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.

Born in Jacksonville, he grew up on a middle Tennessee farm entranced with the natural world - growing plants, tending livestock, finding fossils and bird skulls. He returned to central Arkansas to be closer to his mother's family when his father, at 37, suffered a fatal embolism following back surgery. Smith credits his mother's side with instilling in him a love of painting, writing and expression.

He graduated from Hendrix College with a degree in botany (and a historiography course shy of a double-major in history, he says) and then embarked to England, where he studied garden design at the University of Manchester. He was knowledgeable and charming enough to impress himself on the local plantelligencia while reaching his certification with as a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society.

"If you can speak plants, you can speak to a pensioner on the train or the Duke of Devonshire," he says. "It's a common passion and a common language." The Lady Elizabeth Ashbook contributed the foreword to Smith's first book, writing of a friendship she forged with this young American student over talk of painting and plants.

When Smith returned to Arkansas in 1986, he began offering informal lectures at his family's nursery. Someone from KARN, 102.9-FM, radio invited him to contribute short educational spots. Those led to 90-second televised spots on KATV, Channel 7, in which he'd explain to the 5 o'clock news audience how to plant tomatoes or fend off hornworms.

In 1993, he incorporated Hortus LTD, his catch-all media shop that soon was syndicating the short how-tos nationwide. "We encourage people to put their own personal touch on it," he said. "It's not holy writ. Here are the basic rules: Get out there and knock yourself out." Many of those spots that launched a thousand trowels were shot at a house in Little Rock's historic Quapaw Quarter, in a garden 100 feet by 150 feet. They led to a longstanding gig on the Weather Channel (discontinued for now, he says, since NBC bought it).

As programming directors asked him where his 30-minute show was, he began stacking the short spots into "P. Allen Smith's Garden," now in its 10th season. Soon after, "as a defense against an eroding syndicated market," he says, he launched "P. Allen Smith Garden Home," which in its distribution with American Public Television reaches 97 percent of U.S. televisions each week. Also, twice a month, he appears on NBC's "The Today Show."

Cynthia Fenneman, the president and CEO of American Public Television, attributes Smith's success in part to his ability to appeal both to a neophyte gardener and an expert in the same segment. "He's dominant in the horticultural world," she said, adding that his education and experience don't make him appear "cast" for the role of host.

The gardener, painter and reader is surprised to find himself a TV celebrity. "The television from the beginning remains a vehicle to getting a message out," he says. "I'm an introvert. I have no interest in being on television."

Parlaying the reputation and fame from the boob tube, he began cranking out a "Garden Home" series of books that have sold a quarter-million copies. Out next will be his first cookbook. In the future, he says, the company will branch into more coverage of and about pets. (His cat, Marge, pens a column about pets now, and his terriers, Angel and Lucky, have their own Facebook pages.)

When he built his house in 2005, using sustainable building materials and techniques, he chronicled it for TV. When he builds another, smaller house at the property soon, he'll do the same. Missed the show? If you have a group of at least 40, you can arrange a tour of the farm and a meal for $90 a head at lunchtime and $150 per at dinner, with a chance to meet Smith, if he's in town.

From that farm and house, the apotheosis of a bygone lifestyle, P. Allen Smith is taking over the world, one back yard at a time.

'Sing for Our Supper'

The way Smith describes his time in England suggests Southerners have a natural advantage among the well-heeled. "Thank the Lord for my mother's side of the family or I wouldn't have known how to behave," he says. "We were taught from an early age to sing for our supper, so we were encouraged to learn to spin a yarn and tell a good tale and have a good sense of humor, and the English love that, and they love Southerners. I fell in the lap of really good company and was invited to do extraordinary things."

This statement echoes in the April 7 New York Times coverage of a designers' charity dinner, in which the reporter began her report with Smith: "the PBS garden show star" froze two swans who killed one another fighting, and then had them stuffed and transported for the Manhattan gala.

Smith has that knack for making an impression. Warren Stephens, the Little Rock investment and media magnate, recalls Smith's work on his home landscaping 22 years ago, and the sense he left with Stephens and his wife that Smith knew landscaping completely.

"He has a great sense of humor, and he has a joy of living that is contagious, really," Stephens said. "Harriet and I will kind of laugh that spending a couple of days with Allen is like drinking from a fire hose, because he has so many ideas about stuff and you're just trying to take them all in and process them." Stephens said he has since offered Smith business advice; Smith, for his part, was invited back to design the landscaping for Stephens' exclusive Alotian Golf Club, in Roland.

Mark Brockinton, the managing director for Aon insurance in Arkansas, had a similar experience when Smith designed his garden in The Heights a decade ago. The project also led to a friendship, and the sketches Smith made for the project still hang as art in the Brockintons' home. "There was nothing left undone," Brockinton said. "He gave us the impression that was the most important project he'd ever done. I'm sure he does that for everybody, but that's how we felt."

Therein, perhaps, is Smith's success: managing to make millions of people feel as though they have his attention, or at least his expertise. He has made playing in the dirt both an art and a science, and offers a glimpse of both in explaining farm living to audiences who grew up away from the land.

"What we've found that's thrilling," Smith says, "is they're extremely interested in learning these things that they never had anyone to teach them to do."

 

 

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