Growing Green: The State Of Sustainability

Growing Green: The State Of Sustainability

Sustainability–like it or not, it’s been a hot topic both in the green industry and in the public consciousness for months now. Growers and retailers have been working hard to keep up, but where do we stand as we head into the spring of 2008? We wanted to find out.

Greenhouse Grower and Today’s Garden Center hosted a panel discussion during February’s ANLA Management Clinic on The State of Sustainability. Panelists Evan Elenbaas, president of Walters Gardens, Zeeland, Mich.; John Bonner, general manager of Eagle Creek Wholesale, Mantua, Ohio; and Charlie Cole, general manager of Cole Gardens, Concord, N.H., shared some of their own experiences, tips on how other growers and retailers can take steps toward being more sustainable, and their opinions on how sustainability fits in a greenhouse or retail garden center business in 2008 and beyond. 

Q: How is your business approaching sustainability today?

Elenbaas: I don’t know if sustainability is a destination or if it’s more of a journey. You tweak this and that. The motivation for us to do some things that may be viewed as sustainable hasn’t been that we wanted to be certified or that we thought we might be asked to be certified. It’s a competitive market out there. It’s a global market. Costs are rising, whether it’s fuel costs or health care. You really have to turn over every stone to see where you can save money.

Do we want to do the right thing for the environment? Absolutely. But most of what we have done is due to pressure on profit margins. Will we ever be truly sustainable? No, probably not, but there are a lot of things we can do to move in that direction.

Bonner: I’m convinced the idea of sustainability is here to stay. So, we’re trying to position ourselves to be a company that is selling sustainable products, and at the end of the day, hopefully we can do some branding and some marketing to actually convey that to the consumer.

The one thing that is important to understand is whatever we do with regard to sustainability, that it has to make economic sense for us. Our new boiler system burns wood chips and wood byproducts mixed with manure. That’s definitely a sustainable practice. But the reason we did it was because we realized, “We can save money doing this.” Sustainability was kind of an afterthought, but it’s something we can tell the public down the road. But first and foremost, it’s got to make economic sense.

Cole: Can a garden center be sustainable? Absolutely. It’s an evolving process that you can always do better and better. But I think you do need to explain to your customers what you are doing.

I asked our customers, “What do you think about sustainability? Do you even know what sustainability is?” And not one person was familiar with the word. They had it confused with being organic. Being sustainable isn’t necessarily being an organic grower or organic retailer. It’s looking at your business and paying more attention to it, where you can cut costs and cut waste.

We have capillary mats on our benches. All the excess water gets sucked up from below like a normal ebb and flow system and there’s less water going into the ground. And we put new drainage into our store, so there’s not as much runoff going into the river below. We’re also trying to do a better job with shipping, making sure we fit as much as possible in the trucks. That’s not just being sustainable, that’s being a smart business owner.

Bonner: There’s a definition of sustainability I’ve seen a lot, and it’s something to the effect of “Using what you have today to meet your own needs without affecting the ability of future generations to do the same.” Try to hit a net zero or a break even with what you’re taking out of the environment and putting back in. Really, that’s how you have to think about it. But, again, it’s got to make economic sense.

Elenbaas: And I might add that in addition to making economic sense, it has to make sense from an environmental impact standpoint, and it has to have a positive social impact. So there are three major factors when you’re looking at something from a sustainable standpoint. 

Q: A lot of people feel very strongly about organic as an integral part of sustainability. Is that where you’re headed with your operations?

Cole: We try to look at sustainable options or organic options like organic fertilizers and chemicals for our retail customers. I got the idea from a West Coast garden center, but we use a sticker that says, “Earth Friendly Products By Cole Gardens.” It’s just a simple marketing message that we put on anything that’s natural. We try to make sure it’s obvious for everybody in the garden center.

Elenbaas: I don’t forsee us being an organic grower. I had someone call us a month or so ago and asked if we grew organically. I said, “Well, in an operation our size, we really can’t at this point. There are certain chemicals we have to use that we don’t really have an organic replacement for.”

We do have an alternative fuel boiler. We’re burning wood pellets to supplement our natural gas boiler. We are recycling about 100,000 pounds of cardboard a year, about 100,000 pounds of plastic pots and trays in our greenhouses. And we’re just switching over to an organic-based fertilizer.

Bonner: What we’re talking about here today, you can’t do it all. You have to say, “This is what I can do, this is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to focus on it.” We’re not prepared to make that step and we’re not going to grow organically. Sustainable is easier to do. For us it just doesn’t make sense right now. Down the road it might. 

Q: How are you trying to eliminate disposables and waste in your operations?

Elenbaas: We are doing what we can, for instance in our tissue culture lab. Some labs put their material in plastic trays and then throw the tray away when they’re done. We use a lot of glass petri dishes and even Mason jars. We wash, sterilize and reuse this material.

We repair and reuse our wooden crates and cribs that we bring in from the field. If one’s broken, we repair it. In the office, all of our paper gets recycled.

