Located in the fertile Pajaro Valley, Watsonville is home to Pacific Plug & Liner’s (PP&L) 250,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art production facility. Technology and equipment such as rolling Dutch tables, brand new Cherry Creek irrigation booms, Argus environmental controls, a high-pressure fog system, hydronic bottom heating, and a software program that tracks inventory and crop schedules in real time, helps Pacific Plug & Liner consistently deliver high-quality materials to its customers. And if that isn’t enough, year-round sunny weather allows the plants to stay toned and loaded with energy.
PP&L’s website says that while the company’s horticultural heritage dates back to over a century, its passion remains unabated, fueling it to explore ground-breaking solutions for the grower and brokers it does business with. In short, every perennial program at PP&L starts with a simple question — “what does the grower need?”
PP&L is a perennial young plant business that specializes in providing a full line of perennials along with several specialty products. It also supplies some finished products to the West Coast. The California site was chosen because of its warmth and lighting, qualities that produce high-energy plugs and liners.
“Our original mission was to produce quality young plants for the PNW market, but that quickly expanded to other markets including all of the U.S. and Canada,” says PP&L Marketing Director April Herring. “Initially, we offered a lot more in the way of product with a full annual line, but our focus has narrowed more into the perennials arena and includes some specialty products such as Cordyline.”
It Takes a Team Effort to Make Things Work
During the heavy season, PP&L’s payroll expands to 100 or more employees that include sales, marketing, and the growing team, with only a slight drop-off, down to about 80 employees, in the off-season.
“We have a multicultural team representing a number of different backgrounds and a lot of experience, both inside and outside the industry,” Carrera says, running down the employee roster and noting employees who come from a manufacturing background as well as shipping and logistics, research and development, and former vegetable growers. “That diversity is a benefit as it brings new perspectives, protocols, and new ways of doing business.”
And while regional vegetable and strawberry operations tend to scoop up some desired new talent, PP&L still gets the folks it wants. PP&L is just starting to implement the H-2A program with seasonal employees, like truck drivers, while permanent, fulltime, and other seasonal employees tend to be from the area. “We’ve taken an in-depth look at our recruitment and retention policies and have made changes that include better benefits and higher-than-minimum wages,” Carrera says. “We’re now offering paid time off to seasonal hires, along with insurance coverage and incentive gift cards. Every month our human resources department sponsors an employee meal and names an Employee of the Month who receives a cash bonus as well as gift cards.”
One sign the program changes are working is less loss of labor to outside influences. This year when the strawberry season started, several of the part-time and seasonal employees expressed a desire to stay where they were rather than move on to pick strawberries.
“The changes we’ve made are making a difference,” Carrera says. “The improvements we’ve implemented have attracted better employees and given them an identity, made them feel more engaged and part of the company.”
No Business Remains Successful if it Stays Stagnant
Forward motion helps PP&L to set and reach new goals, so it is always growing with new projects and adjusting its programs to service a changing market. As Carrera puts it, staying still handicaps your operation and your employees.
Recently implemented is a new website that has been in the making for a while. And while the new site already includes a lot of great content and tools, PP&L plans to continue to change and mold it even more in the future.
“As the company grows and specializes in perennials, it’s our mission to provide content for growers. So we’re working on a grower toolbox, a one-stop shop where growers can look up information that includes a full listing of all products with lead times and grow times for each one telling exactly when a product should be ordered,” Herring says.
By way of facility improvements, PP&L has focused on two areas, tools and equipment, while also keeping in mind the comfort of its employees. A new sowing machine (Urbinati/AgriNomix) that plants seeds in a more reliable fashion is on order, and 22 new Cherry Creek booms have been installed. Future improvements include the installation of a new fertilizer injector, an LED lighting project, and a new employee lunchroom and work area.
Based on an increasing demand for quality seed varieties in the perennials area, Sales Director Steve Lendvay says he thinks PP&L can capture more market share, and the new sowing machine will help with that process.
Technological advancements in the greenhouse have been made with the addition of ISO machines and a Growcoon propagation system, complete with a dispenser, used for the liners. Soon, PP&L employees will be able to walk aisles and scan items with iPads, thanks to a mobile version of the desktop Picas software. This will be a huge labor saver since employees can do all the work on the fly versus going back and forth from the greenhouse to the office to make system changes.Not to be forgotten is a new growing media implemented earlier this year that is providing a cleaner product in general. An added advantage is free soil test reports with EC and pH levels provided by the growing media supplier.
The Past Is Prologue to the Future
While keeping an eye on its history, PP&L continually looks to today and beyond. Exclusive specialty items such as the Carex Falls series and trademarked products like Summerina Echibeckia and Frostkiss Hellebore, but the company has even more to offer with a full assortment of perennials that covers 1,400 products in various sizes over a 72-week availability timeline.
First-year flowering is key with perennials, and Pacific Plug & Liner is seeing a bigger demand for Hellebores, especially along the East Coast, because of its later bloom times, and Echibeckia, a cross of Echinacea and Rudbeckia. The demand for lavender is also exploding as customers find new ways to use perennials.
“Perennials are taking over a bigger share of the market than annuals because people are using them in planters and baskets, and the line between perennial and annual continues to blur for the end consumer,” Lendvay says.
How to Continue a Successful Operation
Under the lessons learned category, April Herring, Marketing Director of Pacific Plug & Liner (PP&L) admits to being in the industry for a long time and watching a lot of changes that have helped the company grow successfully, in more ways than one.
“We’ve learned to stay consistent for the best results,” she says. “Just because we’ve always done something the same way doesn’t mean we won’t ever change, but any changes will be the result of group, not individual, decisions.”
From a sales standpoint, the days of growing a bunch of plants and dumping the extras are gone, unless you want to do everything on speculation, which
“We need orders before we start purchasing and producing,” PP&L’s Sales Manager Steve Lendvay says. We keep tight grow times, and we sell every plant we grow. We’re continually reviewing the system and making sure it matches up with today’s reality, not something we did 20 years ago.”
Not every attempt at PP&L has resulted in triumph. There have been some flops attributed to growing too big, too fast. But every experience has taught the company a valuable lesson about how to maintain its success.
“When you sell everything to brokers and your sales continue to increase, you better make sure your system is clean, or you will have trouble,” Lendvay says. “You’ve got to have someone constantly combing data between supplier and customer. You must manage it and keep the protocols tight. It all goes back to consistency,” Herring says.