Five generations later, Wagner’s remains family business

Company has been family business since 1901

From left to right: Nola, Laura, Julie, Nolin, Eric and Nik Wagner are among the family members involved in Wagner Greenhouses. Photo courtesy Wagner Greenhouses

Family has been a central theme of Wagner Greenhouses over the past 116 years.

There’s every reason to believe that will continue into the future.

CEO Nola Wagner works alongside her sons Ron and Scott and grandkids Laura, Nik, Julie and Eric. The grandkids are the fifth generation of the family to be involved in the business, which has added garden centers in Hugo and Bloomington over the past 15 years.

“We think it’s pretty amazing to be the fifth generation of family members in the business,” Laura said. “There are not many businesses around today that have made it to the fifth generation.”

That’s not to say the family members are together all the time. Laura works in marketing and Nik as an assistant production coordinator for the wholesale team. Julie manages the Minneapolis store and says she rarely sees her siblings.

Wagner began in 1901 when German immigrant August Cornelius started producing greenhouse and field vegetables in Minneapolis. The original greenhouse covered 4,000 square feet and supported tomato production, but Cornelius expanded to include cucumbers, lettuce, watercress, radishes and tomatoes.

The business took the name Wagner because of J. Emil Wagner, who joined the company and married Cornelius’ daughter, Johanna. The Wagner’s son, Rich, and his wife, Nola, introduced flowers to the business in 1957, starting with geraniums.

The couple incorporated the business in 1967 and began focusing on floral production. Nola said geraniums are still a favorite of many customers.

The company usually picks new items to sell every year and has a trial garden to evaluate potential new offerings. Vegetable gardens have been popular the past couple years, Nola said, as families have begun growing some of their own food.

She said the greenhouse business is unique in that it’s so seasonal, noting that May is in particular a busy time. Nola said finding seasonal employees is a big challenge, something the company tries to alleviate by hiring Mexican workers on temporary agriculture visas.

Nola said it’s hard to find reliable seasonal workers locally because of low unemployment. The jobs they have require a lot of specialized work, and with local temporary workers, they are constantly training. The foreign visa workers allow for more productivity.

Wagner also sponsors foreign agriculture students through the University of Minnesota, who come to learn aspects of the greenhouse horticulture business. The company has two students coming this semester — one from Brazil and another from the Netherlands.

The company is busy preparing its wholesale plants now and has hired about 50 extra workers to help with the process of seeding, germinating and transplanting the young plants. Those seasonal workers supplement the about 65 full-time employees.

The wholesale business is the biggest part of Wagner’s revenue, with the company shipping young plants across the country. Wagner has 4 1/2 acres of production space in Minneapolis and another 3 1/2 acres for young and finished plants in Hugo.

The company plants and germinates its seeds in large germination chambers, where they remain anywhere from one to 21 days before being moved to the greenhouse. Wagner uses a computer system to regulate plant growth.

Nola said she expects to see more refined production and new processes in coming years, along with new cuttings and seed varieties.

“You just have to keep up with the styles and what the public wants and develop more efficient means of production,” she said.

Wagner will continue to host a community-supported agriculture pickup site at its Bloomington greenhouse this year and will also host an Untiedt’s vegetable stand at its Minneapolis location.

The company has remained involved in the community over the years, distributing gift certificates to schools and churches and hosting fundraisers. It also donates plants to universities across the Midwest for research and supports Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Wagner’s Bloomington and Hugo greenhouses are closed until spring, though the Minneapolis greenhouse is open. The company offers weekend seminars for customers. In March, customers can come in and pick out a patio pot or a hanging basket that Wagner will care for until Mother’s Day.

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Wagner timeline:

1901 — Founder August Cornelius begins producing greenhouse and field vegetables in Minneapolis.

1931 — Cornelius’ daughter, Johanna, marries J. Emil Wagner, and the couple takes over the greenhouse.

1957 — The Wagner’s son, Rich, and his wife, Nola, introduce flowers to the business, starting with geraniums.

1967 — Rich and Nola incorporate the business. The company operates a full-scale garden center by this point with geraniums and bedding plants.

2002 — Wagner opens a seasonal garden center in Hugo to go along with a 250,000 square-foot growing range there.

2013 — Wagner adds a second seasonal garden center in Bloomington.