For Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, everything is coming up roses – and lilies and daffodils and African violets and, of course, orchids, the company’s flagship flower.
The company started in 1968 with horticulturist John Van Wingerden, one of 16 children who emigrated from the Netherlands. In their home country, the family farmed a diverse selection of vegetables using growing techniques they invented. John and his siblings carried on those traditions and techniques, eventually establishing greenhouses and nurseries across the U.S.
His company, Green Circle Growers, is one of the largest greenhouse operations in the Midwest, with 100 acres of covered growing space – that’s about 75 football fields if you’re keeping count. The company supplies home and garden centers and major grocery and retail chains, including Home Depot and Sam’s Club.
“The way plants are purchased today differs significantly from how they were purchased 40 years ago. My father-in-law started by selling to chains like Woolworth’s and many local independent garden centers, because garden centers were the way people used to purchase plants,” says Scott Giesbrecht, co-owner and vice president of sales. “With the advent of big box chains – up to 70 percent of lawn and garden supplies are now purchased at large chain retailers – that channel has shifted over, and we have shifted with it so our business includes guys like Home Depot and Sam’s, and also any number of regional and national supermarket chains throughout the United States and Canada.”
Blossoming Business Model
Another shift in the company’s business model was the addition of orchids to the floral roster. Orchid production takes up a fourth of the greenhouse space, and orchid sales account for half the company’s annual revenue.
“We travel to Europe a lot and we were seeing great amounts of orchids in Europe – in people’s homes, in stores and all over the place. We did some digging, and we found out that in the European Union, which is about 350 million people, there are about 180 million orchids grown, and for a similar population – closer to 400 million people in the United States – there were about 20 million orchids being grown. This disproportion was too significant to ignore,” Giesbrecht says.
He says one reason for the disparity is the American consumer’s intimidation of the plant’s care. This prompted Green Circle Growers’ to develop the Just Add Ice branding and marketing campaign, which features video instructions and tips. For example, adding three ice cubes per week to an orchid plant maintains its vitality. The campaign even allows plant owners to sign up and receive watering reminders by email.
Another challenge with orchid production was geography, Giesbrecht says.
“We also found out that [orchids] were being produced in areas of the United States that were nowhere near the major population centers, so distribution was a big challenge,” he says. “They were all being grown in south Florida when the majority of the population of the United States is found in the Midwest, the Northeast and the Mid Atlantic areas of the country.”
Distribution is one reason the company has been so successful. Ohio lies in the center of the country’s largest population centers.
“Population density drives sales of floral products. It’s an impulse-driven purchase, so footsteps are what sell our product,” he adds.
The state’s location and access to distribution routes have proven effective for growing the business. Cold winters have forced the company to look for sustainable energy sources, a beneficial move for both the business and environment. Six wood boilers that burn refuse wood chips from local tree-clearing companies heat the entire operation.
“Typically, what’s good for the environment is good for business,” Giesbrecht says. “We obviously wanted to be good stewards of the environment. But economically, we had to take our second biggest cost as a company and reduce it and make it more stable. Now we have a heating source that is extremely economical relative to the millions of dollars in natural gas that we used to purchase.”
Green Circle Growers minds its water usage, and takes conservation measures to reduce soil run-off into neighboring lakes and streams.
“When you have 100 acres of greenhouses, you have a big opportunity to collect water. For every inch of rain we get, we’re collecting 1.5 million gallons of water that is going to one of seven retention ponds we have around our facility,” Giesbrecht says. “We are 100 percent enclosed; we have no water run-off that’s going into streams, lakes or rivers around our facility, and we have huge filtration systems that filter water after use to make sure we’re keeping a standard of cleanliness.”
Conservation of community resources exemplifies the company’s commitments to the region. The largest employer in Lorain County, Green Circle Growers employs some 600 people – more than 900 during peak seasons – from a 45-mile radius.
It also partners with Ohio State University to research consumer plant care behavior and hosts a horticulture internship program, which gives half a dozen students from all over the world the chance to gain work experience outside their home country.