Keeping the Industry Clean By Bridget White

The ins and outs of seven days on the road touring stock production in Central America

As I wrote last month (see “Dear Diary,” April 2004 GPN), Jim Barrett, University of Florida, and I were lucky enough to travel to Central America earlier this year to tour stock and seed production at the 10 farms of our six host companies: Ball FloraPlant, Dummen USA, Ecke Ranch, Goldsmith Seeds, Oro Farms and Proven Winners. Visiting both Guatemala and Costa Rica, we spent seven full days on the road learning the basics of stock and seed production.

You might think that cuttings produced off-shore are inexpensive, relatively speaking, because producers are able to cut corners, whether it’s with facilities, labor or sanitation. I wondered the same thing before my trip. After all, these are third world countries, and there can’t possibly be high input costs in something that sells for less than a dime. Right? Wrong.

As I covered last month, I was surprised to see American-style greenhouses and production, benefits that would make U.S. workers jealous and, as I’ll try to show in the next few pages, sanitation and quality considerations better than any greenhouse I’ve ever seen (and that includes American and European).

Sanitary Concerns

Since stock plants are worked for as long as one year, keeping them disease free is one of the most important concerns of offshore stock producers, especially with the new threat of Ralstonia. Certainly over the past year, sanitation protocols have tightened, but even before then, producers were going to great lengths to keep out diseases, viruses and virus-spreading insects.

Ball FloraPlant’s Floricultura geranium facility typifies both old and new levels. The facility has always had concrete floors and raised benches but over the past year has made additions to beef up sanitation. It has gone to 14 knives per worker, ensuring that knives remain in the disinfectant twice as long as needed for sterilization, and has created harvest carts — complete with knives, counting cups and sterilization bottles — for each house to eliminate the possibility of disease traveling from one house to another, should it occur. Ball has also had to hire three full-time workers to control weeds and was reconfiguring the facility’s drainage system when we were visiting to prevent rainwater from draining between houses.

Extra sanitation measures such as these are being implemented at all Central American geranium producers to receive certification to import into the United States. Plants must be grown on raised benches, facilities must be weed free and have trace-back programs, and hands and knives must be disinfected routinely, just to name a few of the new protocols, which were all visible at the facilities we visited. What might surprise you more than anything is that the sanitation at Goldsmith’s now defunct Esquejes geranium facility rivaled that of the other producers we visited, with shoes, boots actually, that never left the property, ankle deep footbaths at every greenhouse and tight worker control.

Even the basics of sanitation have been upgraded; footbaths are now changed multiple times per day, and sanitation bottles are often carried with employees to sanitize their hands after each plant is touched.

But lest you think all this sanitation is just for geraniums, we went through strict measures for petunias at Proven Winners’ Innova Plant and seed production at Goldsmith. In fact, the protocols at both companies were nearly as strict as in geranium production, with pollen from some plants at Goldsmith’s Jardines Mil Flores seed production facility sent to the cooler after each seed block (approximately once per hour) to preserve freshness. And at Innova Plant aprons are changed after each petunia bench, and knives are changed and disinfected three times per bench, even on low protocol crops.

Ecke’s poinsettia and vegetative sanitation protocols are equally impressive. Although they produce fairly low protocol crops at their Guatemala facility, Ecke takes sanitation to a new level because of their in-ground production method (see “Dear Diary” in the April 2004 issue of GPN for more details on Ecke’s style of production). Instead of fumigating bags of media as the other producers do, Ecke must fumigate entire beds in preparation for planting. And throughout the life of the stock plants, special care is taken — through the use of footbaths, wash stations and tyvek suites — to prevent the importation of insect, virus and disease pests. Additionally, Ecke goes to great lengths to make sure irrigation water is bacteria free, pumping up its own deep-well water and treating it with chlorine and then UV just for extra measure.

Quality Control

If you’ve ever received a smaller- or larger-than-desired cutting or been shorted a package of seeds, and I know everyone has, then you can understand the importance of quality control. For the vegetative producers we visited quality control meant getting a cutting that conforms to the right spec, both in stem length and in number of leaves, and for the seed producers it means seed size and germination rate. But quality control is not a part-time job or a stated goal for these companies; it’s a real part of everyday production, and it occurs in several different places and on multiple levels. For cutting producers quality control begins in the greenhouse with each worker. Workers are trained on how to take the right cutting for each crop, and in case they need a reminder, each worker carries a spec stick — either around their neck or on their knife — for measuring stem length. It’s a constant reminder, even if not used, of the spec.

