When two friends get together, there’s no telling what will sprout and grow. From the very beginning, Elzinga and Hoeksema (E&H) Greenhouses has been rooted in partnerships. Jake Elzinga, Jr., and Ed Hoeksema built a greenhouse together to grow annuals in Portage, Mich., in 1962 during the dawn of the bedding plant boom in Kalamazoo. Jake’s father, Jake, Sr., was a celery farmer.
Around this same time, an innovative retailer named Meijer opened its first “Thrifty Acres” food and general merchandise store in Grand Rapids that would become a model for supercenters. Soon E&H was selling bedding plants and garden vegetables to seven Meijer stores. Flash forward 46 years and you see a bright future with E&H’s branded Fresh Flavor and Ethnic Flavor organic vegetables and herbs at more than 180 Meijer stores and E&H with more than 30 acres of production at five locations.
Today, E&H ranks at No. 45 on our Top 100 Growers
and is run by Jake’s eldest son Mark Elzinga and head grower Roger Rosenthal. Mark bought the business from his father and Hoeksema 10 years ago and learned to value long-term partnerships from their example. “They were best friends, partners for more than 40 years, which is unique,” Mark says. “I grew up in that environment. It was almost like having two dads. Our families celebrated Christmases together”
Mark grew up working for his father in the greenhouse and purchased the Centre Street Market, a seasonal outdoor produce market, from his father at age 18. He credits this farmer’s market, which he still owns and operates, with teaching him the business side of the industry. “It’s our college, where we learn about managing time, people and inventory,” he says. “It’s hands on. If you lose the night’s deposit, you lose it only once. Our greenhouse staff works at the farm market to gain retail experience. Farmers markets are coming back, but we’ve been doing this for years.”
A young Roger Rosenthal, who is now E&H’s head grower, started out 25 years ago as a pair of hands at the same farmers market when he needed a job in the spring. “The way I started growing later was Mark’s dad told me to pick up a hose and start watering,” he says. Roger’s is the classic story of starting at the bottom and working your way up.
Leading The New Millennium
The year 2000 marked a new era for E&H under Mark’s leadership, building a state-of-the-art “new millennium” greenhouse. This is the same site where the new four-acre organic facility was unveiled during an open house in March. Bells and whistles include rolling benches, booms, high-pressure sodium lights and the largest solar-thermal heating system in the Midwest. Water is heated by 200 4- by 10-foot solar panels, pumped through 23 miles of polypropylene tubing sunk in 300 wells, 300 feet deep, and then stored in a 65,000-gallon insulated water tank at 120°F. While Michigan’s year-round ground temperature is 53°F, the solar panels have already raised it to 63°F.
“That’s 10 degrees less to heat,” Mark says. “Engineers say each degree costs $50,000 in natural gas, which would mean a savings of $500,000. Next year, I’ll be able to tell you what the savings were.”
Mark built the system based on a projected nine-year return on investment and today’s energy costs. “If the costs of gas and electric go up, it will be shorter,” he says. “The situation wasn’t getting any better with other choices and I couldn’t stand to not do anything. Maybe this will inspire other growers and farmers.”
The geothermal/solar energy is expected to provide for 80 percent of the greenhouse’s heating needs.
The company also is making strides in recycling and purchased a compactor that creates 1,000-pound bales of 2-mil poly greenhouse plastic or cardboard. “It’s not that expensive of a system,” he says. “The paper goes to a paper mill and the plastic goes to a recycler. They pick it up. Eventually, all the plastic will go to East Jordan.” At the consumer level, E&H is working with fellow growers at Meijer stores to recover pots and trays and transport them back to East Jordan Plastics.
These investments and commitments support sustainability as a cornerstone of E&H’s operations and philosophy. “We truly believe we will see a ‘responsible ROI (return on investment)’ immediately,” Mark says. “Just the reduction in carbon footprint alone justifies our efforts, not to mention the subsequent beneficial effects upon the earth. Our responsibility, and the responsibility of all companies, doesn’t just lie in identifying the damage, but also in repairing and rectifying damage we have already done.”
Learning As They Grow
As the head grower, Roger has taken it upon himself to learn how to grow organically. In addition to not being able to use conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, the most challenging part is building a “living soil.” To do this, E&H uses vermicompost (worm poop), which provides beneficial fungi bacteria. This is brewed in two 500-gallon compost tea brewers, and the brew is applied to crops through irrigation booms. Roger also is using beneficial insects to fight bad bugs and bees for pollination.
Since E&H is breaking new ground in our industry, the company needs to learn how to grow organically from resources outside our industry. It also has had to be wary of various suppliers’ claims of products being organic. “There are still things that are not acceptable that we couldn’t even bring in here,” Mark says. “There’s a lot of snake oil, where the company won’t give you the ingredients or test results. Our certifier had to tell someone their product was not organic. There are no laws related to soil, but our soil is regulated and monitored by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).”
This first season, E&H produced more than 1.3 million organic vegetable and herb plants, primarily for the spring season. With the advantage of low-cost heat, Mark and Roger are looking at more ways to use the organic greenhouses year-round. This fall, they’ve been growing 6- and 8-inch herb crops and fresh cut herbs to local health food stores. Mark believes the opportunities for vegetables and herbs are unlimited because there are so many different types.
Another area they are exploring is growing vegetable transplants for farmers. They have one grower customer in West Virginia who needs plugs year round and will be exhibiting at the Michigan Farm Show in December to meet with more vegetable growers.They also tried growing the finished fruit–tomatoes and peppers–in patio pots that normally sell for $16 at retail to see if the plants would generate at least $16 worth of fruit.
Loyalty Breeds Loyalty
When we visited during E&H’s open house in March, we felt the warmth from so many who were there for the big event–family, friends, suppliers, fellow growers and the top representatives of Meijer stores. We really felt like we were witnessing something special. How did E&H garner all this support?
“We’re really faithful to our partners,” Mark says. “We’re not looking to save a nickel on a cutting but have a relationship that’s worth more. Companies like East Jordan, Ball, MasterTag, BFG–anything we need, they’ll do for us. I like to see our partners be successful and us be successful with them.”
The close relationships Mark has leads to honest dialogues, says Anna Ball, CEO of Ball Horticultural Co. “He doesn’t hesitate to criticize us, telling us where we are weak and what we should do to improve,” she says. “We love Mark for that because he has the guts to speak to us about our failings and is always right. We are a better company because of Mark.”
Likewise, E&H’s long-term relationship with Meijer sets the company apart from other growers. “The partnership has lasted for decades because they work so closely together,” Ball says. “You can’t just have an ‘I sell, you buy’ relationship anymore with customers, and Mark figured that out long ago.”
Elzinga also has been active helping fellow growers by working closely with them on the Michigan Floriculture Growers Association board, which directs legislative priorities at the statehouse and research priorities at Michigan State University (MSU).
“Elzinga’s push into sustainability, reduction of chemical inputs, next-generation greenhouses and innovative marketing programs are helping move the industry as a whole forward,” says Erik Runkle, associate professor & floriculture Extension specialist, MSU. “I applaud them for moving into uncharted waters, because we will all learn from their successes, and unfortunately, also from their inevitable challenges.”