Mix German ingenuity with high production standards and drive for growth and you get Vivero Internacional, S.A. de C.V., an independent cutting operation based in Cuernavaca, Morelos, just outside of Mexico City. Ranked among Greenhouse Grower’s Top Cutting Producers, Vivero produces 120 million cuttings annually for the North American market without compromising its commitment to produce high-quality cuttings for its customers.
Vivero Retains Customer Intimacy Despite Growth
Vivero’s owner, Joachim Hitzigrath, runs the company with his wife Monika, who directs the business office, and son Dennis, who is General Manager. Joachim emigrated from Germany with the intention of producing geranium cuttings for the Fischer breeding company. When that plan fell through, he struck out on his own, starting Vivero Internacional in 1990.
Vivero first produced finished poinsettias mainly for the local market in Mexico City. It wasn’t long before the company contracted with Gerhard Fischer to produce pelargonium cuttings for U.S. and Canadian markets. Later, Paul Ecke, Jr. followed suit, engaging Vivero to produce its poinsettia cuttings. Syngenta Flowers eventually bought Fischer, which led to Vivero producing geranium cuttings for Syngenta Flowers, and things began to take off from there.
Being dependent on just one customer, Vivero decided to build an independent program with its own network to stabilize business during times of economic crisis. Today it only sells to approved brokers, not direct to nurseries. Its main customers are Ball Seed, Express Seeds, Gloeckner, Henry F. Michell Co., McHutchinson, and Vaughans . This year, Vivero dropped its pelargonium varieties from the Endisch breeding line and continues with lines from Westhoff, PAC Elsner, Kientzler, and Volmary. It also picked up mandevilla cuttings from Suntory, which recently opened up some of its biggest brands to the unrooted cuttings market.
Vivero has two operations in Mexico. The export side of the business is located in Oacalco, Morelos. The Oacalco facility covers 66 acres, employs 700 people, and produces unrooted cuttings from two genetic sources. An additional facility in Casasano, Morelos, which also does some liner production, includes 50 acres of greenhouses and employs 400 people, producing unrooted cuttings from seven genetic sources.
Despite its growth, Vivero retains the intimacy in customer relations of a small business. Since the company is family owned and managed, one of the advantages it can offer is a quick reaction time.
“We are a lean organization and can find solutions pretty quickly,” says Dennis Hitzigrath. “If you need to talk to the owner or someone in upper management, you can do it fairly quickly. If you’d like someone with local knowledge of the genetics, Dominik Neisser, our very experienced representative in the U.S. will be very happy to help you out. We love that he’s part of our family.”
Location is Everything for Shipping Fresh and On Time
Vivero’s home base is close to four international airports and only 750 miles from the Mexican-U.S. border. This is a boon to the shipping side of the operation because the company does not have to rely solely on costly air transport. A majority of Vivero’s cuttings ship in refrigerated trucks to Texas, where they enter the FedEx system for delivery to customers, and there are some customers in Michigan and Illinois that get their goods delivered door to door. The cuttings arrive fresher this way, and it helps with varieties that are sensitive to temperature changes.
“We would like to ship more cuttings through trucks in the future because the airlines are getting more saturated with luggage,” says Hitzigrath. “Cuttings don’t always ship when they are supposed to if room is limited. If you have a way of making sure cuttings leave on the day they are supposed to and arrive on time, it gives you an advantage over other offshore companies.”
Cleanliness is All-Encompassing at Vivero
Vivero is a testament to Joachim and Dennis Hitzigrath’s resourcefulness. They built the operation from the ground up, sourcing local materials to construct single-poly greenhouses ─ complete with ventilation, insect screening, retractable shade, and volcano-gravel floors.
The Hitzigraths even designed their own computer system to grade the cuttings. One hundred percent of the bags of cuttings go through the system for quality control checks. Computers are located throughout the operation at various checkpoints. Workers weigh the bags on a scale. If the weight is within an acceptable range, a green light indicates it is good to go to cooler. If the bag is over or under weight, a red light flags it to go back to the worker to fix the problem. If after reinspection the bag doesn’t pass the test, a separate quality control worker inspects it to see what is wrong. The system helps the company avoid mistakes, such as sending half a bag of cuttings or cuttings with too many leaves.
Hygiene protocol at the operation is top notch, with foot and hand baths at every entrance and spread in between entrances. Workers and visitors wear hospital-grade coveralls over their clothing and don disposable gloves, hairnets, aprons, and rubber boots before setting foot in the greenhouse. And when a worker leaves the greenhouse, their rubber boots and aprons stay in the designated area.
A recent protocol that Vivero implemented to avoid the spread of diseases through cutting tools is to provide a new set of knives every 2 meters in the plant beds for a particular variety. The only knives or cutting tools allowed in the area are the ones dedicated to that planting block, and they are color coded to keep them from being mixed up. Workers store the knives in a disinfecting solution immediately after each use. When workers replace the plant group with new plants from an elite group, they collect the knives and replace them with a new set. They also throw out bags and organic material at the end of each plant group. These precautionary safeguards are in place to allow Vivero to block out a section of the greenhouses should a problem ever arise.
“We have seen that this system works well for us, and have proven that we can do it and stay productive,” Dennis says. “The idea is that each section is isolated and nothing will spread in to the next 2 meters. The likelihood of you crossing disease from one section to another is pretty low.”
In addition to its sanitation protocols, one of Vivero’s biggest strengths is the well-trained staff it employs for extensive scouting, to look for abnormalities or problems. Hitzigrath says in his experience, especially with geraniums, it is unlikely that you detect a sick plant through randomized samples. It’s akin to winning the lottery, so employees doing a lot of scouting to detect problems early and avoid them. Employees still test 10% of the TMV (tobacco mosaic virus) sensitive elite stock randomly if no “funny plants” are seen. And 1% of all the stock is tested randomly just before and during the season, too.
Vivero will take part in the offshore greenhouse certification pilot project, recently announced by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Dennis says he is excited about the program and thinks in the end, if the program proves successful, it will make things simpler and more streamlined for everyone. Currently, Vivero works with inspectors from USDA and SENASICA, the USDA-equivalent branch in Mexico.
“The inspectors trust us and feel confident that we do our work right,” Dennis says. “In this business, if people stop trusting you, there are plenty of others waiting to take your place. We do whatever it takes to make sure our cuttings are clean.”