A Natural Leader By Jasmina Dolce

Like many greenhouse growers today, Mark Elzinga was first introduced to the business as a child. He learned early on, working at his father's facility Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses in Portage, Mich., what was necessary for sustaining a successful business: maintaining close personal relationships and being a good steward of the earth. After that, everything else seems to fall into place.

Keeping up with those values has gotten Mark Elzinga to where he is today, one of the largest producers of organic vegetables and herbs in the Midwest. After he purchased Elzinga & Hoeksema in 1998 from his father, he assessed what the business' expansion needs were and began making the necessary adjustments.

In 2000, Elzinga constructed New Millenium greenhouses, "New Mill" was a 5-acre expansion facility designed to produce not only the operation's existing product lines but also Elzinga's newly branded items soon to be introduced to the public.

In 2008, he added a 4-acre facility complete with a geothermal heating system, 200-4×8 foot solar panels to work with the geothermal system, and two windmills to supply additional electrical energy. This new facility would be used solely for organic vegetable production. This was just a start to what would come next.

Although a majority of the business is responsible for growing bedding plants (90 percent), Elzinga saw a huge opportunity in organic production of vegetables and herbs. Today, vegetables/herbs account for about 10 percent of Elzinga's production, and organics account for about half of that. That number continues to grow.

Today, Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses sells bedding plants and vegetables, including organic products, to grocery chains and garden centers in the Midwest region including Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. Always looking to expand or try something new and innovative, Elzinga continues to take advantage of the demand for organics and is looking out for what the next "big thing" might be.

From the Ground Up

A couple of years before Elzinga added the organic facility, he was visiting a customer in the Chicagoland area. "We're walking around [the store], and I see all these new sections of organics," Mark shares. "I wasn't really familiar with organics, but he told me how they were building their organic business."

What struck Elzinga was that the owner used himself for the reasoning behind their organic line. After suffering some health setbacks, he and his wife were encouraged to eat organically. Their improvement was almost miraculous. "His story really made an impact on me," Elzinga says. "And we made the decision to go into organics."

He later sold the idea to his other customers, and that solidified the addition. "We had no background, no knowledge of it. We learned everything from the ground up."

Having no previous experience with organics proved to be an advantage for Elzinga. They were able to completely design the program the way they wanted to and now have the ability to sell organic products to garden centers as well as to fellow growers. Elzinga's goal is to be the No. 1 source for anyone wanting organic vegetables and herbs.

Elzinga defines organics as the creation of a living soil, a soil that gives the plants all the nutrients it needs. And that is exactly what they've done at Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses. They have created a living soil using compost teas teeming with rich microbial life. "If a plant has all the nutrients it needs in the soil, it's not as susceptible to diseases that can be found in sterile conventional production," he says.

Spelt hulls, an alternative grain used for nutritious value, are added to the soil at the end of their composting process, which assists in breaking it down a bit. It is a creative way of getting air into the soil. Plants are kept short in a natural manner. Fertilizer isn't needed, either. Elzinga simply adds compost tea, which is created in-house as well.

Many growers have customers who want to add organics but the challenges involved in being a USDA certified grower can be overwhelming and expensive. "We can now offer an organic solution to that greenhouse. We're able to customize programs for those growers out there."

With so much competition in the Michigan market, Elzinga says he is able to differentiate his business through their organics program and their view on sustainability. "We want our customers to want to do business with us," he shares. "They want a sustainable business, a business that's focused on the community. We think we're that kind of business."

Elzinga's most recent business venture is growing tulips using hydroponics. These cut flower tulips are grown in Michigan and he feels they leave less of a carbon footprint not just because of less shipping but because they also last longer, don't require chemicals, and stay fresher longer.

Shrinking Shrink

Elzinga's main business goal is to reduce shrink. To achieve this, the company went through lean flow training in 2008. Lean eliminates efforts that don't add value to the product. It cuts all the waste out of production, says Elzinga.

"We measure everything. How long does it take? How many people does it take?" Elzinga says. "It's helped our company immensely."

