Growing Green: Ahead Of The Curve

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Sustainability is a big buzz word in the media these days–but what does it really mean to grow plants that qualify as sustainable or earth-friendly? Certified sustainability goes far beyond reducing or eliminating synthetic inputs, according to Greg Trabka, sustainable horticulture specialist for Ball Innovations, a division of Ball Horticultural Co.

Ball’s Circle of Life program, which provides an assortment of regionally appropriate “green” flowers, vegetables and herbs exclusively to the independent garden center channel, is based on three principles that begin with reducing chemical dependency, he says.

“First, we ask growers and garden centers to produce plants using more environmentally friendly production inputs including organically based fertilizers and less harmful pesticides,” Trabka says. “Second, we reduce waste by incorporating biodegradable, compostable containers. Third, we support local production and distribution to encourage community development. Supporting local production eliminates carbon emissions from transportation and we’re also providing consumers with varieties that will perform well in their local areas.”

Growing plants for the Circle of Life program involves creating a living soil environment that hosts beneficial microorganisms, supported by organically based fertilizer. Ball recommends growers use Organic Biotech’s Plant Growth Activator Plus, as well as Daniel’s plant food and biological controls. Trabka says Ball’s trials have shown living soil with beneficial microorganisms makes plants healthier and stronger than plants grown conventionally in inert soil, not only in the greenhouse but in the garden, as well.

“It is essential to create a healthy environment for healthy plant growth,” he says. “When you have a healthy plant, it is strong enough to defend itself naturally from pathogens and therefore you don’t need as many chemicals.”

Circle of Life was launched in 2005 in four states–Washington, Minnesota, Idaho and Michigan–adding two additional states each year. Whereas the first year there were 30 participants, this year there are nearly 150 participants in the program and Ball is aiming to launch Circle of Life nationwide in 2008, according to Bill Doeckel, general manager of Ball Innovations, who is heading up many of the company’s efforts on sustainability. Ball supplies growers and retailers with Circle of Life point-of-purchase materials, press releases and template articles on the program’s efforts toward sustainability to send to their local newspapers.

“Our sales force has been trained on Circle of Life and is ready to help growers grow sustainably and work with them to get this program implemented within their local garden centers,” Doeckel says. 

Walking The Walk

Ball Horticultural Co. began to research developing earth-friendly plants for the horticulture market in 2000, but before it made any moves, the company made a grassroots effort to “get its house in order,” Doeckel says.

“It was important to us that we walk the walk before we started talking to our customers about sustainability,” he says.

Ball’s international facilities in Costa Rica and Guatemala are already certified sustainable through VeriFlora, the new sustainability certification program for fresh cut flowers and potted plants in North America ( Ball’s company in Colombia will be certified this summer, its Ball Tagawa operation will be certified this fall, and the company plans to keep going until all of its facilities are certified, Doeckel says. In the future, Trabka adds Ball will promote sustainability certification and may require it of growers who produce the Circle of Life program.

Ball Innovations, a new division that serves as an incubator for new ideas, projects and businesses for Ball Horticultural Co., was to a large degree formalized by Ball’s commitment to sustainability in horticulture. Doeckel says sustainability will play a large part in deciding whether or not to go forward with all of Ball’s projects in the future.

“As a company, we look at every new project now through a sustainability lens and if it doesn’t meet our criteria for sustainability, we won’t do it,” Doeckel says. “It’s part of our overall company approach now; we have a saying here that sustainability is a journey. It is our belief that by 2020, everything we do, including the entire industry, will be sustainable and it will be a moot point to even talk about it.”

With such a great deal of consumer attention focused on companies’ efforts to become more environmentally friendly, as well as low supply and high demand for conventional resources, Doeckel says the horticulture industry has no choice but to grow green. But, he adds, the industry should consider the opportunities to be proactive and provide earth-friendly options for concerned consumers.

“It’s a real opportunity for the industry to go down the path of sustainability,” he says. “If we don’t, we are going to risk opportunities as an industry, though we may not feel it immediately.”

Doeckel cites the recent article, “Beauty and the Plastic Beast,” in the Chicago Tribune, as well as Amy Stewart’s book, “Flower Confidential” as indicators that consumers are looking for a higher level of responsibility from the horticulture industry.

“It’s always better for us as an industry to come up with the solutions on our own than it is to be forced into them either through regulation or consumer scrutiny,” he says. “I would rather have the options first for the consumer.”

As part of its efforts toward sustainability, Ball Horticultural recently became the first large horticultural distributor certified to process and distribute organic seed by the Organic Crop Improvement Association under the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Ball provides more than 60 varieties of organic vegetable and herb seed.

“The progressive growers and retailers in the industry are really embracing the concept of sustainability right now,” says Doeckel. “We know many who are doing this and we see it as very positive.” 

Meeting Organic Demand

Last year, Plug Connection, a young plant producer in Vista, Calif., became organically certified through California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and USDA to offer its new line of finished herbs and vegetables, Organiks. When Plug Connection President Tim Wada and New Product Development Manager Juan St. Amant displayed Organiks in 3 ½-inch pots at Fashion In Bloom, the East Coast event for retailers last fall, the enthusiastic response and subsequent demand for the new line was overwhelming, according to Joe Messer, Organiks division manager.

“Retailers told us they can’t buy quality herbs and vegetables in the fall because most growers stop producing those crops in the spring,” Messer says. “The fact that our products are organic was even more intriguing to them.”

Plug Connection sent 350 of its sample Ship & Show boxes to members of Garden Centers of America the weekend before Memorial Day this spring, with tremendous feedback, Messer says. The combined shipping and pop-up point-of-purchase box offers easy merchandising with green benefits.

“We offer organic plants in biodegradable pots in a box that retailers can literally flip the top open and it’s a self-sustaining POP presentation right there,” he says.

As a result, Plug Connection is developing what Messer says is a business plan with multiple channels that continues to grow as the company learns more about organic production and marketing. Currently its products include plugs for finish growers and finished plants for independent garden centers and traditional retailers like grocery store chains, Trader Joe’s and Smith & Hawken.

Messer says Plug Connection is committed to working with other growers to help them through the process of becoming certified organic producers. While Plug Connection does have a market for its own finished plants, Messer says the company does not cater to the big boxes and he isn’t concerned about overlapping its customer base with that of its grower customers. In addition, Messer says Plug Connection does not currently have plans to produce organic ornamental plants.

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