Dr. Royal Heins Selected For Top Achievement Award

Dr. Royal Heins Selected For Top Achievement Award

Always the teach, Heins enjoyed guiding young growers at Oro Farms

Royal Heins answers questions with questions. It’s his signature style of getting anyone he’s talking with — whether a student, a grower, the owner of a greenhouse operation, or the industry at large — to open his or her mind and think more broadly. It’s also the sign of a premier educator, consultant, guide, and mentor, who has spent not one, not two, but three careers over the span of the past 40 years changing the way crops are grown, and challenging the industry to think bigger.


The list of achievements on Heins’ long research and consulting resume is impressive, to say the least. But his contributions to the floriculture industry are just as impactful. That’s why Greenhouse Grower has chosen to honor Dr. Royal Heins as the recipient of the 2018 Medal of Excellence for Industry Achievement. Traditionally, the Industry Achievement award has recognized those in the industry who have dedicated their careers to advancing varieties. But starting in 2018, we wanted to open up the scope of the award beyond the breeding realm, to honor individuals and companies that have truly advanced and impacted the entire industry throughout the course of their careers.

Considering Heins’ tenure in the industry over the past four decades since he started his career as a horticulture professor and researcher at Michigan State University (MSU) in 1978, and his ongoing contact with and advisory role for growers throughout the industry, he was a priority to honor in this way. We can’t think of another more deserving honoree for 2018, marking his illustrious 40-year anniversary in horticulture.

Read on to learn about Heins’ contributions, punctuated with some of the “Royalisms” for which he’s become known among his students and grower clients. See “Industry Leaders Weigh in on the Royal Heins’ Effect” to hear directly from those who have been impacted most by Heins’ influence.

“Plants Don’t Lie”

2018-Medal-of-Excellence-Sponsors-updatedHeins has devoted his career to unlocking the mysteries of plant physiology, and applying those findings to benefit growers and the industry at large commercially. The work Heins and his colleagues and graduate students did at MSU was truly applied research that growers would derive a direct benefit from in a relatively short period of time. His findings have helped growers reduce costs, while increasing quality and consistency.

Heins started his education at Colorado State University under the advisement of his mentors, Dr. Bob Holley and Dr. Joe Hanan. In his graduate studies program at University of Minnesota, Heins says Harold Wilkins was a “phenonomenal academic advisor” and mentor. All of these leaders made a lasting impression on Heins’ career, he says.

When he took an assistant professor position at MSU in 1978, Heins replaced Dr. Gus deHertogh, known for his research findings that amplified bulb crops. Heins was looking for his own area of expertise, so he set forth to ask the industry what was needed. He was well-known for visiting growers, who would always ask him to look at their crops. Noticing difficulties with crop timing and height control, which made crops unsaleable at times, Heins and his graduate students began working on real-world solutions that growers could apply for better crop management and profitability.

Some of these findings include:
DIF – Describing the relationship between day temperature, night temperature, and average daily temperature on plant morphogenesis and plant development rate. “The relationship between day and night temperatures (DIF), combined with an understanding of average daily temperature, has led to growers better using temperature management for height control and crop timing,” Heins says.
Graphical Tracking. “Management of plant height historically was done by ‘seat of the pants’ decision-making,” Heins says. “Graphical tracking is a decision support system that was developed initially on chrysanthemum, poinsettia, and Easter lily, and has resulted in a method to manage plant height based on expected versus actual plant height. As more than one grower shared after the introduction of graphical tracking, ‘I can now sleep at night.’”
Flowering Requirements of Perennials. “Understanding the flowering requirements of many herbaceous perennials at one time was very limited,” Heins says. “Research over the years on herbaceous perennials resulted in an understanding of flowering requirements, allowing for control and management of hundreds of herbaceous perennial species and cultivars.”

“The Short Answer Is…, But the Long Answer Is…”

Heins’ many students are his legacy to the industry. From left to right, John Erwin, Erik Runkle, Royal Heins, (colleague) Bruce Bugbee, Jim Faust, and Paul Fisher.

