Van Wingerden currently produces more than 150 varieties of garden and potted plants, with its major crops including bedding plants, African violets, chrysanthemums, poinsettias, and other flowering plants. For each of the crops, individual environmental requirements can be created by providing separate climates within sections of each greenhouse.
Conditions within all of the greenhouses are controlled by a computer that monitors humidity, ventilation, light and carbon dioxide and makes changes in the greenhouse environment when necessary for each individual group of plants. The computer also centrally regulates water distribution. Each step of the production process for the plants is monitored carefully and often is automated. First, each container is filled with a custom blend of soil, to provide the best combination of growing materials. Then the seed or cutting is placed into the medium and the container is sent to the growing area.
Even the transportation of the containers to a specified location in the greenhouse is automated in some cases. Automatic transportation by rollers helps maximize greenhouse capacity, since space is not needed between sections of plants for physically handling them. For 8 to 33 weeks, the young plants are “shaped.” Shaping may involve pinching – removing central to cause the plant to branch and become fuller – or disbudding – breaking off lateral flower buds to cause the buds near the center of the plant to grow larger.
While being shaped, the plant is exposed to carefully regulated light, humidity, ventilation, carbon dioxide and water – all crucial elements in healthy plant growth. Van Wingerden uses shading material, which lines the tops and sides of the greenhouses, to control the amount of light the plants receive, and artificial lights supplement sunlight hours when necessary.
When the plants are ready for shipping, they are loaded onto carts or placed in cardboard boxes, depending on the plant and the preference of the customer. The company’s markets encompass a variety of outlets, from roadside produce stands and small garden centers to wholesale distributors and grocery store chains. Because of the perishability of the product and transportation costs, Van Wingerden International is a regional business, serving about a 250-mile radius.
Quality is an integral ingredient throughout the company’s entire operation. It can be seen in everything from concern for the safety of employees to the attention given to maintaining the quality of the environment and community.
The company conducts monthly safety meetings for employees to highlight various precautions or procedures that are helpful on the job as well as in leisure-time activities. Sessions may cover data sheets on a specific chemical, educating the growers on its proper use and potential dangers. Or employees may learn how to correctly use fire extinguishers or how to perform CPR.
The concern for safety extends into the community and is evident in the company’s strong support of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Founder Aart Van Wingerden pointed out, “We are strong supporters of the EPA. It is a must. We comply with its regulations and try to go a step beyond by creating our own safety measures.”
Combining its emphases on safety and efficiency, the company carefully recycles water used to feed and water plants. Again automation comes into play, as water is pumped from reservoirs into floors that hold the plants, allowing for watering from the bottom. Excess water drains back into the reservoirs, with fertilized water kept separate from clean water.
Even with all his successes, Mr. Van Wingerden always tried to do things in a better way. “It’s not as hard as it seems,” he insisted. “Just look at all aspects of your business and ask, ‘How can it be improved?’”