When the management of Ball FloraPlant, the vegetative annual division of Ball Horticultural Co., started looking at venues to build a new offshore facility to replace production at its Linda Vista farm in Costa Rica, it was a decision that wasn’t taken lightly. Much consideration goes into selecting a new site for offshore production, from light levels and climate to workforce availability and cost, not to mention infrastructure and proximity to an airport for seamless shipping.
Labor in Costa Rica was becoming scarce, due to competition with high-tech jobs coming into the country. The executives at Ball spent a year researching where to build, looking everywhere from other countries in Central America to Africa. They settled on Nicaragua, mainly for its climate, with warmer days and nights than in Costa Rica, a shorter rainy season, higher light levels and a dry climate, says General Manager Al Davidson. An agricultural economy and plentiful supply of seasonal workforce was ideal, and Ball found an available site up the road from the airport in Managua.
“Transportation is key, and the routes to North America from Esteli are very good, versus looking at Ethiopia, for example, where getting product quickly to our customers in North America is much more difficult,” Davidson says. “In Nicaragua, the roads are excellent, and we’re right off the Pacific Coast Highway, so you pull out of the farm, turn left and an hour and 45 minutes later you turn left into the airport.”
Building Las Limas In Nicaragua
Ball FloraPlant opened Las Limas, its new farm in Esteli, Nicaragua, in 2012. Since then, it has moved two-thirds of its vegetative production from its Linda Vista farm in Costa Rica to the new farm. The goal was to move from Costa Rica to Nicaragua over a three-year period, Davidson says. Just now coming off year two, next year (2015) will be the third year in production and by 2016, the farm will be 100 percent moved. Roughly two thirds of spring plant production has been moved, heading into 2015 with the spring shipping season coming up.
Today, the farm has 250 employees year round and this year, Ball FloraPlant will hire 1,200 additional workers for peak production, hiring and training starting in November and working through March.
“It’s been really good,” Davidson says. “We’ve been happy working with any of the regulations and the government has been good to work with. We’ve had no issues, no surprises.”
All of Ball FloraPlant’s spring crops, except geraniums, are grown at Las Limas, and Selecta poinsettias are grown there in the off-season. Ball FloraPlant ships 95 percent of its crops to the U.S. and Canada, and supplies the rest to other Central American countries and customers, and very little to Europe, Davidson says.
“People have all kinds of different thoughts about Nicaragua, but it is by far the safest country in Central America,” he says. “It’s the biggest country with the smallest population, with lots of green space.”
Structures, Equipment And Sanitation At Las Limas
Built in stages, the farm is currently up to 10.5 hectares, or 26 acres of structures, built by the Spanish greenhouse manufacturer, Asthor Agricola. With the structures, equipment and sanitation measures put in place, Davidson says he thinks the farm is the most sophisticated offshore facility ever built.
“We had the opportunity to look at what we have done and our partners have done, and what other greenhouse manufacturers and vegetative production companies have done around the world, and we’ve taken their best practices and built this facility,” Davidson says.
A unique aspect of the facility, compared to others Ball has built, is that it is fully enclosed, he says.
“When the workers come in and enter the greenhouse facility for the day, everything is connected by walkways,” he says. “You never go outside the greenhouse, out into the elements. It’s all inside, so the whole structure, the whole facility is a clean zone.”
Anyone who enters the facility has been through a full sanitation station, changed shoes and is wearing robes and plastic gloves. When a worker leaves a clean zone and goes into a production greenhouse, he or she goes through another sanitation system, which ensures another, even higher level of cleanliness.
The greenhouses are large and tall, 150 meters long by 100 meters wide, and 5.5 meters to the gutters. The reason for this is that the taller structures have a higher air mass, which maintains cooler temperatures in the daytime and warmer temperatures at night, Davidson says.
Everything in the greenhouse is fully computerized, with automatic vents, shade curtains, circulating fans and blackout cloths in some areas.
All walkways are paved with concrete, and greenhouse floors are made from a pulverized concrete aggregate, covered with black cloth that’s tacked down. Everything is growing on a gutter system, which means the plots the plants grow in are sitting on top of gutters, so when any leached water and fertilizer goes through a pot, it goes into the gutter and then is circulated and reused again, Davidson says.
“There are a few benefits to that – one is the sustainability aspect of using less fertilizer and water, because you’re able to reuse it,” he says. “But one of the biggest benefits is your floors are always dry. You don’t have the wet floors all the time that you have with a concrete floor greenhouse.”
In many greenhouse facilities, plants are grown in plastic bags with volcanic rock, which are dumped each year for new product. Ball’s system provides a harder, reusable pot with volcanic rock, and the pot and rock are sterilized each year, instead of throwing them out, Davidson says.
“That helps us to be more sustainable and we’re able to use fewer chemicals,” he says. “The better you can protect your environment, the fewer controls you use.”
Cleanliness And Sanitation Is Priority One
Davidson says that with the fully enclosed and insect-screened structure, there is no pest pressure coming into the greenhouse, which reduces or eliminates the need for chemicals to control pests.
“We use a bare minimum, if we need to, only when we need to, which hopefully, if things are done right, isn’t very often,” he says.
Ideally, it’s the goal to use as few chemicals as possible, and that includes neonicotinoids, Davidson says.
