A bus load of Pest Management Conference attendees took advantage of the opportunity to see a cross section of California growing operations during the half-day preconference tour on Wednesday, Feb. 19. Stops include plug grower Head Start Nursery in Gilroy and Cheng Nursery and Cal Color in Morgan Hill.
Founded 20 years ago as a Cal Poly State University student’s senior project, Headstart Nursery has grown into one of the nation’s largest vegetable transplant and ornamental plug and liner operations. President Steve Costa and his brother Randy built the business by responding to customers’ requests. “Everything we have ever added has been through a request,” Randy says. “That’s how we ended up with 5,000 line items.”
At least 75 percent of the operation is devoted to producing vegetable transplants and a big growth area and opportunity has been in organic plugs, which now represent 20 percent of Headstart’s business.
Headstart added an ornamental plug line in 1986, which began with cut flowers and then perennials, herbs, grasses and annuals. Liners from cuttings are a newer addition. There are some fundamental differences in the production and distribution of vegetable transplants versus ornamental plugs and liners. For vegetables, Headstart will ship thousands of transplants on a large trailer rack and leave it at the farm. In ornamentals, Headstart could be shipping four trays to 40 growers with different ship dates.
Headstart’s Gilroy locations will be the host site for Israeli breeder Danziger and Guatemalan cuttings producer Oro Farms during the California Pack Trials, March 28-April 5.
Tour participants said they felt they were transported back in time at Cheng’s Nursery, a traditional cut chrysanthemum family operation. Kenny Cheng is a one-man show propagating, planting and harvesting cut mums by hand with all the pleasures of pulling black cloth to force varieties into flower. In addition to standard and pompom mums, alternative varieties mixed in include statice, stock and sunflowers.
The greenhouse structures were very primitive and it was a very low-tech facility. He said it can get as hot as 135 degrees in the greenhouse. Cheng’s philosophy is to keep production simple and he does exactly as his parents have done for 30 years. Mums are sold cut fresh in buckets on site to local florists, retailers, wholesalers, really anyone who pops in and wants to buy. “We produce 600,000 stems per year, but we can’t even sell that much anymore,” he says.
CAL COLOR GROWERS, LLC
On the finished garden plant side, Cal Color Growers LLC offers the full spectrum of annual bedding plants, perennials, vegetables and herbs. The business was founded in 1992 by Dave and Michele Vincent. Prior to that Dave was vice president of operations for Color Spot, the largest bedding plant grower in the United States. Facilities encompass 40 acres of land with 530,000 square feet of greenhouses, 120,000 square feet of shade and 560,000 square feet of outdoor container production.
Vincent says the biggest challenge has been providing high quality and service at lower prices. In addition to independent garden centers, Cal Color has sold to Wal-Mart and the Yardbirds company that was owned by Home Depot. Lowe’s continues to be the primary big box client. Seventy percent of the business is with smaller chains, independents and Orchard Supply Hardware. “You need one foot in with some box store to get to this size,” he explains. “Otherwise, it’s hard to stay at this level and sustain it.”
Vincent says the market has shifted from seasonal bedding to baskets, quarts, gallons and premium annuals and perennials, as well as more ready to use products, like color bowls. He’s also witnessing a tremendous resurgence in vegetables and herbs. One line Cal Color offers is the Herb Herbert line of herbs from Australia. Retailers would like to see more point of purchase materials and posters for garden vegetables. “Too many consumers don’t know the first thing about starting a garden,” he says. “Somebody has to supply that. People want to do it but there’s nothing in the store telling them how.”
Cal Color also is a big proponent of recycling and collects its flats and pots from independent garden centers.