Fueling Expansion

Fueling Expansion

Generation X growers are ready
for tomorrow’s challenges.

Pictured from left are John Bonner, sister Jill Cain with husband Todd Cain. When we visited, they were growing Easter crops in new greenhouses.In less than 10 years, Eagle Creek Growers in Mantua, Ohio, has emerged as a model mid-sized operation with room to grow.

The modern growing operation was founded in 1998 by Jill (Bonner) Cain about an hour’s drive southeast of Cleveland. She was fresh out of college, implementing a business plan she drafted for a course at Ohio University. Up until recently, Eagle Creek’s primary customer was Eagle Creek Garden Center, an upscale destination garden center she opened in nearby Bainbridge four years later. In 2003, her brother, John Bonner, and husband, Todd Cain, took over the wholesale operation while Jill focused most of her time on retail.

Both John and Jill are third-generation entrepreneurs in our industry. Their grandfather, John Gander, founded horticultural distributor BFG Supply, and their father, Dick Bonner, founded Dillen Plastics, which is now part of Myers Industries. They grew up in Northeast Ohio’s floricultural epicenter surrounded by many of the best in the field, including Green Circle Growers and Petitti Garden Centers. The pair is young enough to try fresh and innovative approaches but also wise enough to tap the expertise that’s available to them.

In the beginning, their own garden center was the dominant customer, representing 70 percent of sales. Now it only accounts for 15 percent of what Eagle Creek grows. The rest goes to independent retailers and hardware and grocery chains in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. Sales have been brisk, growing at an average of 32 percent a year the past three years.

“Our customer base ranges from Super Value to high-end garden centers,” Bonner says. “We grow a lot of different stuff. We grow standard baskets, Proven Winners in 10-inch and combos. We’re also rooting more and developing our own 10-inch line. We also contract grow 25,000 roses for Jackson & Perkins.”

The new Web site–www.eaglecreekwholesale.com–allows customers to check availability, view pictures, order what they want and select delivery day.

Heating Up New Houses

Eagle Creek Growers just completed a 2-acre expansion, bringing greenhouse capacity to 5 acres with nearly another acre for outdoor production. While the new structures are from Prins, an acre and a half are from DeCloet. Infrastructure has been laid to double greenhouse facilities to 10 acres.

Expanding from three to five acres has made a big difference, Bonner says. “It has gotten easier as we’ve grown,” he says. “We’re starting to realize economies of scale and are able to hire more people and delegate. It’s also nice to do what the big places do with tractors to move product around.”

All production is on ebb-and-flood floors. Bells and whistles include double heat curtains, Echo and Boomerang basket systems, boom systems, Priva Integro environmental controls, Flier automated transplanting equipment and True Leaf Technology water filtration equipment. Water is stored on site in two 15,000-gallon tanks. One is fertilized and one is clear.

You can’t beat basket systems for quick return on investment, Bonner says. “It’s a big return in space and labor savings,” he says. “We’re hung and sold by May first and then we rehang the place. We’re growing more and more baskets.”

All heating systems use radiant heat technology–floor heat as well as top heat–generated by a new alternative fuel-fired biomass boiler Eagle Creek installed last fall. It burns waste wood chips, saw dust and cow manure to fire a 300 horsepower Hurst boiler.

The system is self loading, using a “walking floor system” vibrating conveyor and inclined auger and horizontal stoker as a feed system. The cow manure comes from the nearby Bonner family farm, where 900 head of Angus cattle are being raised. One source of wood waste is local Amish carpenters.

Eagle Creek has set up a spinoff company to deliver these raw materials to themselves along with two larger area growing operations using biomass boilers–Green Circle Growers and Willoway Nurseries. They compare notes on optimizing results. The key is striking the right balance of dry and moist biomass materials.

Dry is better than wet to get the fire started but wet burns longer. “As the boiler gets hotter, we can burn wetter stuff,” Bonner explains. “I’m always asking can we burn more cow manure, because it’s free. The keys are what are you burning, where can you get it and how long can you get it for? We’re also getting a permit to burn recycled tires, which produce 10 times the BTUs of wood.”

EPA also monitors Eagle Creek’s use of this boiler and conducts a stack test once a year.

The Hurst boiler is expected to save Eagle Creek as much as 70 percent on raw fuel costs depending on the market price of natural gas. Investment payback is between four and six years, depending on traditional fuel pricing.

“With our new boiler, heating the greenhouses is so much cheaper,” he says. “We usually have a bare house in the winter. We monitor what we put in the furnace everyday, and at the end of the week we calculate per ton what we pay and track average temperatures outside and in the greenhouse. It costs us between $90 and $100 per acre per day. Before we were spending $350 per acre a day.”

Progressive Promotion

With its innovations, Eagle Creek Growers is in a great position to promote itself as an eco-friendly company. “Our delivery trucks run on vegetable oil, we retain and recycle water. We continue to audit ourselves and be that type of company,” Bonner says. “We want to let the public know we have a responsible brand, especially younger people. We’re getting certified organic for our herbs and veggies. That takes a year. And we’re recycling pots and cardboard, too.”

He is especially excited about branding Eagle Creek plants in the Cleveland, Akron and Canton areas through a partnership with a regional grocery chain.

“We have a vendor-managed inventory program for grocery stores. We put up Poly-Tex displays with our banners in plants,” he says. “The banner says, ‘Delivered by the only oil you can eat!’ Next year, we will have pots and tags designed by John Henry. We will also be tying this all together with television ads. This is the beginning of our branding process.”

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