Bonner: It’s not always easy, but it’s a great way you can have an impact. We don’t use corrugated cardboard, for instance. Less than one percent of what we ship is in boxes. We drop ship everything. We don’t run our trucks on diesel fuel; we run on vegetable oil. It’s the same horsepower and the same mileage. Our agreement with our fuel wholesaler is it’s a dollar cheaper than diesel all the time. It costs you $3,000 or $4,000 to convert your truck. Do the math. If you’re putting 40,000 to 50,000 miles per year on some of your primary vehicles, it makes sense real quick. It has nothing to do with the environment, it just makes good business sense. But what’s good for the environment, in this case, is good for your business.

I can also see us in the next three to five years trying to use as little plastic as possible.

Cole: At retail we waste a lot. We buy different size bags, we use trunk liners. No one has a uniform tray that everybody uses so we have a million different trays and cardboard carryouts.

There’s one thing I wanted to try and I’m not sure how it would work. Ninety percent of our customer base comes to the garden center one or two times–three times a year if we’re lucky. But maybe you’ve seen Whole Foods, for example. They have a canvas bag you can bring back every time you come and you save 10 cents every purchase. I wanted to print on our cardboard trays, “Bring this back and save 10 cents.” That cardboard tray, non-printed, costs me 33 cents, so if I can save 20 cents on every tray that comes back, I save money and I’m also limiting the amount of trash or recycling that’s going out every day. 

Q: What advice do you have for smaller growers and retailers who can’t afford to consider biomass boilers or put $4,000 into their trucks to convert them to run on vegetable oil? How can they be more sustainable if they feel like they’re just trying to peddle as fast as they can to survive?

Cole: You don’t have to spend a lot of money to become sustainable. It’s just fine-tuning your business and finding where you can cut out costs.

For example, better watering practices is just an all-around good business practice to become sustainable. You aren’t going to grow a succulent next to a petunia, for example. That succulent doesn’t need as much water as the petunia. If you have non-ebb-and-flow benches, all that extra water is just draining to the floor. You’re wasting water and, in turn, could cause runoff. So you can save water by growing all of your petunias in a row and growing all of your succulents in a row. That’s one simple but good business practice to be sustainable, for example.

Elenbaas: I think that anyone could look at reducing costs, even if that’s maybe more efficient light fixtures. I know that we’re looking at ways we can trim our electric costs. About four years ago, we were considering adding onto our cold storage. Instead, we found a different way to pull orders and now we actually have our largest cooler shut down for a whole month, whereas before we would have had that cooler stocked full of plants. I think anyone in any kind of business can find ways to do things more efficiently, if you look long and hard.

Bonner: I have to say typically there’s going to need to be some capital investment to do anything, but you need to take what’s in front of you and think about it. Take what you have and do better with what you have. Any good business is going to do it that way. The ones that do it well continually reinvent themselves. 

Q: As you’ve looked for ways to become more sustainable operations, what stumbles have you had along the way?

Elenbaas: We’ve made our share of mistakes, but you just keep moving forward. For example, we invested in a burner to burn corn back when it was about half the price it is now. It burned poor grade corn really well, but once we got a load of regular corn in, it just had too many starches and the combustion wasn’t as complete as it should have been. We ended up with a mass that gummed the whole system up. So we had to try other things. We experimented with rice hulls and a mixture of coal and rice hulls and we finally arrived at wood pellets that we get from a local furniture manufacturer. Things didn’t work out quite as we’d planned, so we had to make a little adjustment mid-flight.

Bonner: We experimented with TDF, tire-derived fuel. You can take recycled tires and burn them. I spent $5,000 for a permit to burn it, but after one load, we knew it wasn’t for us. For BTU values and costs, it’s the best. But it doesn’t work in our boiler. Our hot water boiler burns so hot that the TDF creates a gummed up mess. We were making glass in our boiler.

We made a mistake. It’s $5,000 out the window, but what are you going to do? You’re shooting from the hip sometimes, but you just keep trying. 

Q: So what’s the future look like? Are we going to be talking about sustainability in 10 years?

Elenbaas: I would say in 10 years there will be some kind of a standard certification process. Our cost of fuels and our technology will probably be much different, and our customer base will probably be much different. Our businesses will be much different. We’ve gone through just an incredible amount of change just in the last five years at our company. But I would say there will probably be some kind of certification process. Will we all be growing organically? Probably not, but hopefully more sustainably.

Bonner: To really make a site sustainable, you take a grass field and you build something on it, but you don’t change what it gives to the environment. It’s a net zero operation. That’s where we’re going to be in 10 years. It’s where all things are going to be defined. That’s where the standards will come in.

Cole: On the retail side, there’s still some confusion now. But in 10 years I think it will be normal business practices. I think it’s already normal business practices in a lot of ways, and the definition of being sustainable just isn’t clear to a lot of people. Again, recycling is being sustainable. Five years from now there are going to be conferences and seminars on it. But it will be to further to educate you on how to better your business rather than how to be sustainable.

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