A love for growing plants runs strong in Ron Van der Hengst of South Central Growers. His passion for growing surfaced in his youth while working alongside his greatest mentor — his father — soaking up his years of growing experience.
“I learned to grow by mimicking what my Dad was doing,” Van der Hengst says. “He passed his tricks of the trade on to me, and now I have the opportunity to pass mine on to younger generations.”
Van der Hengst is president of operations at South Central Growers, a 33-acre operation he co-owns, with his two brothers. They grow ornamental bedding plants, as well as some flowering potted plants and vegetables to sell to home improvement chains and mass merchandisers. His strengths lie in making the most of purchasing decisions while also taking care of the operation’s contract growing needs.
Like his father, Van der Hengst passed the torch of growing experience to his younger brother Tim, who recently took over as head grower, freeing up Van der Hengst to concentrate on other aspects of the operation.
Over the years, Van der Hengst has shepherded ambitious employees through the ranks from assistant growers to section growers, training them to lead the growing team at South Central into the future.
“We pride ourselves on the loyalty we have from our employees,” he says. “We are fortunate to have a lot of tenured people, from seasonal employees to people working on the line to upper management. They like working here because we are involved and interact with them on a personal level as we work side-by-side with them in the greenhouse.”
In addition to developing a strong team, Van der Hengst has focused on automation to keep the company on the cutting edge of modern production practices. With the installation of high-speed transplanters and sowing lines, he improved production times from 400 to 500 cuttings an hour per person to 800 to 900.
“Like other growers, labor is always a challenge,” he says. “You have to ramp up a lot of people to do the work, especially during the shipping season. The more efficient your facility, the easier it is to get the numbers out the door.”
Whether it is transplanters, sowing lines, basket systems or different greenhouse styles, Van der Hengst turns up better ways to produce top quality product. And he does it sustainably. The company has earned MPS (More Profitable Sustainability) certification and continues to participate in an in-store recycling program with one of its customers. It also recycles irrigation water and carefully tracks chemical and water use along with fertilizer and energy use.
Despite a busy schedule, Van der Hengst gives back by staying involved with Double Harvest, an organization started by his grandfather, which operates in third-world countries to establish and develop agricultural projects by providing capital resources and implementing best practices to increase food production. He also runs a similar program called Bountiful Plant Ministries with his cousin, Ed van Hoven of American Color.
“I think it is important, especially in our industry, to remember those around us and be charitable,” he says. “We strive to do that at South Central Growers. I am thankful to be a part of a great group of people.”