The second phase of quality control is also in the greenhouse when cuttings have to be recounted and arranged in a box or bag for transport. At this time, either the harvester or a specially designated person rechecks each cutting as the first formal stage of quality control and signs or stamps their name for approval.

At most farms a portion of cuttings are selected for the packing/shipping inventory for a formal quality control check. Sampling size ranges according to season and crop but can be as high as 50 percent of all product, which is the minimum at Innova Plant. Innova Plant has also taken the extra step of retraining each employee about specs and quality every year to ensure conformity.

Trace-back is an important part of long-term quality control, which is why the packing slip in each bag/box of cuttings contains the greenhouse number and the cutting crew supervisor and/or worker’s number. If a bag of cuttings does not meet spec, either in number or size, it is sent back to the harvest crew for a re-do. That crew/person has to go back to the house from which the cuttings were taken and repeat that bag — even if they are already through for the day and packing up to go home. And since the whole crew is kept over without pay, peer pressure becomes an important component in quality control.

Quality control for seed production is quite different since the product itself is too small to be inspected visually. Goldsmith has invested in a warehouse full of seed grading equipment to check for seed size and shape, as seeds that are too small will not germinate. After the seed has been graded, every lot is then tested for vigor and germination. Seed is germinated in an American-style greenhouse, with a germ chamber, rolling benches and cooling pads, to make sure germination reflects the user’s environment. Plug trays are checked visually via computer for vigor and actual germination count, and lots are evaluated against a set minimum. Braulio Aguilar, general manager over all Goldsmith’s Guatemala properties, estimates that approximately 80 percent of seed is thrown away as a result of grading and germ testing, ensuring that shipped seed is of the highest quality.

The Cool Chain

Refrigerated trucks, ice packs, vacuum cooling. Offshore producers are going to great lengths to preserve the cool chain and make sure U.S. growers receive fresh cuttings. Sure the system breaks down sometimes — everyone has received a bag of mush before — but that’s the exception, and it hasn’t come to be so by accident.

From the minute the cuttings are taken, stock producers are thinking about cool down. Every place we visited had its own procedures for cooling product. At Dummen’s Pelarica and Proven Winner’s Innova Plant cuttings are put into an ice-cooled container until they are picked up and transported to the cool room. At the Ecke facilities a notification system has been developed to let drivers know which houses to stop at to pick up product headed for vacuum cooling and the cool room. And at none of the places we visited did product go longer than 45 minutes from cut to cool.

The standard for most producers is to immediately transport cuttings to the cool room and then put them in a specially designed chamber for quick cooling. This is done by pulling the 34- to 42-degree cool room air over boxes of cuttings for a set period of time. Cuttings are then filed in the cool room under their variety heading until pulled for orders later that day.

Just before order shipment, producers insert bags of ice into the shipping box, which helps maintain cooling during loading and unloading at airports and during delivery once inside the United States. Even transportation to the airport maintains the cool chain, as trucks are also refrigerated.

Once at the airport, cuttings are turned over to the breeder’s cargo carrier, where they are checked into the intended flight and either lined up for loading or placed in large coolers, depending on how long before the flight departs. According to Byron Calderon, general manager of Ecke’s Guatemala facilities and our tour guide at the airport, Ecke is currently working with its cargo carrier to create a cooler for cuttings. The two current coolers were built for cut flowers and vegetables and are not always maintained at the optimal temperature for cuttings, not to mention proximity to the ethylene from ripening fruit is not ideal for cuttings, especially geraniums. In the meantime, cargo carriers are addressing the problem with product segregation between the two coolers.

Final Thoughts

Before heading South, I had been prepped about how nice the facilities were. Jim and I even had to buy extra shoes to ensure that we had “clean” shoes every day. But I still didn’t expect to see such consistently high sanitation or such tight quality control in what we consider a third world country. From the wheel baths we drove through upon entering some of the facilities to the vigorous scrubbing our hands got at each greenhouse, the processes we experienced in Central America made me confident that the breeders and stock producers are doing everything they can to protect our industry.

I’ve been writing about my trip to Central America for three months now, and before I retire the subject, I just wanted to give a final word of thanks to the companies that hosted us: Ecke’ Ecke Guatemala; Goldsmith’s Jardines Mil Flores, Las Vertientes and Esquejes; Oro Farms; Ball FloraPlant’s Floricultura; Dummen’s Pelarica; and Proven Winner’s Innova Plant and Ticoplant. These companies opened their doors to us, and not only showed us a vital part of U.S. floriculture but also a great time.

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Bridget White

Bridget White is editorial director of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1004 or E-mail at [email protected]

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