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Profiting from Organic One Plant at a Time

June 28, 2011 |

At first, Mark Elzinga, President of Southwest Michigan-based Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses, doesn’t sound like your typical organic farmer. “Why did we go into organics? For the money,” he says right off the bat.

While his attitude toward organic has changed over the years, his conviction that organic farming needs to be profitable to truly become mainstream has not.

Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses is a sustainable farming operation with over 30 acres of greenhouse production. The company sells a variety of hanging baskets, accent plants and organic vegetable and herb plants to Midwestern garden centers and regional store chains.

One of Elzinga’s hopes is that by making the company’s organic vegetable and herb plant starts, such as tomatoes, lettuce and herbs commercially available it will make it easier for consumers to farm organically.

“We grow the starts for people to grow in their garden. What we found is there’s a big gap – people want to buy organic plants, but they don’t know where to get them,” says Elzinga. “We wanted to have more people be able to buy organic plants from us…We’re driving some of the high costs out of the production of organics and we feel that that’s going to make it more mainstream.”

organic lettuce produced sustainably in a greenhouse

Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses' Organic Lettuce Starts

Sustainable Strategies

How exactly is Elzinga driving out the high costs? Mainly by reducing the costs of inputs. He explains that mathematically, the profit from organic compared to conventional is pretty straightforward: the cost of inputs goes down and the profit margin goes up.

The trick is in keeping the soil healthy, something Elzinga says doesn’t require synthetic inputs. “We don’t fertilize, we enhance,” he explains. “There are books on how to grow organically, but you also have to go through the steps and see what happens… We had to learn organic. The organic thinking.” And that’s what Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses has done over the years – learn the best organic strategies by experimenting.

The following are practices that Elzinga has found to be successful:

  • Using “banker” plants – intentionally infecting a plant with aphids to create a large food supply for beneficial insects, so they grow and reproduce. He has also had success with breeder piles, with the insects – which come in a sachet or a little bit of sawdust and are released as a colony – staying in the area and lasting longer.
  • Brushing – running a piece of plastic over the plant so it thinks it has encountered harsh environmental conditions, such as wind. The plant in turn puts its energy into setting more roots and staying strong, which creates a shorter plant that flowers more quickly. Elzinga has used this technique on tomato plants and chrysanthemums.
  • Vermicomposting – Elzinga feeds his plants a tea, or what he refers to as “worm espresso,” made from a combination of compost and vermicompost. It works so well, he even favors it over other inputs for his conventional crops. “All the good things that we’ve learned on our organic production, if there’s a cost savings or benefit to the plant, we cross over and use it in conventional,” he explains. He terms this strategy of secretly using sustainable strategies on his conventional crops “organic anonymous.”

In the past, Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses attempted to keep its organic methods a secret, but “we found that to be wrong,” Elzinga says. “We would love to help anybody produce organically that we could…We think we’re far enough ahead of others trying to grow organically that we can compete. We want to get more organic farmers out there.”

Closing the Loop

In addition to sustainable growing practices, the company uses sustainable energy sources to power its greenhouses. A geothermal heating system, and wind and solar energy, provide about 10 percent of the greenhouses’ energy. But the sustainable practice Elzinga seems most excited about is the recycling system for his pots. Concerned by the amount of plastic used in farming, Elzinga decided to look into alternative materials for holding his plants.

“We’ve tested rice hull pots, chicken feather pots, we’ve tested bamboo,” he said. “But all of these alternative pots come offshore from China…how is that sustainable for us?”

Elzinga also didn’t like the idea of outsourcing his materials, preferring to keep his operations local. He explains, “I like creating American jobs, I like creating jobs in Michigan. That has to be part of being sustainable.”

So Elzinga teamed up with East Jordan Plastics to keep the materials – as well as the jobs creating them – in Michigan. It’s a pretty simple idea: When Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses deliver their product, they leave carts to collect the used plastic containers. These get shipped to South Haven, Mich., where they’re cleaned and made into resin. The resin is sent to East Jordan (still in Michigan), where it’s made into recycled pots, which Elzinga buys back. This keeps, in his estimation, about 15 large trailer loads of plastic a year out of the landfill, saves him money and keeps East Jordan Plastics supplied with a steady stream of resin. In other words, everybody wins.

Changing the Public’s Perception

With all that they’ve done to cut costs and implement sustainable systems, one of the main tasks left for Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses is informing consumers and farmers about organic. Elzinga says that the Midwest’s acceptance of organic has not quite caught up to places like California and the East Coast. He thinks that, aside from the cost factor, fear prevents many farmers from going organic.

“I think consumers are afraid of organic. They’re afraid they’re going to screw something up or it’s too strict…Your average person in the Midwest says, ‘this is an organic plant. How do I fertilize it? What do I do if I have a problem?’”

Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses recently initiated marketing campaigns to help increase understanding of what organic growing entails. The company also conducts farm tours to show visitors where their food comes from – something Elzinga says many Midwesterners don’t know.

In the end, Elzinga’s goal is to build a sustainable company that plays a role in growing and strengthening the organic marketplace. “I want to be able to pass it on and continue its growth and continue the enthusiasm,” he says.

It sounds like he’s well on his way.

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