How The Sustainability Movement Impacts Growing Media

If the hoopla surrounding the neonicotinoid discussion has taught the industry’s growers anything, it’s that consumers can leverage their buying power to influence even the largest of big box retailers. For today’s sustainably minded customers, however, the conversation about environmentally friendly products extends far beyond pesticide use.

“They are looking to feel good about their purchase,” says Jennifer Neujahr, Business Manager of Horticulture at Profile Products, the company behind HydraFiber. She adds that increasing evidence of climate change and widespread water shortages have resulted in heightened environmental awareness.

“The need to produce plants that can withstand the rigors of the retail environment with minimal maintenance isn’t going away,” she says. “The growing media giving those plants life and vitality will always be a foundational element and will be crucial to growers’ business success.”

From peat moss and perlite to coco coir and wood substrates, growers have more additives and options than ever before, but sustainable media also needs to work harder. Customers want beautiful, budget-friendly plants that won’t negatively impact scarce natural resources. Here’s how growers can work to ensure their ornamental plants stay relevant with their environmentally focused customers.

Focus On Materials And Mixes

With consumer interest in organic and natural products on the rise, many growing media companies have seen a shift in what growers want from their media and their suppliers.

“I believe that the majority of growers are concerned with utilizing products that are sustainable; as our resources become scarcer, we all have become more aware of our impact on these resources,” says John Wynne, Horticultural Business Development Manager for Evonik Corp, the company behind Stockosorb, a media additive that helps plants hold onto water after they leave the greenhouse. “Growers are looking to their suppliers and manufacturers and asking whether the supplier or the manufacturer is embracing sustainability.”

Although Wynne says he’s not seen major changes in what growers are using, there have been subtle shifts. Media experts say sphagnum peat moss has and likely will continue to be an important part of media mixes.

Organizations like the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) and others are looking for ways to improve peatland management, but shortages in recent years have prompted some growers to look for options that aren’t as beholden to Mother Nature during harvest and are renewable at a faster rate. Sustainable additives like coco coir and bark are gaining traction.

“We hear about sustainability everywhere and it resonates with everyone; growers are no exception,” says Jean-Pierre Fortin, Technical Services Director at Scotts Canada, a company that uses compost in many of its grower-grade products and helped start the trend of replacing some peat with coir in media mixes. He adds that some materials are more popular than others.

“Ingredients such as perlite, vermiculite, and rockwool are questioned as they consume high energy during their production process,” he says. “Ingredients like coir, wood fiber, and recycled paper fiber are perceived as being more sustainable because they originate from the reuse of byproducts or from a renewable resource.”

In addition to sustainable materials, growers are looking for additives that help improve their environmental footprint by reducing their water and pesticide usage and minimizing waste. Growing media companies are addressing these needs by developing mixes that help growers do more with less. This has led many operations to experiment with a variety of different raw materials and substrates, says Arthij van der Veer, General International Coordinator Americas of MPS, a foundation that seeks to improve sustainability and quality within the horticultural industry.

“Growers are looking for alternatives that will give them a healthy plant with a better rooting system that can hold on to fertilizer and require fewer crop inputs,” van der Veer says, adding that he’s noticed an increase in replacement products like coco peat, wood fiber, bark, compost, and compost tea. “However, it takes time to implement anything new. Growers generally run some testing and do a small trial. If it’s working, they will expand the trial to the whole greenhouse and move forward from there.”

Share Sustainable Stories

No matter their preferred mix, the best thing growers can do to appease their retail customers and environmentally conscious consumers is to be transparent about what they’re doing in the greenhouse.

“The next generation wants to know more about where the plant was grown, what was used on it,” says van der Veer. “They want to know the story behind it, and they’re willing to pay more if they do. Customers want transparency. They also want proof that what the grower is telling them is true.”

This, he says, is where third-party certifications can make all the difference. Much like Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) certifications for organic producers, RHP’s Quality Mark verifies quality assurance on the growing media producers receive. The MPS-ABC certification gives growers an instrument to show what sustainable practices they are implementing at their operations and acts as a benchmark in demonstrating the extent of the operation’s environmental friendliness. Both certificates result in more transparency throughout the supply chain, from material extraction and processing to the end product.

“From the consumers’ perspective, there is a need to provide third-party independent certification of the industries practices,” says Paul Short, President of CSPMA. “I believe environmental accountability in the production of the plant has been a traditional expectation by consumers. However, interest in the social and economic accountability of the producer is gaining importance in how consumers evaluate plant production.”

While having a third party verify an operation’s earth-friendly practices and products can go a long way in earning good will among customers, growers need to do more than simply display a certificate on the wall. Short says the industry needs to get the word out about sustainability, and that requires a team effort.

“The consumer will also need to be better informed,” he says. “This will be a shared responsibility of the media producer, as well as the greenhouse grower industry. Informed choice requires the consumer to be provided with credible, science-based facts regarding the soil amendments and growing media.”

It comes down to transparency and telling the right story. By helping consumers make informed decisions about sustainable products, growers position themselves to remain relevant with their retail customers. That’s a situation everyone can feel good about.

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