Berger Shaped By Consistent Quality, Responsible Peatland Management

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John Allen, the U.S. national sales manager for Berger Peat Moss, has been with the company since it first achieved an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard in 1994. And in Allen’s years with Berger, he’s realized one certainty about ISO.

“ISO hasn’t gotten us the customer, it keeps the customer with us,” he says.

Last November, Berger culminated the pursuit of yet another standard – VeriFlora’s standard for responsible peatland management – making the company the only North American peat producer whose product meets standards for both ISO and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), which administers the peatland-specific VeriFlora certification program.

The driving forces of the two standards are, of course, different. ISO focuses on product quality while VeriFlora is more about environmental management. But both standards have helped Berger focus its business on meeting the needs of its grower customers and the environment.

Maximizing Quality With ISO

Berger’s original goal in pursuing ISO was to provide a consistent product between all of its production facilities across Canada, but the company has experienced other rewards – ones it never expected to – in its 17-year journey.

“One thing I’ve noticed is liability: We just don’t have claims like other companies do,” Allen says. “When we do, we’re able to settle them very quickly.”

Because traceability is a core component of the ISO program, Berger is able to find answers for growers quickly so production issues can be solved. Berger takes and keeps samples of all the peat it produces, so if a grower is having a particular issue with a recent shipment, Berger can look back at characteristics like particle size and share precise details about the mix in question.

“Consistency and traceability are the things we value most with the ISO program,” Allen says. “Where there is a comment or a complaint, because of traceability we can tell you about the ingredients before they were put into a mix. It’s very easy for us to go back and see exactly what that product was, where it was made and when it was made. That’s what it’s all about: Solving problems quickly.”

The ability to share such details makes Allen’s job and the jobs of other Berger sales executives easier.

“For the sales force, it’s very gratifying and much easier to know you’re selling a high-quality, consistent product,” Allen says. “You really feel like the company has your back, and you have a product you can convince somebody they really should be using.”

Why VeriFlora

The VeriFlora responsible peatland management certification program doesn’t offer the sales leverage ISO does, but its role at Berger is equally important. The peat industry, as Greenhouse Grower described in its November 2010 Peat Report, has been under attack from a number of critics, including the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), which introduced guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land practices at last year’s Seeley Conference that are critical of peat.

Peat producers like Berger, however, contend the criticisms are highly inaccurate. Now that Berger has achieved VeriFlora’s certification along with two other Canadian peat producers, the hope is that the peat industry’s critics will be enlightened.

“I think the Canadian peat moss industry has been very proactive in restoration,” says Valerie Berger, the company’s corporate director of sales and marketing. “There was already a movement coming from the peat industry for restoration to make sure every producer is taking care of their resources. Then VeriFlora came along and said here’s a standard we can achieve together.”

Berger, like a few other peat producers, had been restoring peatlands long before VeriFlora unveiled its program for responsibly managed peatlands. So meeting VeriFlora’s standards required slight adjustments rather than a cultural overhaul as a company.

“We have some standards as an industry but this is one step further,” Berger says. This brings the same standard all across Canada and encourages us to get better. We will be audited every year, and VeriFlora will have new requests every year. It will force us to get better every year and better communicate what we are doing right.”

Allen echoes Berger’s sentiment and adds that he’d like to see other Canadian peat producers pursue VeriFlora’s certification.

“The more of the industry we can get involved, the stronger our case is that we’re doing the right thing and that we can be considered a sustainable industry,” Allen says. “The other thing I’d like to see is VeriFlora out there more and more advertising to the people who are making false claims.”

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.

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