Operations of all sizes strive to grow better plants with fewer inputs and a tighter bottom line. Fertilizer manufacturers have taken note, striving to produce formulas that not only increase plant efficiency but also multitask.
Here’s what the pros had to say about the latest trends and how the market has responded to meet operational needs.
The New Organics
In the past, many organic options earned a bad reputation, prompting growers to opt for conventional products and formulas. While the lack of information about how to effectively use organic fertilizers contributed to this stigma, there were other factors at play, too.
“It’s important to remember that there are many organic and quasi-organic products on the market that are basically waste materials being disposed of and labeled organic at a low cost,” says Michaella Holden, a Marketing and Community Relations Specialist at Suståne Natural Fertilizer.
“These products lack consistency, and they don’t perform well,” she says. “They aren’t the quality growers want, and they have left many growers skeptical.”
Fortunately, many companies are changing this low-quality perception by manufacturing products that meet the industry standards. At Suståne, a 15-year research initiative helped the company understand the benefits and limitations of organic fertilizers.
As fertilizer companies continue to learn more about organics, many are introducing new product lines.
“Organics have come a long way since people have been studying all of the options out there and testing them to see how they can be improved,” says Ann Molloy, Sales Director at Neptune’s Harvest. “For example, in the past there were one or two fish emulsions out there. Now there are several. The quality has also greatly improved.”
Despite the category’s increasing reliability and popularity, however, few growers are shifting to fully certified-organic facilities. Many companies have noticed that due to the challenges of maintaining such a controlled environment, the growers who sell fruits, vegetables, herbs, and cannabis are mainly the ones who focus on certified-organic products.
“When the organics trend first started taking hold, many growers started producing certified-organic flowers, but we’ve seen many shift back to conventional products,” says Dr. Cari Peters, Vice President of JR Peters. “For example, a grower might use organic products for potted herbs but not for poinsettias.”
As locally grown produce and cannabis continue to entice the end consumer, green industry professionals will have to meet the needs of the people with buying power.
Customers are asking for organic or almost organic (natural) fertilizers that are food-safe, says Fritz Dramm, Fertilizer Production and Compliance Manager at Dramm Corporation.
“New USDA food safety rules, geared to the growers of edible products, will require more accountability, traceability, and safety in growing edibles,” says Tim Tetzlaff, Dramm’s Inside Sales/Compliance Officer. “Reputable organic fertilizer manufacturers are offering greater analytical data so growers can better understand the attributes.”
But that doesn’t mean organics are going away any time soon. In some ways, organic fertilizers are as popular as ever.
“Organic is still kind of a loose term,” says Mark Russell, an authorized representative for Bio Huma Netics. “In terms of ornamental plant production, organic refers to natural, sustainable, environmentally friendly products, and that is a growing trend. Some people mistake or combine organic certification and organic. It all depends on what you’re growing.”
Let’s Get Technical
In addition to the call for sustainable products, fertilizer manufacturers say they’ve noticed an increasing demand for products that enhance the plant’s natural processes. These products are relatively new to the greenhouse market, but many have been supporting specialty agriculture for years.
“Greenhouse growers are just now being exposed to higher efficiency nutrient products and biostimulants,” says Russell, explaining that rising fertilizer costs and nutrient management programs that mandate zero runoff and waste have helped prompt this shift.
“In these formulations, the macro and micro nutrients are more biologically available, meaning the plants can assimilate the nutrients more efficiently. Growers can use the products at lower rates and get the same effects.”
Many fertilizer experts see this as a trend that is not only here to stay but will get more sophisticated over time.
“I think the fertilizers of the future will harness the plant’s natural biological processes to help plants do what they do best,” Holden says. “As the industry continues to increase its understanding of biochemistry and how it relates to plant growth, manufacturers will explore how their products can deliver plant nutrition in the most sustainable way.”
Better, Faster, Stronger
The focus on sustainability isn’t limited to fertilizer materials. Growers want to incorporate sustainable practices across the board.
“Growers are looking into efficient heating and paying attention to water usage and if they’re using the most efficient amount of nutrients,” says Dr. Cari Peters, Vice President of JR Peters. “They want to use enough fertilizer to grow the plant to the exact specifications without overdoing it. The new generation of fertilizers will help growers reduce waste.”
Products that multitask and limit waste tend to boost an operation’s bottom line, too.
“Any greenhouse grower that operates is a grower first and foremost, but they’re also savvy businesspeople,” says Michaella Holden, Marketing Specialist at Suståne Natural Fertilizer, noting that when it makes sense, growers are likely to use one product that can accomplish multiple goals.
As some industry professionals have mentioned, this reflects the trend toward growing smaller, tighter greenhouse plants. After all, compact plants mean reduced input costs.
“Everyone wants to grow plants that have all the desired characteristics without the negative impacts on the environment,” says Sanda Jovasevic, Sales and Marketing Manager at Master Plant-Prod. “In order to do that, you need to have fertilizers with higher micronutrient levels.”
In the future, growers will have access to an ever-expanding list of specialized products that optimize their overall fertilizer programs.”