In addition to his research, Heins’ greatest legacy has been the generation of scientists leading floriculture today, many of whom earned their doctorates at MSU. It’s certainly the one accomplishment of which he is most proud, as the list of students under his guidance reads like a who’s who of current floriculture academia. Meriam Karlsson, John Erwin, Robert Berghage, Jim Faust, Paul Fisher, Bin Lin, and Erik Runkle are a few notables, in addition to the countless undergraduate and graduate students who completed their studies elsewhere. Many have made significant contributions to the industry.

“My career after retiring has been enriched by the success of former graduate students,” he says. “My students are like my children, and I’m proud of what they’ve all achieved.”

Heins says although the floriculture industry has never been a particular favorite of USDA or received as much recent assistance as other areas of agriculture, one model of research that’s continued to be successful is the Floriculture Research Alliance, led by some of his former students.

“That group of scientists is doing an excellent job of creating new knowledge, and because of this, they have a cadre of growers who are willing to provide support, because they get more value than they put in,” Heins says. “That model is working for that group, and I think it will continue to work.”

“Correlation Does Not Necessarily Mean Causation”

Following his 25-year tenure at MSU, at age 50, Heins entered private industry as a part owner of Oro Farms, a producer of vegetative cuttings that was eventually purchased by Fides, which ultimately became part of Dümmen Orange. Heins says the plan was always to retire early from academia.

“I never wanted young graduate students to call me ‘dead wood’ for not performing at the highest level,” he says. “Moving into the private sector was one way to not become dead wood as happens to some in the academic world. In the private sector, one is not protected by tenure, and one either performs — or not.”

From 2004 to 2014, Heins worked to improve the uniformity of vegetative cuttings, to provide growers with healthy young plants that would yield uniform, clean crops.

“At one time, New Guinea Impatiens cuttings delivered from stock suppliers were variable in reproductive development resulting in variable crop timing after rooting,” Heins says. “Reliable and uniform flowering of New Guinea Impatiens came from delivery of vegetative cuttings by Oro Farms each week, every week, which soon was followed by other stock producers. Management of vegetative stock using growth regulators has led to more reliable and uniform production of vegetative cuttings over a wide range of species.”

Always the educator, Heins says helping young growers at Oro Farms develop into world-class stock growers was the most rewarding part of his time there.

Heins’ fmaily takes advantage of the ski slopes near their Colorado homestead. From left to right, Christina and Kenny Goodman, Dani and Richard Heins, and Charlene and Royal Heins.

“In God I Trust; All Others Bring Data.”

Over the years, Heins has gained the trust of growers throughout the industry, based on his knowledge, integrity, and penchant for data, and guiding others to think outside the box. With these qualities and his likeable character and relatable advice, plus a 350,000-photo database that allows him to compare current issues with things he’s seen before, he’s built a consulting business to guide growers through production challenges. He remains one of the most in-demand consultants advising growers today, and most of his current clients are on Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Growers list.

“During consulting visits, the goal has always been to explain the basis for an answer to a question, rather than just answering the question,” Heins says. “The goal has always been to educate the growing team for the future, rather than needing to answer the same question again.”

Retaining corporate knowledge is a challenge Heins says he’s concerned about for floriculture’s future, and greenhouse operations need to consider how they’ll keep growers engaged and employed.

“Many companies rely on a small group of excellent growers,” Heins says. “Loss of one or more results in a significant loss in corporate knowledge. The key is to be certain these employees feel valued on a personal and financial level. A big challenge most floriculture owners face is the poaching of their grower talent by the cannabis industry that is willing to compensate significantly more than the typical grower compensation. Floriculture growers will continue to be the pool cannabis operations look to for employees.”

“In the Perfect World…”

Heins’ consulting takes him around the country to grower operations nearly every week. But when he’s not traveling, he can be found on the ski slopes or hiking trails near his home in Winter Park, CO, where he lives with his wife of 44 years, Charlene. A retired CPA who ran her own practice, Charlene has supported Heins throughout his career and also helped nurture his graduate students, along with their own children, Christina and Richard. To celebrate his birthday this month, Heins is planning a 140-mile hike in England with Charlene, and Christina and her husband. Heins has been planning it for the past year because making memories is a priority, he says, and family always comes first.