Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses’ revolutionary organic facilities demonstrate the future isn’t too far off.
Only a handful of Midwestern growers have committed large portions of their greenhouses to the production of organics. Even fewer growers have built USDA-certified organic facilities from the ground up.
Count Mark Elzinga, president of Elzinga & Hoeksema, among the few. He recently opened a 4-acre organic greenhouse in Portage, Mich., near Kalamazoo, that will supply Meijer retail stores with a variety of branded organic vegetable and herb potted plants.
Among Elzinga’s branded products are Fresh Flavor vegetable plants, Fresh Flavor herb plants, Fresh Flavor gallon vegetable plants, Classic Flavor heirloom plants, Ethnic Flavor vegetable plants, Ethnic Flavor Herb plants, Urban Gardener patio pots, Micro greens and Herbal Home plants. More than 1.3 million organic plants will be produced in 2008.
“We’re really proud to be able to offer organic vegetables at Meijer,” Elzinga says, adding that having a 40-plus year relationship with Meijer has made this type of an investment and commitment possible.
Founded in 1962, Elzinga & Hoeksema now has more than 30 acres of greenhouse production at five facilities. Just the new facility has the organic certification, but Elzinga anticipates many new production practices will carry over to the other sites.
Working Wonders With Worm Poop
Elzinga & Hoeksema’s organic greenhouse feeds its plants with a living soil that includes vermicompost–or “worm poop”–among its ingredients. Vermicompost is brewed in two 500-gallon compost tea tanks and applied to plants through irrigation booms. The vermicompost is also a major reason why Elzinga & Hoeksema is so high on organics.
“Flowers seem to be bigger and brighter with organic,” says Roger Rosenthal, head grower at Elzinga & Hoeksema. “More organic practices can transfer over to non-organic and be better for employees, flowers and the environment.”
As alternatives to chemical inputs, the operation is using beneficial insects and growing a certain type of aphids in banker plants to keep beneficials fed. In tomato production, a brushing technique with overhead booms has kept plants compact without the use of plant growth regulators.
Other impressive features of this new-millennium greenhouse include energy-efficient equipment and renewable energy sources. The organic greenhouse has a closed-loop ground heat exchanger, a closed-loop pressurized hot water heating system, high-efficiency condensing boilers, in-floor heat, wind turbines and solar panels.
Two hundred solar panels stand outside the organic greenhouse and represent Elzinga & Hoeksema’s solar-geothermal energy system, which should provide 80 percent of the greenhouse’s heat. As a result, Elzinga & Hoeksema relies less on natural gas, and the organic greenhouse’s costs are down.
“Natural gas was $2.97 a unit when this project started,” says Elzinga, who started construction on the organic facility in June 2007. “It’s now $10 a unit. The organic facility saves 30 percent compared to a conventional greenhouse financially.”
Sustainability Is A Responsibility
Sustainability is high on Elzinga & Hoeksema’s list of things to do, too. Motion sensors for high-efficiency compact fluorescent lights, programmable thermostats and even paper recycling devices have all been installed.
“Our biggest non-organic product line is actually grown in a 100 percent recycled container,” Elzinga says. “We plan to expand our efforts by continuing to experiment with different eco-friendly plant container materials. We are committed to improving our efforts every year.”
And with thoughts like those in mind, Meijer is excited about carrying Elzinga & Hoeksema’s organic crops in more than 180 of its retail stores throughout five Midwestern states.
While Elzinga says he expects a modest return on investment in the first few years, he believes Elzinga & Hoeksema will benefit from a “responsible ROI” immediately. “Just the reduction of our carbon footprint alone to me justifies our efforts, not to mention the subsequent beneficial effects upon the earth,” Elzinga says. “Our responsibility–and the responsibility of all companies–doesn’t just lie in identifying the damage, but also in repairing and rectifying what damage we have already done.”
Striving For Smaller Impact
For Ball Tagawa, sustainability is a journey, not a destination.
Plug and liner grower Ball Tagawa has always had the goal of moving towards having a smaller environmental impact. Its sustainability effort has always been completely internally driven, and so much has been refined over the last few years, the operation had very little transformation to complete to become certified to the VeriFlora standard.
Dave Pruitt, general manager of Ball Tagawa, chanced upon VeriFlora when Michael Keys, an auditor for VeriFlora’s certifying organization SCS, stopped in at Ball Tagawa for driving directions. When Pruitt realized who Keys was, the two sat down to talk about certification.
