Even when Ed Van Hoven was starting out small, he was thinking big. He had a modest family business in mind but could also see a much greater potential for the 28-acre site that has grown to be American Color in Orange, Va.
As a third-generation grower and a grandson of the legendary Aart Van Wingerden, Van Hoven grew up in the business and was guided by the best. His father, Jerry Van Hoven, owns Battlefield Farms in nearby Rapidan, Va., which has grown to more than 40 acres in the last 20 years.
Jerry also worked for Van Wingerden International for many years and helped start other extended family operations, including South Central Growers in Tennessee and Floral Plant Growers, which was in Maryland and Delaware at the time. Ed grew up in North Carolina and had the opportunity to work with his grandfather, Aart, at Van Wingerden International.
“Everything I know, I learned from my dad,” Ed says. “The way we operate is derived from the way he operated. When I started, one thing I learned from him is if you’ve got a piece of property, it doesn’t matter if you just put up a Quonset, always lay out the entire property to the fullest potential. Create the big picture of a puzzle and put the pieces of the plan in when you can. For instance, where is it most economical to put the first acre? Make sure you can add to it on all four sides.”
Nurturing The Next Generation
Ed worked at Battlefield for eight years before setting out on his own. In addition to making way for his younger brothers coming up in the business, he liked the idea of building a smaller greenhouse operation with his wife, Gwen, as they were starting their family. “I wanted my kids to come up in the business like I did and for them to be there all the time,” he says.
He also viewed it as a fun hobby for him and his son, Brandon, who was an infant at the time and is now 12. Brandon learned to walk in the greenhouse and enjoys working there. His favorite crops are pansies, poinsettias and mums and he enjoys shipping and construction equipment.
“There’s more action during shipping and you get to do more,” Brandon says. “I like to load the trucks and stage the carts. If I don’t have homework or am on break from school, I’m happy to do whatever needs to be done at the time.” Sister, Brooke, 9, also likes to hang out with daddy at the office.
Ed started American Color with an acre of greenhouse in 1998, thinking it would max out at 5 acres. Half the business was growing annuals for Bonnie Plants and half was for independent garden centers. A big growth spurt came in 2004, when American Color started serving larger garden center chains and contract growing flats and packs for Metrolina Greenhouses and Bell Nursery. The next leap came in 2008 serving Costco, which extended the operation’s reach to Alabama and New Jersey.
The business most certainly isn’t a hobby anymore. Today, American Color has 12 acres of greenhouse and is building three more acres, which is the start of a third range. “It’s hard to say no to business,” Ed says. “If you do, you may miss the boat for some time. Plans change. You build greenhouses or lose orders.”
His plan is to grow but not at the expense of current business. “I’m going to go after all the business we can get and don’t want to lose the business we currently have,” he says. “In February, I love it when garden centers are filling up their stores and the product is sold. They order early for Christmas, too. Challenges with contract production is it’s during the peaksâ€“April, May and Mother’s Day. But the advantage is it fills in your production gaps.”
Laying The Foundation
Ed credits American Color’s success to the team he has built, including Head Grower Noel Hernandez, Production Manager Jeff Murphy, Shipping Manager Cristobal Aguilar and Logistics Manager Fray Yager. “It’s all teamwork. Otherwise, you’re not going to build anything,” Ed says.
One of his favorite parts of the job is construction. American Color handles most of the land grading and building itself. Fields are all level and ready for expansion. “I enjoy moving dirt,” he says. “We started out by getting the equipment and playing with it. We ended up with good people in the construction field. One guy who was in between jobs ended up staying and becoming our manager.”
Being in a remote area, American Color has had to address infrastructure and utility issues. “Our first problem was we were at the end of a power grid, which meant we were the first to go off and the last back on,” Ed says. “A greenhouse can’t survive without power. We put in a power system that can handle 30 acres, even though we had only 2 acres. I never wanted to have to touch it again. If a hurricane rips through and the area is out of power, I won’t feel it.”
The same thing happened when American Color had to buy in water. Ed never wanted to have a water problem again. Last year, American Color installed a water reclamation system with a retention pond, two water tanks and a purification system. A second pond is being built.
Ed is a firm believer in building things right the first time. “My father was very big on that and he and my grandfather built several different greenhouse operations,” he says. “He said if you do it wrong, it’s going to bite you, even though it might bite you in 20 years. That’s why I put in the extra forethought.”
The same holds true when American Color is buying production equipment. “Whenever I buy, I’m thinking 30 acres, even if we’re not there today,” he says. “When we build a production barn or shipping barn, we build for 30 acres and make sure it’s situated so it won’t be in the way in the future. What will it be like if it’s ever filled up, whether I get there or my son does? How is it going to be manageable?”
All indications are the next generation is eager to carry on. Even at age 12, Brandon has decided he is in it for the long haul. “I love the place and hope one day it will be mine.”