SOMERS — While many Connecticut gardeners could still face a late frost and are putting off planting, at Grower Direct Farms in Somers, spring is underway, and they are already thinking of fall mums.
The wholesale nursery is in the midst of shipping hundreds of thousands of flowering plants to its customers — mainly big box stores all around New England. Their busiest season has arrived, but they are always thinking ahead. The growing season for today's pansies began in January. They begin growing Christmas poinsettias on June 1.
Len Van Wingerden, whose father was a wholesale vegetable grower, started Grower Direct in 1981 after buying a 150-acre gravel pit strewn with old tires and trash. Van Wingerden has now retired, leaving other family members to run the company.
Sam Smith is the general manager — he got the job eight years ago following his marriage to Mikal Van Wingerden, Len Van Wingerden's daughter.
"The drainage is fantastic," said Smith. "The soil is irrelevant since we grow in sterile peat moss."
The former gravel pit has become a huge growing operation with 36 acres of fields and massive greenhouses roofed by a double layer of plastic. Air blown between the layers of plastic insulates the plants and helps reduce fuel costs. As fuel oil prices rose, Grower Direct switched to biomass fuel and now burns wood chips, reducing their heat costs by two-thirds.
Len Van Wingerden was one of 16 children. The oldest were born in the Netherlands, and most went into some aspect of farming. At Grower Direct, Van Wingerden introduced scientific methods to take as much uncertainty as possible out of the growing process.
"On this scale, the process has to be repeatable and scientific," Smith said. "We have a recipe."
Everything is measured and timed, from the water dispensed by computer-guided sprinklers, to the amount of light, fertilizers and nutrients that are added.
As a result, Smith can produce plants of a certain size on a specified week — in line with his customers' needs. Each store has its own containers, its own labels, logos, price tags and bar codes. "We collaborate with them to develop the product to help them succeed," he said.
Smith segregates each customer's orders so if one is marketing a new variety of flower, or has a new container design, the other sellers don't get wind of it.
"They want products that are unique to each business," he said. "We have to absolutely protect the retail strategies of our vendors."
Nearly all the plants are grown from seeds or cuttings. An automated seeder can plant 120,000 seeds an hour. Once the seeds become young plugs, it's time for transplanting. A machine fills multi-plant containers with peat moss; the containers move down the assembly line to another machine that makes small holes for the roots; another machine picks up a dozen seedlings and plants them firmly in the growing mixture.
Plants are watered from either above or below. They are loaded on dollies, and some are put directly on a dirt floor and are watered by overhead sprayers that travel across the greenhouse. If that can damage the leaves, water is piped up from a cement floor; the runoff is drained, filtered and reused, saving water. Automated shades move to cover plants that need less light.
Light, heat and humidity are already tailored to specific plants and controlled by computers. Smith said that in June, he expects to start using robots to space plant containers, another step in his plan to achieve a completely automated operation, from planting to the loading of trucks
Grower Direct only sells wholesale. The minimum order is $500, or four or five plant racks roughly 2 feet by 5 feet. Smith's customers are mostly big box stores like Sam's Club and Home Depot, and include the 34 Walmart stores in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. In May, the peak of the season, the staff swells from 75 to 200, and because the greenhouses are so vast, they use bicycles to get from one place to another. Spring sales generate the majority of the year's revenue, Smith said.
Twenty-five trailer-trucks a day make deliveries in the busy season. Company President and CEO Adam Van Wingerden, Smith's brother-in-law, is in charge of managing deliveries, in addition to operating the plant and the greenhouse. (A total of six members of the Van Wingerden family work at Grower Direct.)
The delivery schedule varies according to the weather. A forecast for a cold weekend, for instance, may delay a delivery, while a sun-drenched week may require multiple deliveries to the same customer over seven days.
While Smith declined to reveal sales figures, the family business is clearly expanding. In the past two years, the company has built 400,000 square feet of additional greenhouses and it looking into expanding the products its sells.
Underlying the philosophy of Grower Direct is the deep Christian faith of the Van Wingerden family.
"Evangelical Protestantism is our motivation," said Smith. "It's our faith that is motivating us to spend time and money that way; it colors the way we treat our business people. ... This family unit believes that the Bible is the inspired and true word of God and we are doing our best to live accordingly."
As an outgrowth of those beliefs, the Van Wingerdens have used some of their money for charitable causes. A charity founded by Len Wingerden's father supports farming in third world countries. In Haiti, for example, they have supported a farm, a clinic, housing and a fish farm, said Smith, who keeps a Bible on his desk. They also backed ventures in South Sudan, he said.
"We go to the worst places possible," he said.
Robert Bilton, who owns a fruit stand in Hampden, Mass., said he likes dealing with Grower Direct.
"It's been a long, extraordinary relationship from day one," he said. Although he is one of the smaller customers, buying $20,000 to $30,000 worth of plants a year, he praises the quality of the products, the rapid delivery and the service he receives.
"I'm a small guy, but they still bend over backwards for me," Bilton said. "We are very lucky to have them there."