Walters Gardens is Michigan's agricultural Exporter of the Year

August 14, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — Walters Gardens, one of the nation's largest growers of ornamental perennials for landscaping, has been named the 2008 Michigan Agriculture Exporter of the Year by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. State agriculture officials and elected officials from West Michigan met at the company Friday morning for the presentation of the award.

A family-owned business, Walters Gardens was founded in 1946 and now sells about $24 million worth of perennials that are shipped each year throughout the United States and Canada, according to company president Evan Elenbaas.

The company grows more than 1,000 varieties of perennials, with about 15 acres of greenhouse production and 1,500 acres of field production. According to Elenbaas, it is undoubtedly the largest grower of its type in Michigan and one of the largest in the United States. Walters Gardens products are all hardy perennials, including irises, day lilies, hostas and coreopsis.

The company employs about 225 people, most of them year-round, according to Elenbaas. He said Walters Gardens has been exporting to Canada for at least 20 years "from coast to coast — Nova Scotia to British Columbia."

It is strictly a wholesale business, shipping mainly "plugs," which are the start of a plant enclosed in a soil plug that can be easily inserted into the ground or a pot. They also ship some bare roots. The company's customers are growers who finish growing the perennials, then sell the fully grown plants to retailers, or in some cases, retail the plants themselves.

CEO John Walters said the company’s Canadian business is about 10 percent of its total sales.

"Actually, it's been a tough economy this year, as everyone knows," said Walters. "Even though our sales decreased a little bit this past spring, our sales to Canada increased."

He said that may indicate that the Canadian economy is in a little better shape than the U.S. economy, "but it also indicates our growing presence there, as well."

Walters Gardens recently added a bilingual sales rep (French and English) for Quebec province, which is a growth market for the company.

Each year the Michigan Department of Agriculture designates an Agriculture Exporter of the Year, honoring that business for the ability to expand into new global markets and for significant export sales growth.

Walters Gardens, in particular, was chosen for the award for having built a strong reputation in the Canadian market with superior quality products, according to the MDA.

“Walters Gardens was chosen because, season after season, they continue to deliver the highest quality agricultural product to their export markets, thereby representing Michigan’s commitment to quality and aiding economic diversification,” said MDA Director Don Koivisto. “Michigan is second in the nation for agricultural diversity, and exports over one-third of its agricultural commodities every year. Recent studies show these exports generated $1.68 billion in 2008 and employed over 13,000 residents.”

MDA officials noted that Walters Gardens impressed them with its marketing efforts. Although most wholesale growers do not offer marketing materials to its retail customers, Walters Gardens has a sophisticated marketing program that includes an annual wholesale catalog plus extensive use of the Internet. It is a client of Paulsen Marketing in Sioux Falls, S.D., one of the major agriculture and "rural lifestyles" advertising agencies in the U.S.

"We try to support our customers with access to new information and access to photography" that can be downloaded from the Web site, according to Walters. In fact, the company has three Web sites; waltersgardens.com, perennialsresource.com and growdesignerplants.com. Links from the main site lead the company's customers and end users to the other sites. The perennialresource.com site is aimed at the individual home gardener, which, Walters said, helps grow their market "from the bottom up."

Walters Gardens stays focused on increasing its varieties of perennials, and also strives to maintain the cleanliness of the roots it ships. Walters said the emphasis on cleanliness is not just in regard to insect infestation or visual appearance, but also to ensure they do not contain any products that may be infected with a virus. Plant viruses are "becoming more and more of an issue" in horticulture, he said.

"Our customers appreciate the fact they're getting clean material from us — they're not so sure they can get it from everybody else that same way," said Walters.

The company was started by John Walters' grandmother. The original business was "pretty elementary at that point," he said. "She was just growing a few items."

In 2008, Michigan maintained its third-place national ranking in value of wholesale sales of floriculture products, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Only California and Florida reported larger sales. Reports from Michigan's 720 commercial growers showed an estimated wholesale value of $393 million for all surveyed floriculture crops, down 3 percent from last year, according to the USDA.

Michigan leads the nation in sales of 11 floriculture crops, including impatiens flats and hanging baskets of begonias, impatiens, geraniums, petunias and hostas.

Koivisto noted that Michigan is second in the nation for agricultural diversity, and exports more than one-third of its agricultural commodities every year.

"Recent studies show these exports generated $1.68 billion in 2008 and employed over 13,000 residents,” said Koivisto.

The award review committee for the 2008 Michigan International Exporter of the Year consisted of representatives from Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan State University and National City Bank. Their decision was based upon several factors, including marketing plans, ability to expand into new markets, alliances with other organizations, and export sales growth over the last three years. To be eligible, the products also had to be more than 50 percent grown, processed or manufactured in Michigan.

Previous winners include Honee Bear Canning Co., Lawton; Cooperative Elevator Co., Pigeon; Cherry Central, Traverse City; Michigan Apple Committee, DeWitt; and Graceland Fruit Inc., Frankfort.

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