Only a handful of Midwestern growers have committed large portions of their greenhouses to the production of organics. Even fewer growers have built USDA-certified organic facilities from the ground up.
Count Mark Elzinga, president of Elzinga & Hoeksema, among the few. He opened a four-acre organic greenhouse at a special event March 12 in Portage, Mich., near Kalamazoo that was proclaimed a milestone for our industry. The organic greenhouse will supply Meijer retail stores with a variety of branded organic vegetable and herb potted plants.
Among Elzinga’s branded products are Fresh Flavor vegetable plants, Fresh Flavor herb plants, Fresh Flavor Gallon vegetable plants, Classic Flavor heirloom plants, Ethnic Flavor vegetable plants, Ethnic Flavor herb plants, Urban Gardener patio pots, Micro greens and Herbal Home plants. More than 1.3 million organic plants will be produced in 2008.
“We’re really proud to be able to offer organic vegetables at Meijer,” Elzinga says, adding that having a 40-plus year relationship with Meijer has made this type of an investment and commitment possible.
Elzinga & Hoeksema’s organic greenhouse is unique, too, in that it feeds its plants with a living soil that includes vermicompost–or “worm poop”–among its ingredients. Vermicompost is brewed in two 500-gallon compost tea systems and applied to plants through irrigation booms.
The vermicompost is also a major reason why Elzinga & Hoeksema is so high on organics.
“Flowers seem to be bigger and brighter with organic,” says Roger Rosenthal, head grower at Elzinga & Hoeksema. “More organic practices can transfer over to non-organic and be better for employees, flowers and the environment.”
Other beneficial features of the organic greenhouse are its energy-efficient equipment and renewable energy sources. The organic greenhouse has a closed-loop ground heat exchanger, a closed-loop pressurized hot water heating system, high-efficiency condensing boilers, in-floor heat, wind turbines and solar panels.
Two hundred solar panels sit outside the organic greenhouse and represent Elzinga & Hoeksema’s solar-geothermal energy system, which should provide 80 percent of the greenhouse’s heat.
As a result, Elzinga & Hoeksema relies less on natural gas and the organic greenhouse’s costs are down.
“Natural gas was $2.97 a unit when this project started,” says Elzinga, who began construction on the organic facility in June 2007. “It’s now $10 a unit. The organic facility saves 30 percent compared to a conventional greenhouse financially.”
The organic greenhouse also has two loading areas for transport of organic products, a packaging workstation, a sowing facility, 500 high-pressure sodium grow lights and a moveable benching system.
Sustainability is high on Elzinga & Hoeksema’s list of things to do, too. Motion sensors for high-efficiency compact fluorescent lights, programmable thermostats and even paper recycling devices have all been installed.
“Our biggest non-organic product line is actually grown in a 100 percent recycled container,” Elzinga says. “We plan to expand our efforts by continuing to experiment with different eco-friendly plant container materials. We are committed to improving our efforts every year.”
And with thoughts like those in mind, Meijer is excited about carrying Elzinga & Hoeksema’s organic crops in more than 180 of its retail stores throughout five Midwestern states.
“Everything is about healthy choices,” says Hank Meijer, co-chairman and CEO of Meijer.
Anna Ball, president of Ball Horticulture, agrees. She believes partnerships like the one between Elzinga & Hoeksema and Meijer is how organics and sustainable practices can rapidly spread.
“You can’t do things alone,” Ball says. “Collaboration is the only way you’re going to get things done. This is a great example of collaboration.”
While Elzinga says he expects a modest return on investment in the first few years, he believes Elzinga & Hoeksema will benefit from a “responsible ROI” immediately.
“Just the reduction of our carbon footprint alone to me justifies our efforts, not to mention the subsequent beneficial effects upon the earth,” Elzinga says. “Our responsibility–and the responsibility of all companies–doesn’t just lie in identifying the damage, but also in repairing and rectifying what damage we have already done.”