as kind of an afterthought,” Laura said. Now they are much bigger than we could have imagined - apples, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, and peaches. This fruit is distributed to the cafeteria and some are left for U-Pick.
Community garden boxes are fitted with irrigation lines centrally controlled. Laura and her assistant coach the gardeners step by step each week through the process. “It can be quite intimidating to start a garden when you have never done it before!” Laura said. “I love watching their confidence grow as they plant the seed, watch it come up, and then see it grow big.” Laura continued to explain that they facilitate a garden planning meeting where participants learn how to select plants, plant them, and what kind of care different crops need. They then select their seeds and plant varieties from a catalog, which are offered free to participants. Employees know that they need to work in their garden plots on their own time rather than their regular work hours, but there are designated hours through the season that accommodate the wide range of schedules employees have a Merit.
A World Community
“One of the joys of my job is to see people from so many nations come together in our community garden. They are allowed to bring their own country’s ethnic seeds and plants. There’s a lot of fun exchange as we discover together new flavors and foods. It’s a world community!” Laura declared. “Next year I have plans to increase the size of an international crops section of U-pick and plant sale. It’s so fun to research crops from various countries and how they are used in traditional dishes. This farm facilitates people connecting and building relationships. The relationships I have built over the years here I cherish the most. We’re a community - all learning and sharing together.”
Two women employees from China strolled into the garden to ask Laura a question: Li Lui and her daughter from Guangdong province. She has been gardening for four years. They wanted to find out about some plants. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught an employee walking the perimeter of the campus. Laura explained, “Even if an employee chooses not to participate in the garden program, I encourage them to walk by or have lunch in the garden area. We want to make the garden relevant and positive for every Merit employee. My assistant coordinator, Michelle Egbert, and I are a support system for these new gardeners. Seeing them move from ‘I don’t know how…’ to experience harvesting and eating their first self-grown fruit is so gratifying - and almost miraculous.” Laura shared. Pointing to a small tree start, Laura said, “From one of our employees I learned about the “Moringa” tree from the Philippines. It’s incredibly medicinal - stems and leaves. That’s just one example to show that it’s all about learning - listening to people and having conversations about things they are excited about. That’s what I absolutely love!”
A Morale Booster
Rob Bordan, the irrigation specialist at Merit, came by to say hi. He told me that he has his own garden box. “I grew so much this year. For my final harvest of tomatoes, I had 60 pounds! I manage the piping sizes and the irrigation timers. We had a problem with the drip rate which took us a while to figure out.” When asked what he thought of the employee Community Garden Project, he said, “It’s a morale booster. Making medical devices is a very focused and tedious process. Even on a windy day like today, it’s fun to come out here and work. We’re giving people an outlet. The landscape is beautiful, too!” Rob winked. Rob and his boss, Mark Hogan, are also in charge of the landscaping. “When people find out how fun and how productive the garden is, I think they embrace it!”
Laura and her assistant grow flowers for the campus - 65 flats worth, over 2000 of them. Laura expressed her gratitude for Rob and Jason, “It’s a team I could do what I do without them!” Merit landscape crew continues to find ways to cut their water usage. They’ve cut almost 30% in the last year!
“Most everything we grow is started in this greenhouse,” Laura said. To manage the hundreds of plant varieties she grows, Laura keeps a disciplined weekly schedule for when each of the vegetable and flower seeds is to be planted. “The greenhouse is small, so we have to be prompt about rotating these seedlings through so we can plant the next wave of seeds.
You may wonder how Laura and Michelle keep up with this all. During the summer, she works a 40-hour week and when the winter months arrive, she self-elects to cut back her hours to part-time. The employees do the rest.
2021 is the first year we’ve had one of our Chief Officers participate in the garden, director of Human Resources. Each year though, we have 160 to 200 employees participating in the garden, from fifty different departments across Merit!”.
Merit welcomes sharing its employee gardening program with other companies. “Laura went on to explain that they have also helped Delta Airlines, Utah Transit Authority, and Fitzer Architectural Woodworking to start their own employee gardens. We love to be open-book about our program so that employees at other businesses can experience the joy of gardening at work.” Laura said.
The produce that doesn’t get bought or picked up at the surplus “Community Produce Table” by employees. This year, they gave away an additional 2,000 lbs. of produce to anyone who visited the table. Inedible produce is delivered weekly to Roots High School nearby. Roots High School is an alternative high school program that incorporates farming into its student curriculum. They use the donated produce to feed their animals. “That helps us comply with our “Zero Waste” company policy,” Laura said. “We’re not equipped to do composting here, so we fill this big green waste container at the end of the season which is taken to the Trans-Jordan Landfill to make compost. While we are not certified ‘organic’, we follow organic practices to the best of our ability. We support and believe in regenerative agriculture.” Laura said.
Merit Medical was just announced as a winner of the “Green Business” award. It’s a great honor and well-deserved. Certainly, their community garden and urban farm not only green the world but also enrich the lives of Merit’s employees.
Author: Farmer Karl