SHERIDAN — Alisha Bretzman is the “poster child” for what the Wyoming Technology Business Center aims to accomplish through the new business incubator, Director Scot Rendall said.
While somewhat shy and reserved ostensibly, Bretzman’s passion for native plants was clear from the outset, he said. She willed an idea into a successful business model.
Not all startup clients make it past the initial hurdles and thrive, Rendall said. National small business trends indicate 20% of small businesses fail by their second year and just over half make it to year four. Most small businesses fail because of a lack of market necessity. Still, according to a 2016 study by the Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming is consistently ranked as one of the top five states to start a business due to a favorable tax structure and high rate of entrepreneurship compared to businesses closed.
Bretzman business, Piney Island Native Plants, won $5,000 through the 2019 Start-Up Challenge and an additional $1,000 for the audience-choice award.
Bretzman came to the WTBC with an idea about one year ago, but Rendall first needed to be convinced there was truly a market for native plant material, which he found within the Bureau of Land Management and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s ongoing restoration projects.
In his previous experience consulting with a nursery, producing reliable material is complicated by weather, freezes, diseases and insects. Still, as Bretzman began to elicit feedback from prospective clients, the market opening became clearer, he said.
Most organizations seeking plant material look out of state, as Wyoming has no commercial native plant nurseries apart from limited contributions from University of Wyoming extensions and the Wyoming Honor Farm, Rendall said.
After clearing the initial hurdles of starting a new business, year two brings profitability, Rendall said. Once Bretzman sells the year-one plants, cash flow from the first grow-out will turn into broader production opportunities, backed by repeat clientele and absorbed overhead costs, so long as the first grow-out season is successful.
“We, I believe, have overcome her fear of not having homes for the material that she’s growing,” Rendall said.
Purchasing a greenhouse was too expensive to start, so Bretzman leased the greenhouse on the Sheridan College campus.
An unused, cluttered greenhouse became a vibrant production site with 16,000 healthy plants six months later, for six custom grow-outs with state and federal agencies and public purchase beginning May 15. This year’s grow-out is slated for pollination uses, coal mine reclamation and stream-side restoration.
When mining begins, fertile top soil is cleared and saved until mining operations finish and overburden soil, which covers minerals, fills gaps left by mining processes. Top soil is then redistributed along with plant material to repair habitat, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.
About half of Wyoming’s mining land has been reclaimed or is in the reclamation process — the remainder is comprised of active sites and stockpiles.
One of Bretzman’s clients, Peabody Energy, has received awards for “environmentally sound surface mining and reclamation,” according to the Mining Association.
Shrubs and trees in riparian areas retain water, reduce erosion, provide habitat for wildlife and filter chemical and organic waste along waterways, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Piney Island is supplying WGFD with two custom grow-outs for restoration projects this year.
Start-Up Challenge judges met Friday to hear proposals from winners and allocate the remainder of the $50,000 seed funding. Rendall expects Bretzman will receive at least some of what’s left to put toward greenhouse equipment and expand her production season.
Bretzman said she was pleased to have successfully propagated Wyoming Big Sagebrush, riparian species and perennial wildflowers. A wildflower sale is scheduled for June 6 in Buffalo and some plants will be available for public purchase as soon as they are acclimated.
Wyoming big sagebrush is declining on Wyoming’s Great Basin due to invasive plant species and wildfires, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Big sagebrush provides habitat for greater sage-grouse and other species.
The past two months, as she spends about 10 hours per day in the greenhouse, Bretzman said she often returns to the expression: “the wildflower holds my smile.” Surrounded by healthy plants, she is reminded to find gratitude in something every day, from finding new clients to successfully propagating diminishing plant species.