Change in career leads to landscape maintenance

Former farmer Tom Van Ooteghem has found a new career in landscaping as groundskeeper at St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, Mich.

Tom Van Ooteghem just came to the landscape maintenance field after a 22-year career as a farmer. He hadn’t planned on becoming a landscaper, but it turns out the skills he’d acquired over the past two decades, along with a strong work ethic, have been a perfect fit for his new profession as groundskeeper at St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, Mich.

“Right after I got out of high school back in 1986, my brother and I purchased a 150-acre vegetable farm from my father,” recalls Van Ooteghem. “Our biggest crops were potatoes and onions, but we also grew hard squash, cucumbers, sweet corn, green peppers, a wide variety of things.” Over the years, he began to develop a route of customers, mainly supermarkets, which took him throughout a large swath of the state. “I would deliver the products directly into the supermarkets,” he explains. “The stores loved it because they got fresh vegetables right out the field.”

Sales and trucking became Van Ooteghem’s specialty, while his brother managed much of the day-to-day growing and harvesting work on the farm. As larger chains bought out smaller supermarkets, the customer base began to shrink, forcing him to travel even farther away. “I started marketing in the Detroit area, including at the Detroit Terminal. That’s an area where hundreds of farmers, a number of produce warehouses and many stores from Michigan and Ohio come together in one big market. But, it all happens in the middle of the night, so I would leave home at 11:30 at night, be up all night and get home around 7 a.m. Then I would need to reload and do my day routes.”

As business grew, Van Ooteghem’s nephew joined the family operation, and they added new crops and more acreage. “It worked out wonderfully, and I really enjoyed the trucking, but I wasn’t getting to spend enough time with my family,” he explains. “In the summer of 2008, I began to think about getting out. The long, 20-hour days were just too much.” He approached his brother and nephew and told them he needed to make a change, and they bought Van Ooteghem out. “It worked out well, and allowed me to make a career change,” he says.

When he formally left the farming business last December, Van Ooteghem wasn’t sure what his new career would be. He signed on as a seasonal worker with UPS and was asked to stay on, which he did for a short time. He also went to work for a local fertilizer company handling blending and trucking. “I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was a little bit of a lost puppy for a while, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”

Van Ooteghem applied for a job at St. Mary’s Hospital in the engineering department. He was a finalist, but the job was given to someone else with more building maintenance experience. “Then, about six weeks later, Charlie Thompson [who heads that department] called and told me they had another job opening that they wanted to talk to me about. He told me it was an outside job, as a groundskeeper, and he felt that it really was perfect for me, especially with my growing and horticulture experience.” Part of the family’s farming business included a greenhouse/retail garden center component that was particularly active during the spring months.

Van Ooteghem’s background in growing vegetables and greenhouse plants has proven valuable as he’s introduced new flowers and shrubs to beds that were previously neglected.

Van Ooteghem accepted the position, beginning on June 1 after he fulfilled his previous commitment at the fertilizer company. At that point, his new career in landscaping began. “It’s not something I had ever thought about, but I quickly found out I love it here, and the people I work with are great,” he says.

Van Ooteghem’s first step was the tour through the entire 6-acre property. “There were areas that needed quite a bit of attention to get them cleaned up and looking the way they should,” he recalls. “I told them I could really make things look great, but that it would just take a little time.”

After all, Van Ooteghem is a one-man groundskeeping department, not that he minds the challenge. “I enjoy working with myself, and it lets me make sure that jobs get done the way I think they should be done,” he explains. “Whether I’m trimming the trees, mowing the lawns, maintaining the irrigation system, it’s the little details the make the difference,” he says.

Patients and staff alike have high praise for the new level of landscaping Van Ooteghem has brought to the grounds at St. Mary’s.

After only three months on the job, the improvements that Van Ooteghem has been able to achieve have been dramatic, says Ken Santa, St. Mary’s spokesperson. “I’ve heard so many people talking about how nice things look.” Patients and their families, as well as staff members on breaks, now take advantage of the scenic property to get out for a relaxing stroll. “I’m amazed by the number of people I see out there, and I’ve heard many compliments from people about how much they enjoy the changes, and those compliments are so nice to hear,” says Van Ooteghem.

In the areas that needed the most attention, he opted to completely tear out the old, overgrown plantings and start over. “I offered my opinion that it would be best to start with new plants and a fresh look. It’s a cost issue, because we had to buy bushes and trees, but I knew that if I had tried to cut back everything that was there, the results still wouldn’t be acceptable. They told me to do what I thought was best, and I think the results have justified starting over. We’ve come a long way.”

In other areas, it was simply a matter of adding a little more aesthetics. For example, containers with flowers were added around the campus and entryway to make things more warm and welcoming. He’s used his horticulture knowledge to select the right plants for the right settings, and he’s even put out pumpkins and straw bales as part of a seasonal fall décor that had never been tried on the grounds. “I thought it would be a neat theme for six to eight weeks. Then, when it gets to winter, I would like to put up wreaths, and we’re going to light nearly 100 trees. That’s something that’s been done in the past, but we changed the plans a little bit.”

Van Ooteghem uses Exmark zero-turn and walk-behind mowers on the turf. The rest of the fleet includes two Bobcats and a John Deere tractor with snowblower and blade that are used for snow removal, a Case front-end loader and three pickups used for plowing and spreading salt. He uses his mechanical skills to keep the department’s fleet of vehicles running. Then there are the unusual things that come up, like fixing the choke on the tractor that is used to pull the hospital’s emergency helicopter out of its hanger. “That was obviously a priority,” he says.

Most of his days are spent where he prefers to be, out on the grounds. “I enjoy getting to be outside, even in the bad weather. I enjoy the cold and snow,” says Van Ooteghem. That’s fortunate, because he will be part of the team responsible for snow removal at the hospital during the winter months, an important task for a facility that needs to be open and accessible 24 hours per day. He’s already planning, so he understands his role, primarily getting snow off of the walkways and away from the buildings and into the large parking lot areas where it can be removed.

Van Ooteghem says the value of being a good worker was reinforced to him during his time searching for a new career, as his performance and willingness to take on new challenges opened up different opportunities. “For hard-working people, there are jobs out there. You just have to apply yourself and market yourself,” he advises.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.