Innovation Drives Growth At Plantpeddler

The Gooder family is astute enough to know that future growth hinges on innovation, so it is a good thing they aren’t afraid to fail or try new things in their quest for growth opportunities.

“I can almost guarantee you that no one has tried more crazy stuff than we have over the last 30 years,” says Mike Gooder. “But it gives us an extreme amount of confidence when making decisions. Knowledge is power.”

Mike and Rachel Gooder, owners of Plantpeddler, a 400,000-square-foot, multi-divisional greenhouse tucked away in Cresco, Iowa, catch sight of the potential in everything they do. That includes giving a small breeder a chance, fostering the next generation of leaders and lending a hand to a breeder to revive a stagnant crop category. Their unique foresight allows the Gooders to exploit possibilities and discover innovative ways to turn potential into profitable reality.

Reviving Poinsettias Takes Takes Teamwork And Creativity

Plantpeddler’s recent involvement with the relaunch of Suntory’s Princettia euphorbias is but one of many examples of the Gooder family’s willingness to tackle new challenges and explore new prospects.

Plantpeddler identified target growers and developed a sample program for Suntory, offering Princettia rooted cuttings free to 100 growers for trialing. The results have been promising, Mike says, with several growers approaching him with a renewed excitement for growing and using euphorbias (poinsettias).

The Gooders are no strangers to growing euphorbias, as they offer programs for all five major breeders, with possibly more on the way. Even so, Mike says at first he didn’t see the value of Princettia until he went through this experience. During the process, he says, he recognized that Princettia is something really special and may be the start of revitalizing this crop category and igniting a trend toward broadened use.

“I think this plant lends the industry an opportunity to really link with breast cancer awareness on a local and possibly national basis,” Mike says. “There is a lot we can do with it. In that process, we can fix one of the toughest periods for our growers — the October, November, December market.”

Besides aiding other breeders and lending technical expertise, Plantpeddler’s innovative, ready-to-sell, combo products pair holiday seasonals with unique plant components, offering new possibilities for growers, minus the production hassles.

“If you’re not a creative grower, you need a pathway to get there,” Mike says. “At Plantpeddler, we said, let’s get creative and figure out how to combine other components with euphorbias so we can produce singular products for other growers that they don’t want to produce themselves. We try to be the type of supply chain provider that jumps off wherever necessary to fulfill market needs. To remain viable in the industry, you have to constantly look for ways to create new opportunities.”

Innovation Drives Growth At Plantpeddler

The Gooders’ constant search for new growth avenues leads to innovation that weaves through the company’s 34-plus year history like a binding thread. It set the company on a path of growth from its inception and continues to position it well for its transition to the next generation
of leadership.

Mike and Rachel started Plantpeddler in 1980, fresh out of the Iowa State horticulture program. Shortly after graduation and a mere eight days after they married, the couple took over Cresco Greenhouses, a 10,500-square-foot retail floral operation that included a few glasshouses for production. They began growing cut flowers, blooming plants and bedding plants. The Gooders still run the retail operation today.

Soon after Cresco Greenhouses came the establishment of the Plantpeddler wholesale division and the opening of a second full-service floral and retail store in Decorah, Iowa. The grower-to-grower young plant business came later in 2000, when Plantpeddler partnered with Dümmen of Germany to produce hiemalis begonia liners for the North American Market. Plantpeddler separated from Dümmen in 2005 to allow for a broader representation of breeders.

In 2008, Plantpeddler received national recognition for its Stone Creek Farm facility, a vegetable and fruit production division created from existing infrastructure to capitalize on the emerging local foods trend.

In the last five years, the operation has been particularly busy, partnering with Ecke Ranch to develop a Midwest rooting station for Ecke poinsettias and Oglevee geraniums and, most recently, partnering with Suntory to relaunch Princettia euphorbias.

All of these accomplishments, the Gooders say, wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of those people past, present and hopefully into the future, who have helped make Plantpeddler what it is today.

“Our local farm kids are awesome,” Mike says. “We are most grateful to our committed team, who we feel is like extended family, for making our operation a success.”

One of those team members, John Gooder followed his parents’ path to Iowa State University, where he recently graduated in horticulture and entrepreneurship. He returned to the family business in 2014, and he will focus on creating an operations department to complement sales and production.

