People And Plants

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People And Plants

Brazil may not be the first country that comes to mind for those seeking to buy cuttings overseas, but then again, why not? Athena (www.athenamudas.com.br/), a cuttings producer in Brazil , has been organizing periodic trips for clients who want to see first-hand where and how their cuttings are being grown.

Athena is a cuttings propagator that specializes in the export of unrooted cuttings of non-major crops. Rightfully named after the Greek goddess of industry and skill, Athena, the company has flourished thanks to its willingness to adapt to an evolving market. Originally a potted-mum grower started in 1996, the big company change in direction came in 1999 when one of its original founders, Lucilene Anatriello, attended her first Pack Trials in California. Then, together with husband Jairo Schmidt, the decision was made to shift the company to the international market of specialty cuttings. The first exports were to Europe, and then Japan, but it was in the American market with a successful local partnership that things really flourished.

Athena is now a partnership between the Brazilian couple and the American firm Grolink (www.grolink.com), which has been distributing the company’s cuttings in the North American market since the year 2000. The enterprise worked so well that the American market now represents 70 percent of Athena’s sales volume.

On a much broader base, the company has grown 40 percent annually for the last three years, so much so that by 2003 there was no more room for growth at their original location and a nearby 40-acre plot was purchased. With 10 acres of plastic houses built and 2.5 acres more under way, all expansion now takes place at this new site. The total area is 27 acres of polyhouses, with both wooden and metal structures in three locations.

The company is situated in São José do Rio Preto, a city of 400,000 in the southeastern state of São Paulo. The cuttings are transported once a week by refrigerated truck to the state capital, a 280-mile trip, from where they are flown to Miami, Fla. A dispatcher collects them there and sends them to their final destinations.

GroLink is also a specialty cutting supplier based in Oxnard, Calif. The company centralizes all U.S. customers’ orders received from its sales reps and sends them daily to Brazil. Grolink’s CEO Anthony Vollering, already had business connections in Brazil and other Latin American countries, so the union with Athena as a supplier came as a natural step. 

Maximum Hygiene

Athena’s Super Elite section plants are grown in a closed-off greenhouse, which visitors can only see through fine-mesh thrips netting. Five to 25 plants of each variety are kept, all clean stock, being tested 100 percent against viruses. Only designated workers tend to this area and do not go to other sections of the company during the day. The toughest sanitation level is applied here, meaning workers’ hands have to be disinfected between every plant as they work and pots are sufficiently spaced.

New plants are received from international labs as 100 percent virus-free tissue culture and the mother plants are rooted in July and August, getting to the EE section by September, where they stay until the following July. A 10 percent sampling protocol screening can be used here.

Their homemade media uses peat, pine bark, sand and perlite, regularly disinfected at 112ËšF for 45 minutes at the end of each cycle. Sensitive plants, such as impatiens, always require new media. In the E sector, the final production greenhouses, bud formation is avoided, limiting the global radiation coming in at 24 W/m², using white polyethylene plastic in the greenhouse cover. 

Excellent Service

With Athena’s option for non-commodity crops came a longer learning curve to schedule their harvest of lantanas, coleus, portulacas, dahlias and impatiens, so that a lot of testing and trials became the norm. Schmidt, who is in charge of production, explains that now on top of the regular 95 commercial varieties they grow, there are about the same number being trialed.

“Our main crop in volume is lantana, coleus is the second. Also as part of the learning process, the most sensitive varieties are now being planted closer to the cold room,” Schmidt says. “Some companies adopt the ‘one size fits all policy,’ meaning they have a list of standard products and that’s what they sell. We intend to keep growing in this market, maintaining our strategy to adapt to whatever our customers need, as long as we can plan it in advance. Some clients prefer plants with callus, others without, or it may be a different number of leaves, or more plants per bag for their convenience. With coleus products, for example, there are double-node and standard, and we steer our mother plants accordingly for each case.” 

The Human Factor

The “opposite season” effect (allowing the southern hemisphere to supply plants to the American market in the spring), together with a tuned commercial partnership, are important ingredients in this business format. But these factors are more or less the same for many companies. The way Athena approaches work relations gives them an edge. With a staff that reached 250 this year, three full-time psychologists are in charge of the hiring, training and motivating the workers.

The company philosophy has been to invest in people in order to improve their plant quality. “And it has worked,” says Schmidt. “People and plants are our two main assets.” In practice, this means programs such as week-long paid trips for regular workers to their customers’ greenhouses in the United States and Europe. The goal is to show employees the final stage of their work, to see their end market and try to learn something new. This is not only a strong motivational tool, but a way to teach about the significance of what they do daily.

Another action is the monthly “meet with the director” session. Schmidt and Anatriello get together with the employees so everyone has access to them and may speak about anything. Other examples are open house days on Mother’s or Father’s Day and quarterly lectures on issues of interest ranging from home economics to disease prevention. Game days are another way to emphasize the spirit of team work. 

Outlook For The Future

Athena’s future plans call for more market diversification at this stage. The company intends to expand in Europe in order to spread out its peak season, while hedging its position at the same time, since the Euro has not devaluated as much towards the Brazilian Real as the U.S. dollar lately. The national market may become a new front, as well.

Future growth, however, is planned to be based on yield increase, rather than expansion in acreage. Marketing may be given more attention too, since it has mostly been based on word of mouth from customers. Another major goal is to increase the number of market introductions, in order to set itself as a constant innovator. In the long run, Athena plans to start its own breeding program.

The next immediate step to keep improving quality is to gain more control of the “after the gate” part of the process. Shipment boxes are iced if necessary, according to the temperature forecast for each state to where plants will be sent, monitored via the Internet. A target of maintaining 41ËšF inside the box determines whether double insulation or an ethylene blocker will be needed.

In order to gain more insight into that part of the process, a year-long study is underway. A temperature recorder is included in an ordinary box with plants every week and shipped to a sales person in the United States, following the regular route of a standard delivery. Data is then downloaded and it will be analyzed for the entire season. Even though the number of complaints they had last year was extremely low, 0.3 percent of the total customers’ orders, shipping was the main cause.

Mauricio Mathias is an international freelance writer. You can contact him at mauriciomathias@hotmail.com.

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