Mixing Up Organics

By |

By the bag, by the bail or mix-your-own – growing media is a necessity in every greenhouse operation. And while many media manufacturers have offered organic options for a few years now, it’s only been recently that eco-friendly choices have become more in demand. Driving the sustainability effort in large scale at retail, the "Big Three"– Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and The Home Depot – are putting horsepower behind organic products throughout their stores and demanding their vendors get on board. As a result, going green is quickly becoming a way of life for some of the largest growers.

But it doesn’t end there. With more than 5 million consumers buying organic products in the lawn and garden industry, the green movement is clearly no longer a trend. Sales of organic fertilizers and growing media are expected to rise from $360 million at retail this year to $670 million by 2011, according to the consumer research firm Packaged Facts.

"I’ve been around this industry for 30 years now and I’ve seen this thing come and go probably 10 times," says Steve Jarahian, general manager for Fafard, Anderson, S.C. "This time it seems it’s going to stick. It’s not a trend when a retailer like Wal-Mart with 180 million customers announces it is going green."

While it’s clear that consumers are becoming more conscious of their purchasing decisions, some may not be completely committed to organic gardening, says Fafard Technical Manager Hugh Poole. "I was at The Home Depot the other day and a family there had loaded up on Scott’s Miracle-Gro Organic Choice. They had the big bags of organic garden soil but along with it, they had picked up conventional lawn fertilizer and everything else," he says. "So I’m not sure that the public really knows what they’re asking for and what they’re buying. They may just perceive it as another natural choice like if they were buying bark or mulch for the garden."

Down To The Detail

What makes a truly organic media mix? Many certified organic mixes include peat moss, vermiculite, perlite and other ingredients that may not be considered "ecologically sustainable," meaning naturally renewable. For instance, perlite is a volcanic rock that is mined from the earth, hence it is not a renewable resource. Beyond that fact, the process of making perlite ready to add to media mixes also requires substantial resources, according to Mark Shepherd of Riceland Foods. Once mined, it is crushed and shipped from places as far away as Greece – a big center for perlite mining. When it arrives in the United States, it has to be popped in gas furnaces heated to 3200˚F.

As an alternative to perlite, Riceland Foods offers par-boiled hulls (PBH), a co-product of rice that offers horticultural, environmental and economical advantages, according to Shepherd. The product goes through a three-step sterilization process in which rice is steeped in water at 140˚F or higher, then steamed as a whole grain under pressure at 212˚F or higher. When the rice is milled, the hull is taken off the grain and the hull is air-dried at 500˚F in large air driers.

"The cost of perlite has gone very high recently and growers are looking at ways to save money," Shepherd says. "Using PBH as an alternative is a cost savings and when growers can see the results with what they’re getting in their greenhouses, the proof is in the pudding. They’ve got to grow great plants and they’re doing it with our stuff."

Riceland now sells PBH in its new 30-cubic-foot bulk bail form, which is actually 90 cubic feet of material compressed three to one, to Berger Peat Moss, Premier Horticulture, Fafard and Jiffy Products, as well as the whole Van Wingerden family of greenhouses, Kube-Pak Corp. and Lucas Greenhouses. As PBH is a natural, renewable product, Shepherd is working on getting organic certification from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). While PBH is already widely used, Shepherd says the product is just catching on due to the high gas prices and increasing cost of perlite.

"The big box stores are pushing their suppliers to become more eco-friendly and that’s where PBH fits in naturally," Shepherd says.

For more information on PBH Growing Medium Material, contact Mark Shepherd 770-335-3016, mshepherd@riceland.com or visit www.riceland.com.

It’s In The Bag

Media manufacturers like Fafard, Sun Gro Horticulture, Jimmy Products and Premier Horticulture, among others, have offered organic professional mixes for as long as five years and their retail mixes are just beginning to catch on. For instance, Fafard Organic Potting Mix has been available in larger quantities at retail for a few years but was introduced this spring in a new bag for consumers, Jarahian says. "It’s a growing demand. We haven’t been inundated with requests but whereas five years ago we had one request a month, now we might talk to seven or eight customers a month on the grower side."

Up until now, retailers have been conflicted about how much to keep on site, says Poole. "I think they’re in a quandary," he says. "Number one, they don’t like to add any more SKUs to their product line and they’re having to have more pallets and materials sitting in their store. But they certainly want to have it there when the customer demands it."

Organic mixes are very comparable in performance with conventional mixes, as components of the mixes aren’t that different, Poole says.

"In our peatlite mixes, we had two components that didn’t meet organic standards and in the bark mixes we had three components," he says. "So it was not difficult to come up with the alternatives. For example to compensate for not having a wetting agent, we went to a special blend of peat that was less hydrophobic and we also increased the moisture content of our mixes so it would have more moisture than traditional professional mixes would have."

Fafard’s professional organic mixes are called the Fafard Organic Formula (FOF) series. Premier Horticulture offers PRO-MIX for Lawn Care, PRO-MIX for Outdoor Planting and PRO-MIX Ultimate Organic, consumer mixes that contain mycorise, a unique biostimulant that ensures stronger, healthier root systems for optimal plant growth. The same biostimulant is standard in its professional mixes for growers. Sun Gro Horticulture offers several OMRI-certified professional mixes, including Sunshine Premix Organic, Sunshine Plug Organic and Sunshine Grower Organic, as well as a number of organic mixes for consumers. Scott’s Miracle-Gro offers the Organic Choice line of products at retail.

Jiffy Products offers the organic Jiffy "Shrink-Wrap" pot, a biodegradable alternative to plastic. The company is also working to convert the current wrapping on its "Shrink-Wrap" pot to a biodegradable wrapping, to offer a 100 percent biodegradable version by next growing season, according to Roelof Drost of Jiffy International. Jiffy also has developed an eco-friendly, biodegradable alternative to rockwool, called Jiffy Growblock, which will be available in three sizes with a planned North American market introduction at the 2007 OFA Short Course in Columbus this summer.

Leave a Reply

2 comments on “Mixing Up Organics

  1. Anonymous

    I am a prolific backyard gardener that uses perlite as a means to retain moisture in new plantings. I am intrigued by your PBH product. Please tell me:
    1. Does it do the job that perlite does as efficiently? Have you tested it for prime water retention?
    2. Where can I buy it? I live in Jupiter, Florida. I also visit Miami on a regular basis. Do I need to purchase it through a distributor, or can I purchase it directly from you?

    Thank you!

    Carmen

  2. Anonymous

    I am a prolific backyard gardener that uses perlite as a means to retain moisture in new plantings. I am intrigued by your PBH product. Please tell me:
    1. Does it do the job that perlite does as efficiently? Have you tested it for prime water retention?
    2. Where can I buy it? I live in Jupiter, Florida. I also visit Miami on a regular basis. Do I need to purchase it through a distributor, or can I purchase it directly from you?

    Thank you!

    Carmen