Benchpress Profile: Arie Van Vugt
September 17, 2008
As we went to press, Arie Van Vugt of Plainview Growers was installing a new alternative fuel heating system at his more rural facility in Allamuchy, N.J. The 500-hp burner from Crone Boilers in Holland will burn wood pellets and pellets made out of miscanthus that he plans to grow in 200 acres of surrounding fields. Ranked at No. 13 on our Top 25 Young Plant Growers, Plainview has more recently been diversifying into specialty finished crops, including orchids and plants for pets.
As a young plant specialist, why did you move into specialty finished crops?
"The way the market has been going and with the significant increase in fuel costs, we're trying to diversify our product line in order to expand our customer base and to keep a healthy bottom line. On the vegetative side, we signed on with Fischer and will begin producing liners for the 2009 season. As fuel costs have risen, we weren't looking to expand the plug side from seed, just because of the costs involved. However, as we switch to alternative fuels for heating, we are confident the costs of growing plugs will be reduced and we may look to expand that part of our business, as well.
"We began growing orchids as a large piece of our business in July 2007. We have 50,000 square feet of orchid production. We also grow herbs in upgraded packaging. We service supermarkets with our sprinter vans on the road and merchandise each store individually, just like the bread man. Our goal is to produce specialty crops in Pompton Plains and plugs and liners in Allamuchy. We have five acres in Pompton Plains and eight acres in Allamuchy. At the moment, both facilities are growing young plants and finished plants and they're 30 miles apart. We're planning to add three acres in Allamuchy to make up for the space used for specialty products in Pompton Plains."
Tell us about your new niche business growing plants for pets.
"We have a new separate company called AgriPet. Our pet plant specialty business started with Oat Grass. On trips into the New York City flower market, we noticed the flats of wheatgrass and asked who purchased them. We were told they were used for decorative arrangements and for cats who liked to nibble on the grass. We moved on from grass to catnip plants and other herbs and salad greens for small animals. It is a unique specialty product that provides Plainview Growers a new market for plants and a unique item for pet stores and grocery stores to offer their customers. We do not promote this product to the horticultural customer."
What made you consider growing miscanthus as an alternative fuel?
"At our Allamuchy facility, which is farm country, there is no way of getting natural gas - just propane or fuel oil. When we started there nine years ago, we were paying $1 per gallon for No. 2 fuel oil. This past season, it was $4 a gallon. We are using approximately 7,000 gallons every week and could not afford it. We'll burn 150,000 gallons of oil during the season. It was the first time in my career I was ever forced to make this type of decision based on an outside factor, such as energy. We looked at other growers' operations using wood chips and decided it was too much work, too much handling and not what we were looking to do. When we were tipped off about wood pellets, the whole miscanthus option came up. After researching all the different types of alternative fuels available, we decided on miscanthus. We have since contacted Rutgers University, which is trialing switchgrass and miscanthus as an alternative fuel source. Together we are working on which varieties are best suited for northern New Jersey."
How are you making the conversion from fuel oil to miscanthus grass?
"We jumped in with both feet and are going to go for it. We're putting in 200 acres of grass. It takes two years to establish yields. The grass is a perennial and good for 20 years of production. We just purchased a 500-hp pellet burner from Crone Boilers in Holland and are putting up two 250-ton silos. This season, we will be using wood pellets from Energex Corp based out of Harrisburg, Pa., and have a two-year contract with set pricing. Once we purchase a pelletizing machine, we will be self sufficient. Our goal is to be oil/gas free (including Pompton Plains) within the next few years."
What do you expect your savings and return on investment to be?
"We expect our return on investment to be four years. With wood pellets, we'll be paying $1.65 versus $4 oil (the equivalent of 144,000 btus). When we switch to grass pellets, we expect to save 70 cents more. This is quite an undertaking, an exciting project. I was at a recent bank board meeting and told them about