“When I assessed our business, I realized we weren’t that far away from being able to be certified,” Pruitt says. The biggest changes the facility had to make were restructuring a chemical storage facility and changing a few chemicals used.
Since about 25 percent of Ball Tagawa’s customers are in the cut flower industry, the part of the industry the VeriFlora certification process developed from, Pruitt figured certification would be a good business move. A few of the grower’s customers use Ball Tagawa’s certification in their own marketing programs.
Production And Social Responsibility
While Pruitt says he has nothing against organic production, he doesn’t see those kinds of processes being adopted at Ball Tagawa.
“I can’t see the true, overall advantage, or even the ability to do that. I’m not sure the end user really wants to have an organic pansy,” Pruitt says. “If we were doing a large vegetable or herb program, I would strongly consider it.”
While part of sustainability does involve production, there is also a community aspect that can’t be forgotten. Pruitt serves on the board of a local greenhouse association, participates in the America In Bloom effort and collects donations for high school and college scholarships in horticulture during a one-day open house.
Along with these community-based efforts, Ball Tagawa will continue to make existing systems more sustainable because, as Pruitt says, sustainability is all about process. “It’s more about the progression you make,” he says. “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” He recommends that other growers read through sustainability requirements like VeriFlora’s with an open mind.
“There are a lot of things in there that are really valuable,” he says. “It depends on where you’re coming from with how you run your business and how solid financially your it is. If facilities haven’t been improved and updated, they may have a lot longer to go.”
Ups & Downs Of Organic
As the industry shifts toward sustainable production and more growers look into the many different definitions of “growing green,” certified organic production is, of course, a topic of great interest and speculation. Though many growers of floriculture crops don’t feel compelled to invest the time, money or energy to become certified organic producers, as floral crops are not “consumed” as food crops are, others are committing 100 percent to this most stringent method.
Marion Gardens of East Marion, N.Y., is one example. The grower produces 70 varieties of certified organic vegetables and herbs, including several varieties this year from vegetative stock,
like rosemary, spearmint, lemon thyme and African Blue Basil, says owner Walter Gaipa. Now in its second year with organic certification, Gaipa says everyone at Marion Gardens “feels it is just a better way to grow. It is better for the environment and better for the customers and better for us. There is a significant difference in the growing practices, and we have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the products.”
The certification process to become an organic producer is a long one, Gaipa says. For Marion Gardens, the application process alone took five months initially.
“Every aspect of your operation has to be accounted for,” Gaipa says. “This includes recordkeeping of everything you put into your crop. You must keep receipts and document everything you apply to your plants. If you want to use a new product, you have to get permission first from your certifying agency.”
In addition to extensive time commitments, the financial investment of becoming and staying certified organic is much higher. The growing media Marion Gardens now uses costs 40 percent more than conventional mixes, Gaipa says, and pest control products are softer and require more monitoring. He also thinks ornamental growers would find the process much more difficult, especially when converting sections of an operation to organic practices and keeping other sections conventional.
“It is more expensive to have a split operation,” Gaipa says. “Equipment used for both must be cleaned and documented between uses. Plants must be segregated during shipping. Water lines for the certified plants must be separate from the conventional plants. We have constructed a designated greenhouse for the certified plants and no other plants can go into that house.”
This year, Marion Gardens’ entire pest control program for certified and non-certified plants will be OMRI approved, and the operation is about to do the same with its fertilizer program to become 100 percent certified organic.
“I would like to be 100 percent certified; it would actually be easier, even though it’s more expensive,” Gaipa says. “But I have to admit, it gives us a really good feeling knowing what we are doing. Being able to display the USDA Organic logo is almost like wearing a badge. Our certified plants are grown in a different color pot with a distinctive label. This year, approximately 15 percent of our plants will be certified organic. Of our 30,000 square feet of greenhouses, we designate 2,000 square feet of certified only, but the effort, due to the requirements, is double that.”
For other growers looking into organic production as an option, Gaipa says the paperwork is daunting, which could scare some people off. Sales haven’t yet increased dramatically, although the business does charge a premium for certified organic plants.
“Interestingly enough, many retailers did not mark up the plants and sold them at the same price as our conventionally grown plants,” Gaipa says. “On the other hand, our son does charge a premium at our retail operation and customers do not complain at all.”
A final word of advice from Gaipa: “Do your research ahead of time. It’s like learning another language.”