Nurturing green practices

May 1, 2010
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It’s a busy time at Sawyer Nursery Inc. near Hudsonville.

Typically, the nursery at 5401 Port Sheldon Road bids adieu to 25 to 30 truckloads of perennials daily in the spring, General Manager Dan Vander Schuur said. They are bound for big-box stores and independent garden centers throughout the Midwest.

“We are probably one of the top three perennial producers in the country,” Vander Schuur said. “Our company’s been in growth mode for several years,” he said. For the last three years, it has averaged about 10 percent growth each year.

“We’ve created about a dozen new full-time jobs just in the last seven months,” he said.

The 21st century nursery is a long way from the company’s roots. It began in the basement of Bob and Shirley Sawyer’s Hudsonville home in 1956. Today, Sawyer Nursery is owned by their sons, Craig and Scott Sawyer, and has 120 acres — 40 of them under greenhouses — in Ottawa County, plus another facility in Alabama.

In April, the company received Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program verification for its commitment to environmentally friendly practices, becoming one of eight greenhouses in the program. The Michigan Department of Agriculture reports that nearly 800 farms in the state have MAEAP verification, which is earned by attending educational seminars, conducting an environmental risk assessment, and developing and implementing an action plan that addresses those risks. The MDA conducts an inspection to verify the operation is meeting related state and federal regulations.

Growers undertake the process voluntarily, said Heather Throne, communications specialist for the MDA.

“Consumers look for the MAEAP signs if they are going to be purchasing something from a farm stand,” she said. “And even retailers, like Meijer, they are now looking for that verification from a lot of their greenhouses where they get their plant supplies. We are hearing that retailers like to see that MAEAP verification.”

“It’s a big deal for us,” Vander Schuur said. “And our customer is really looking for that right now — the sustainability and the friendliness to the environment. So we feel we’ve got to go in this direction.”

Vander Schuur said there’s no question that controlling the environmental footprint of a perennial nursery is not cheap and takes an organization-wide commitment. But he is certain that Sawyer Nursery will save money by taking measures that impact use of water, fertilizer, plastics and other items used in high volume at a nursery.

“There’s some savings for us as we go through this process,” he said. “It saves you money in the long run, in the future. It’s fairly expensive to get certified, don’t get me wrong. We spent thousands and thousands of dollars on items throughout the facility. It’s expensive, but in the long run, we feel it benefits us financially in the future.”

Among the measures undertaken at Sawyer Nursery: prevention of groundwater contamination and soil erosion; safety in the use of chemicals and fertilizers; the use of retention ponds to capture and re-use rain water; water ways to capture and reuse water from greenhouses; chemical storage with containment systems and ventilation; biodegradable plant identification tags; reusable, recycled and recyclable pots and trays.

“Water usage is one of the biggest things, and water quality. We’ve done a lot to prevent overwatering with the use of soil,” he said.

The company also tries to use local suppliers whenever possible, he added, including for seeds and cuttings.

About 85 percent of the nursery’s business is with big-box retailers, including Home Depot, K-Mart, Lowe’s, Meijer and Wal-Mart, he said. The company’s footprint stretches across the country’s midsection, from Minnesota to Mississippi to Missouri.

The 12 million containers and 200,000 flats produced at Sawyer’s two locations are racked according to the results of a computer system that is integrated with its customers’ stores. The system automatically tracks inventory at the stores and selects the plants each needs, Vander Schuur explained.

“At each store, we’ve got integrated systems that tell us what sold at the store, what the store still has and what’s in our inventory,” he said. “We replenish the items that are selling well or any new items to get into that store in any given week.”

The company, using a brokered freight system, then loads the trailers according to geographic area with racks customized to each store, he said.

Ten to 15 years ago, colorful annuals were all the rage, he added. “The flower power of an annual — you can’t beat it,” he said.

“But perennials are tough. They’re long-term crops. We’ve got crops we grow for a year, nine months, six months. To get the timing — to get it to flower at the right time — is very, very difficult.”

Around a decade ago, perennial nurseries took a huge step forward in growing techniques and the timing of deliveries to compete with annuals, Vander Schuur said.

“Everything is in bud and bloom,” he said. “We treat perennials a lot like the annuals are in the market. We try to get them in the store when they are in flower. It’s at its prime selling time. When you can create that impulse buy with color, and the customer knows it’s coming back every year, there’s more value.”

Sawyer employs about 400 between the two production facilities. Eighty are employed full-time and the rest are seasonal. During the warm months, it adds about 200 plant-lovers to seasonal payroll to represent the company in Home Depot and Meijer stores across the Midwest, Vander Schuur said.

“They give us feedback on what’s selling. They take care of our product, unload our racks,” he said. “Quite often, we get people who are part of garden groups or plant groups who want to work throughout the summer, and it works out well.”

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