Retail-Ready Products Translate To Strong Third Quarter Sales

When you talk in-depth with Mike and Rachel, it’s no surprise John chose to major in entrepreneurship to continue their legacy.

“Being located perfectly in the middle of nowhere has never allowed us to fit inside of the dreaded box,” Mike says. “We push ourselves everyday to reinvent the company and take on new challenges. Admittedly, this comes at a price — both financial and risk of failure — but we accept those as the cost of being ahead of the curve.”

Take the third quarter, for instance. Traditionally, July was one of the worst months for Plantpeddler, but no longer thanks to the company’s laser focus on unique genetics to develop solid programs.

“The innovation comes from looking at how people garden now and translating that back into unique products,“ Mike says. “We develop lines of products and use them in various forms. It’s all about being able to present them to the consumer in a ready-to-use form, while still providing opportunities for those who want to do it themselves.”

Create New Revenue With New Uses For Old Things

Establishing Stone Creek Farm was an inventive way for Plantpeddler to use existing infrastructure to fill production voids and spread out overhead costs. Mike says it has worked well in that capacity, generating positive publicity for the company and receiving national recognition. Nonetheless, he says it is time to take a new direction.

Growing fruits and vegetables alongside young plants isn’t always compatible, which leaves Plantpeddler with a challenging dilemma. Either lay off its spray protocols for young plant production and risk sending challenged plants to growers, or spray the veggies so they don’t infest the young plant division.

“We have always been an ornamentals-first company,” Mike says. “While Stone Creek Farm is still a very viable part of our operation, we are taking a much harder look at it to see what part allows us to remain viable with what is important to Plantpeddler — flowers — and yet have this element still be a part of the company.”

Through Stone Creek, the Gooders are developing unique lines of the woody super fruits. A number of crops are in development, like aronia, which is native to the United States and indigenous to certain parts of Iowa. The company is working on developing a market for liner material and shipped several hundred thousand liners this fall for field production. New developments will be happening soon in the Stone Creek division.

Meanwhile, Plantpeddler’s young plant division continues to see unprecedented growth.

Plantpeddler Explores New Breeding Avenues

Begonias represent the core of what Plantpeddler is about, and its goal is simple: When you think begonias, think Plantpeddler.

To ensure the availability of new varieties and series of begonia, the company has a strong commitment to a controlled, clean stock program. This allows Plantpeddler to develop stock protocols and produce cuttings during build-up periods for new introductions. Mike says he has found Plantpeddler’s internal cutting quality in most cases exceeds what is available offshore.

Plantpeddler has shored up one of its facilities, turning it into a dedicated stock plant production area for begonias, and has worked hard to develop its own stock base of Crackling Fire begonias. It also brought in unique begonia lines, bred for outdoor production in hiemalis types, from breeders, including Begonien Rigr Rigor, which is based in Germany.

Plantpeddler proudly represents exclusively small breeders like David Zlesak, a successful breeder of woodies and roses, bringing his line of interspecific crosses of ageratums to the industry, and outstanding European breeding in lines like argyranthemums bred by Joseph Heuger.
Another big step toward growth, which is the culmination of several years of work, is the implementation of a new Starcom system that allows for easier access to Plantpeddler’s broker support system.

“We have always run strong on the sales side, but we have really worked on the production modules and cost modeling modules that are within the Starcom system and putting purchase order based systems in place, as well as adding our crop recipes and forecasts,” Mike says.Growers with 30-plus years of experience are putting all of their brain resources and things that we run on the spreadsheets now in the system. It allows us to pass knowledge down almost instantly.”

Young Leadership Taps Into Experience

With John’s return to the family business and plans to have him eventually take over, Mike and Rachel say they are aware of the need to preserve and pass on the knowledge of their experienced employees. They understand that an operation is only as good as the team behind it, which they experience on a daily basis with their dedicated employees.

“We have worked hard at landing a group back inside the company that is from basically the low 20s up to the mid-30s,” Mike says. “We are aggressively and actively pursuing young, qualified people with backgrounds in agriculture or horticulture. We have also developed a second level of leadership teams within the company.”

Whenever possible, the Gooders try to team newer employees with seasoned ones to capitalize on their many years of experience, and they are actively involved in capturing that production knowledge on databases. Mike jokes that in 10 years, he is leaving John to deal with all the challenges. But joking aside, the Gooders are forward-thinking enough to ensure that John has an experienced team behind him when that day comes.

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