In the Garden of P. Allen Smith, a Media Empire Blooms

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, Apr. 12, 2010 12:00 am  

ROLAND - P. Allen Smith's 567-acre Moss Mountain Farm here 20 minutes northwest of Pinnacle Mountain is the testing grounds for his burgeoning media empire, and as such, it's abuzz with disparate projects.

Behind the three-story main house - furnished to the nines with his sponsors' sensible furniture, his own drawings of vegetables and century-old mounted boars' heads - are a standalone art studio and a standalone TV-ready kitchen, built away from the main house in a nod to the days when a too-hot kitchen might burn down a dwelling. Terraced into the hillside overlooking the Arkansas River are a 300-yard-long garden and, below that, a hillside dotted with heirloom apple trees and absolutely lousy with daffodils, some 50,000 of the 175,000 Smith says cover his property. "I love daffodils," he says. "You can't have too many."

It's pastoral, but not solely for the sake of a pretty view, and the garden along the back of the house suggests the land's purpose. In beds along the loose stone walk are cilantro, fern-leaf basil, dill, flat-leaf parsley, lettuces, cabbage, spinach, leeks, all being grown for food (the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock has dibs on its yields) and for documentation. A little further down, a bed of tulips blossoms in red, yellow, lavender flowers, a signature mix of bulbs that Smith wanted to see rise before he approved the branded bags of 50 bulbs. "This is just a canvas to paint on, and you're using plants and materials," he says.

Nearby, he criticizes his own placement of rose bushes crowding together. "I got greedy," he says. Even that professed botch will make for fodder on one of his shows, "P. Allen Smith's Gardens" or "P. Allen Smith Garden Home," which air, respectively, on 142 network affiliates and in 180 markets nationwide.

In that fashion, Smith can take his coming or going. As a television host, a bestselling author, pitchman, sustainable agriculture and building advocate, and all-around gardening expert whose media company, Hortus LTD, claimed 300 million media impressions last year, Smith has the license to experiment so you don't have to. His failures become instructional; his successes he packages and passes along to a public that looks for his guidance in growing things.

Further up the hill, he displays the garden where he grows rows upon rows of greens, fruits and vegetables, in conventional beds, raised beds and in pots, following the directions on seeds and working as a stand-in for the consumer, so that every time you try to grow a plant, you'll succeed.

"One of the hallmarks of the brand is, if I don't do it, I don't talk about it," he says as he walks between the rows, and his stately demeanor cracks a bit. Tall, blond and given to an easy manner, he gets animated as he continues. "We live in a world that is made up of experts quoting experts quoting experts, and ain't none of them done it. You know?

"So this is about doing it. We have a virtual presence, but we're not repeating what someone else has said. We're the source. And the only way to be the source is to get your hands in the ground. Get your hands dirty. Get them on the ground. Bleed a little."

Living the Brand

In getting his hands in the ground, Smith has managed to commodify every corner of his interests. His camp guards his image - for one, Mimi San Pedro, the COO and marketing director for Hortus, insisted on providing all the photos for this story, rather than allowing Arkansas Business to send a photographer - and is cagey with hard dollar figures. But Smith says Hortus started turning a profit in 2000 and that its revenue has doubled since 2005. So has the employee head count, from 15 to some 35 between his three companies, in media and licensing (Hortus), real estate (Smithfield Properties, from which Hortus leases the farm) and design (P. Allen Smith & Associates).

In 2009, he bought out the interest of long-time investor Ethel W. Foley of Georgia by securing a $2 million loan secured by his real estate, according to Pam Holden, the director of finance for Smith's companies. He is now the sole owner.

Say this for Smith the entrepreneur: He lives his brand, to follow the old marketing saw. He has parlayed passion and expertise into a range of endeavors, and, essentially, he has persisted.



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