A dream to grow plants, very little money to fund it, and a few polyhouses sustained D.S. Cole Growers when it first opened for business in the late 80’s. Today, it is a leading provider of vegetative annual plants and an industry leader in sustainable production. Owner and President Doug Cole has a reputation as a trailblazer who is not afraid to try something new in the pursuit of growing quality plants more efficiently.
When Cole and his wife, Jane Iarussi, started the business, demand was good, and they were able to expand quickly. Cole started growing liners of ‘Rosebud’ double impatiens, and from there the business grew. Liners make up the backbone of the business, accounting for 75% of the overall product, with finished plants making up the other 25%.
Cole and his wife also own Cole Gardens, a garden retail center in Concord, NH. Their son Charlie serves as Manager, while Jane handles numerous administrative duties and much of the store’s purchasing, along with the floral component.
As the operation’s focus turned to young plants, its technology improved. Early on, Cole installed a Dutch moving-bench system, which is still in use to this day. This system gives the staff the flexibility to move plants from one climate zone to another as the plants progress from propagation to shipping. Dutch technology is predominant throughout the 4½-acre operation, which has Dutch, Venlo-shaped greenhouses and ebb-and-flow systems.
Cole’s focus on building strong relationships with his customers, brokers, and suppliers has helped the company get where it is today.
“If I was just clicking numbers on a screen and buying product, we wouldn’t have what we have,” he says. “It’s maintaining relationships, associating with trade organizations, and traveling that keeps us significant and constantly learning and finding new product.”
A Gifted Staff Spurs Progress
Cole has never shied away from employing innovative methods to streamline production and save on labor costs. He credits his hard-working staff with helping him accomplish these goals, saying they have a good work ethic and a strong commitment to producing quality products.
Head Grower Chris Schlegel has been instrumental in coordinating the work needed for the company’s certifications and in writing grant applications to obtain USDA funding. She is but one example of the talented staff at D.S. Cole that drives the operation’s growth.
New Hampshire has the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the U.S., which limits the employee pool.
“We have been very fortunate to have a resident refugee population nearby to help supply seasonal labor,” Cole says. “However, I worry that the funnel may soon disappear due to the current political situation.”
Don’t Forget the People Processes
With labor difficult to find, Cole identified areas where he could mechanize more. He recently purchased updated bench-handling equipment from Logics-Agro, and substrate handling equipment from AgriNomix. He also made simple adjustments to change how employees handle plants, to avoid extra touches.
The staff participated in several lean-flow sessions recently with Flow Vision and the state’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). Some sessions focused on total procedures and the flow of information, including document handling, while others centered on manufacturing processes, such as how the staff sticks cuttings or pulls and packs product. Consequently, the staff now concentrates more on quality when pulling product versus at the point just before the product goes in the box.
The changes ensuing from the lean-flow sessions have helped reduce labor, which is why Cole says it’s important to not overlook the people processes when trying to save time on production.
“The best results of using lean analysis are situations where we can eliminate a step or a person due to lean thinking,” Cole says. “This is more rewarding than the need to buy equipment.”
Staff Buy-In Supports Ten Years of Sustainability
D.S. Cole Growers’ focus on sustainability is another means of improving its production process. It was the first operation in North America to certify as a sustainable grower through the More Profitable Sustainability (MPS) Certification program. MPS recently honored Cole at Cultivate’17 for his pioneering efforts on Sustainability and his ambassadorship for MPS.
When MPS wanted to enter the U.S. market 10 years ago, Cole volunteered to run a pilot program. The program helped his company become more systematic about its processes. Additionally, it has brought the D.S. Cole staff together and made them more accountable for input use.
“MPS is only of value if there is staff buy-in,” Cole says. “I am fortunate that our staff’s mindset is that these changes and improvements have value. They take the process seriously and work hard to keep good records and maintain sustainable practices.”
D.S. Cole also carries a MPS-GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certificate. While the company needs this third-party certification to sell potted herbs to supermarkets, it also helps satisfy other issues that may not have received attention otherwise. For instance, the company has an evacuation plan and CPR-trained staff. GAP also has some good traceability features for tracking individual products.
Streamlining Shipping of Clean Plants
D.S. Cole Growers also participates in the U.S.-Canada Greenhouse Certification Program (GCP). Previously, Cole went online each week to notify federal officials about what he planned to ship to Canada. Then an inspector would come out to issue the necessary phytosanitary certificates. The process was a time-consuming hassle.
As part of the program, D.S. Cole Growers submitted an operating plan outlining its production processes and practices for keeping its plants clean. Once the state/federal government approved everything, it issued certification for shipping. Inspectors also audit the company four times a year to ensure it is following its plan. Each week of shipping, D.S. Cole receives a set of unique stickers that the staff affixes to shipping boxes. Afterward, they ship the plants across the border without any holdups from regulators. The process works well, saving time and effort.
The company’s participation in the GCP program led to its involvement in SANC (A Systems Approach to Nursery Certification). SANC addresses regulations for state-to-state shipping. While it’s mainly for nurseries more than greenhouses, Cole says the program caught his attention because its audited system for certification was nearly identical to the GCP program. He saw value in helping to make sure the two certification programs were in sync.
“We are involved with the SANC pilot to help find redundancies in the systems to make the programs less cumbersome for ourselves and the regulators that need to manage them,” Cole says. “We don’t have the same players putting these programs together. It’s beneficial for everyone to try and make these certificates as streamlined and coordinated as possible.”
At press time, representatives from AmericanHort, USDA, APHIS, and state officials were finalizing the SANC manual so its core is identical to the GCP program. Once the program is up and running, growers should have an easier time shipping between participating states.
Cole says AmericanHort’s involvement in SANC is just one example of how the industry benefits from the representation associations like AmericanHort and the Society of American Florists (SAF) provide. Both organizations work continuously on government advocacy issues, and they also serve as conduits to get growers answers since they have contacts who can find solutions to problems. Cole currently serves on the AmericanHort Advocacy Committee and just stepped down from the SAF board.
“It’s nice to help the industry, and my involvement in these associations has been very beneficial to our company,” Cole says.
With many accomplishments already behind it, Cole says D.S. Cole Growers will remain focused on growing ornamentals and building strong relationships with its customers, brokers, and suppliers. It will also continue to bring plants to the market that customers can use, by sorting out the quality products from the many genetics available on the market today.
“This is an ongoing process for us that will never stop,” he says. “There really can’t be a status-quo in our procedures and products. All of us in the industry have to be innovative on a daily basis if we want to be successful in the future.”
See what stand-out new varieties keep D.S. Cole Growers competitive, and learn more about the operation at DSColeGrowers.com