Greenheart Farms Inc.: Propagating Years of Quality and Innovation

Fully half the vegetable products in the United States are grown in California’s rich soil and mild climate. Hoy Buell – president and owner of Greenheart Farms Inc. (Greenheart), a nursery located in Arroyo Grande, Calif. – takes full advantage of his West Coast locale to run a thriving vegetable plug transplant and live floral plant producer supplying commercial farmers and wholesalers. Buell’s 300 employees work 60 acres in California and 30 acres in Yuma, Ariz., to generate $25 million in annual sales.

Crop Rotation

Buell was ahead of the curve when he founded Greenheart in 1979. He anticipated a need for root vegetable transplants almost before the farmers did and positioned himself to fill the void. “My father was a banker, but I went to Cal Poly and studied ornamental horticulture,” shares Buell, who used that program to help him forecast industry trends and position his business initiatives.

In the late ’70s farmers were using bare root vegetable transplants, but there was a movement toward other methodologies, such as growing plants in small containers from seeds, cuttings and bulbs (otherwise known as propagation) and shipping them to the field, establishing plants that were higher quality than a bare root plant. “We jumped on that,” exclaims Buell. “We made our own systems – flats, benches, innovative from the beginning – to fill a need and it was just the right timing for farmers using that.” Now, Greenheart propagates more than a billion plants each year.

If 90 acres of active acreage seems small for such hyperproductivity, don’t worry, because Greenheart’s system is optimized for maximum yield in minimum space. “We can produce more in 30 acres than a bare-root nursery produces in 700 acres,” says Buell. “Remember, we’re propagators. What we’re doing is starting with a seed or a cutting material and we’re making plants in containers; we make some quarts but everything else is smaller than that, something the size of your fist or smaller, the size of your little finger. We’re producing that for somebody else who is going to farm it or finish it as a retail nursery product.” Still, Greenheart has machines and tractors in the field to install the plugs for farmers if needed.

The company draws on its wide knowledge of products for vegetable, herb and flower farming, reclamation projects, live potted flowers for end-consumers, and container stock for farming and/or landscaping applications. Crop type and specification, variety, seed cost, seed to transplant growth duration, packaging and shipping method, lead time for space reservation and order processing and many other factors are determined on a custom basis with each and every customer.

However, as a medium to large wholesale company, Greenheart focuses on high-volume crops that can supply a farm or merchandising operations with high-quality product to meet a client’s exact specifications. In terms of vegetables, the company primarily propagates celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, leek, onion, melon, pepper, tomato and watermelon – a quarter of which are demand-driven organic. “We can grow anything organic,” assures Buell.

The company is both California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF) and VeriFlora certified – the first propagation nursery to be certified by either certification body. VeriFlora certification, which is the highest level of sustainability certification awarded, requires growers to meet stringent conservation standards and fair labor practices. “In addition, the plants cannot be genetically modified,” says Buell. “We’re on that side. We don’t believe that it’s responsible.”

Coming Up Roses

Vegetables aren’t even remotely the only things on Greenheart’s plate. Its rose division houses one of the largest rose propagation companies in the world. Greenheart produces 400 varieties of garden roses on their own roots, which it refers to as “modern roses.” Rose production in the ’80s and ’90s declined from about 65 million to about 25 million plants, partly because roses were being grown inefficiently in fields, and made bare root.

“We completely changed the direction of roses by looking for roses that grow on their own roots and don’t get any diseases,” says Buell. “So, now roses are competitive with other modern perennial-style plants. We kind of brought roses back in a way. And we have the right to produce almost everybody’s roses in the country.” Trademarked names Greenheart propagates include the mega-popular Knock Out family of roses, Garden Treasures, My Bouquet and Nor’Easter.

Generating several million dollars more seasonally are gorgeous poinsettias, which are a part-time standard for the industry. “Most of us have a lot of greenhouse space in the late summer and fall,” explains Buell. Poinsettias make otherwise unused space profitable. Greenheart supplies holiday cheer throughout the nation via healthy, high-quality poinsettias of red, pink and white.

Botanical Research

What really speaks to Buell is innovation – coming up with alternative solutions or substitutes for harmful or hard to acquire things. People in the industry know this about him and readily approach Greenheart for special projects. “Everyone’s proud of their ability to grow plants,” he reflects. “But I think what distinguishes us over the years is that we’re willing to try different things – as well as normal things – that create quality. When there’s a new product, a new crop, people come to us to figure out how to produce it in a reasonable way.”

Current research projects include production of the sugar substitute stevia and the potential rubber substitute guayule.

Greenheart grows stevia, which is sold as SweetLeaf from cultivars, and from seed for a particular company. “[Stevia] is good for the diet because it’s not a sugar that’s turned into carbohydrate and fat in the body,” explains Buell. The research of guayule (\gwī-ˈü-lē\), meanwhile, is carried out on behalf of the Yulex Corporation. “That is a native desert southwest shrub that makes rubber that’s not allergenic, or hypoallergenic,” educates Buell. “It has easy potential to be the entire rubber source for the United States.” Greenheart’s practical success with guayule could lead to more than a billion trade dollars being kept in the country.

Replanting

As if propagating billions of veggies and growing tons of roses wasn’t enough, Greenheart has been working on a large reclamation project with the United States Bureau of Reclamation since 2006. The Lower Colorado River Multispecies Conservation Program is reclaiming 8,000 acres of farmland and marginal land for birds and other native species by reintroducing native trees, shrubs and plants. “Each year we do several hundred acres for that project,” says Buell. “It’s an ongoing project, it’s a wonderful project, and we like doing it. And, of course, we’re selling reclamation plants to other people who need reclamation plants. They’re very specific and difficult species to produce. It takes effort. But, I like things that improve lifestyle and the country.”

Buell says Greenheart is researching new plant products for food flower and fuel industries, and that the company is always seeking to develop higher quality and healthier plants. “We’re constantly researching new production methods,” he asserts. “We have a culture of constant improvement. We believe we can always be better.”

Rising prices of insurance, the cost of goods, rising input and commodity prices definitely give Greenheart some hurdles to clear. Competition is surprisingly stiff in vegetable transplants. On the up side, Buell reflects, “Many suppliers are the same. Many of the people are the same people. The supply chain changes, but all the old standby stuff related to vegetables is stable. The value cycle of vegetables is separate from rest of the economy. When there’s a recession, vegetable prices are usually higher.”

Deep-rooted Dedication

Of all of Greenheart’s cultivars, Buell may be the most interesting specimen. Even his hobbies involve plants. Buell has been operating and managing Hearthstone Vineyards in Paso Robles, Calif., since 1999. He, of course, pays close attention to the vineyard to produce high-quality wines. How does he do it all? “I have a fabulous crew of people,” gushes Buell. “The only way I can do it is I have a dedicated team. Some for more than 20 years. I’m into finding good people and keeping them.”

Greenheart is a many-branched company, and Buell knows better than most that rapid growth can weaken a plant. Along those lines, Buell says, “We’re not looking at growing. We don’t want to be biggest. We’re more interested in maintaining a certain value and improving the value of the things that we grow rather than trying to get bigger.”

Buell is always looking for innovations that point to a brighter and better future for both his company and the communities it services. With that proactive philosophy leading the company’s agriculture, horticulture and philanthropy operations, it can be sure that the main thing being propagated at Greenheart Farms Inc. is success.