“We are working with other industry groups to fully understand the effects and use of neonicotinoids on pollinators,” he says. “It’s a great tool to have. Are we 100 percent neonic-free? No. Would we like to be neonic-free? Absolutely, we would like to be completely chemical free, period. So we’re doing everything we can to reduce the use to bare minimum. We are neonic-free for the vast majority of our crops, but occasionally they are used.”
Working with the industry to understand what practices should and should not be used is the goal, however. It’s too important to the industry for offshore production facilities to be clean, which means that losing a valuable tool like neonics could be a big setback, Davidson says.
“We take this issue very seriously. We are the ones shipping to hundreds of customers a week, and the best way to reduce the use of neonics for our finished growers in North America is to make sure we’re shipping them clean inputs,” he says. “The key is to really understand it and then look at how anything we’re using today can be reduced and hopefully eliminated.”
Using predatory insects is not an option, because when shipping to the U.S., any insect presence – even if it’s predatory or beneficial – will cause shipments to be detained. The USDA has a zero-tolerance policy for insects of any kind.
Major efforts are made to keep the facility clean and sanitary, to avoid insect pressure and the use of chemicals, Davidson says.
“That’s a big part of our operations,” he says. “There are never trucks coming in and out – cuttings are transported around the facility using bicycles and insulated trailers. Nothing really moves in or out of the greenhouses. Once you’re in, you’re in and when you’re out, you’re out.”
An Even Higher Level Of Sanitation
Solanaceous crops – including petunias and calibrachoas – require an even more stringent sanitation level, and the block areas designated for those crops are high priority at Las Limas, Davidson says. While greenhouses are very tall and wide, the structures are divided into small blocks to grow solanaceous crops. The workers assigned to those areas only work there, and they go through another vigorous sanitation practice before entering the greenhouse. There is no movement between blocks in those greenhouses, and each area and worker has his or her own equipment, tools, knives, aprons, etc. – everything is confined to its specific block, Davidson says.
At the end of the season, there is a system for how plants are dried down and disposed of, and all plants exit the back of the greenhouses, so the material is headed the same direction. Then, greenhouses are sanitized, media is sterilized and crops are replanted from stock grown on site. All stock starts from an elite cutting, with the majority from tissue culture, Davidson says.
“It’s all started clean – the trick is staying clean,” he says. “We start with tissue culture and with the kinds of facility we have, which is completely screened and enclosed, it has the hightest sanitation procedures of anything I’ve ever seen. Then, it’s all about sticking to the rules, training employees on the sanitation rules and how important they are, and constant testing. We’re constantly scouting and running tests and checking material. We have an absolute zero tolerance policy for anything against our protocols.”
Shipping To The U.S. From Las Limas
Once cuttings are harvested in the greenhouses and put in bags, they are taken to the coolers, using bicycles with cool trailer on the back. A complete cold-storage system quick-cools cuttings at various temperatures, based on which crops they are. Then, they’re held in large coolers, taken down with all of the field heat removed, to a temperature that is best for shipping. Finally, cuttings are packed in ice and shipped out the door.
“We have a logistics team on site, and packing is something we put a lot of science behind, to pack them most sustainably and insulated enough to withstand the January and February conditions in North America,” Davidson says. “They have to be able to handle temperatures all along the 48 hours it takes to get from the farm to the customer’s door.”
Ball then trucks cuttings in refrigerated trucks from the farm to the airport, where they go straight into cold storage.
“Ninety percent of the freight moves on UPS, and the airplane pulls up about 200 yards from the back of the cooler, where everything is loaded,” Davidson says. “Cold chain is very important and well-done in Nicaragua.”
All of Ball FloraPlant’s cuttings are sold and distributed through Ball Seed Co. So far, the results from Las Limas have been great, Davidson says.
“This year our order fill was 99.76 percent at the time of shipment – that number means whatever you ordered, when you ordered it, we delivered it in full and on time, 99.76 percent of the time,” he says. “That’s really important because at the heart of everything Ball FloraPlant does is to make the growers successful. If we can do that, then we’re successful.”
Providing Safe, Secure Jobs In Nicaragua
The Las Limas facility has received an A rating from the MPS-ABC sustainability certification program, Davidson says. Because it’s so new and not at 100 percent capacity, Las Limas has not yet pursued the worker safety rating, but Davidson says that is on the horizon.
“It’s a great opportunity to go into these towns and provide good, safe, clean jobs, where they can make a very good wage, have access to doctors and nurses, vacation pay and transportation to and from work,” he says. “We really try to provide a fabulous working environment for our staff, going along with Ball’s self-assessed system.”
The workers at Las Limas have been meticulous about upholding the safety and sanitation procedures, as well, says Marketing-Communications Lead Tim Duffin.
“They really understand why the safety and cleanliness procedures are in place and why that’s important, and they self-police,” he says. “They make sure they take the right steps before they walk into a greenhouse – they totally understand it.”
Ultimately, the decision to move the vegetative production to Nicaragua has paid off so far, Davidson says. The farm will be complete in 2016, employing up to 1,600 people, but the four-year-long process has been a good move.
“It’s been one our smarter plans to do this in steps,” he says. “We’re able to build, hire workers, start crops and get people trained before we take on more. We are very proud of what we have built and the performance we’ve seen. Order fill and quality has been fantastic from Las Limas, so we’re very proud of it and love to show it off!”