For example, they used to fill flats at each of their locations. After going through lean training, they now only fill flats at one location. They went from using five machines to two machines, saving labor and energy costs. "At first it was expensive for us to adapt to it," he shares. "But ultimately it affected, and changed, our whole way of thinking of how we run our business.

Last Year's Plastic; This Year's Pot

One year after adding the organics program, Elzinga saw another opportunity to expand their sustainability: Harvesting plastic from their retailer customers.

Elzinga ships carts to customers, who then sell pots out of the flats. Empty flats are returned to the cart. Plants that don't survive on the shelf are also returned to the cart, to recycle the soil as well. The carts are brought back to Elzinga & Hoeksema where the plastic is palletized and returned to Elzinga's supplier East Jordan Plastics.

"It creates a steady source for resin, which makes the plastic," shares Elzinga. "With our resins coming back to East Jordan Plastics, they're paying us a rate for that. But it's also saving them money too. All the plastic that we're using this year was probably sold to us last year, and now it's returned through the system."

"I'm getting paid to do the right thing. Can you believe it?" he adds. "Every grower in the country should want to recycle." Elzinga feels growers need to really look at what they're doing and what is going to waste. If a grower is putting all this plastic in a landfill, he can't possibly be feeling good about it. "But if you're picking up the plastic and making an effort and it's not costing you any money, why wouldn't you do it?"

Elzinga also wants to get more consumers to bring their pots back to the store to recycle. "I think it would be a competitive advantage for a retailer to advertise that they recycle with this program," he says. It doesn't matter where they purchased the pot. As long as the customer brings that pot back to the retailer, that's a footstep into their store. "The smart retailer will start paying for recycled plastic or giving a coupon or discount for this recycled plastic."

Outsider Inspiration

Another competitive advantage Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses has is its branding program. "We've been very successful at bringing our customers new items and branding them ourselves," shares Elzinga. "Like our Perfect Accents program. What we've done is change up the color of the flats a little bit and put some nice labeling on it. It picks up sales because it's new."

That's why Elzinga aims to reinvent products every year. He believes the perception of our products as a devalued commodity is causing the industry to suffer. It's all about perceived value. "If we say there's more value there, and the customer thinks there's more value because of something we've done, then we've done our job well."

Elzinga wants to change the face of the floriculture industry. "I applaud the European love of flowers and I want every American to love flowers as much as I do. In our society, males think of buying flowers only when they're in trouble or there's an anniversary.

He points to the wine industry as an example. Wine is popular in gift giving, he says, and feels the wine industry is an example of how to market horticulture products. "Whenever I go to a store, I go through the produce department, I go through the floral department, and I go through the wine section," he says. "The most unique marketing comes from wine."

Looking outside our industry will help guide us on how to take our products to the next level. Using wine again as an example, Elzinga adds, "I've seen these tags on wine that say 'This goes good with salmon.' So you can cross merchandise also. That's what we need to do. People want to be helped."

Loyal, Local Relationships

Elzinga is a firm believer in maintaining close relationships with his suppliers. East Jordan Plastics is just one example. With them, Elzinga felt they really helped each other out with the recycling program.

He also has a very close relationship with MasterTag, who supplies all their tags and labels. They work together to come up with clever branding solutions. For instance, "Fresh Flavors" is their organic veggie program that MasterTag helped customize for Elzinga.

Elzinga has always remained loyal to his long-time suppliers. "We're big on close relationships with one supplier. We've had these relationships for a lot of years," shares Elzinga. "We don't need anybody else."

Ball Seed Co. also represents a special kind of relationship. When issues arise, they immediately help each other out. We visit each other's facilities and genuinely care about each other's business. "If we have a business problem, I can go to them and talk with them," says Elzinga. "Whether it's the CEO, the president, the accountant, etc., I just have great connections with all those people."

And Elzinga encourages other growers to build the same kinds of relationships with their suppliers. He is also very proud to work with companies that are so close to home. He uses East Jordan Plastics, but another grower can use a different company in their region.

"East Jordan is in a small town up north. They make two things: plastic and iron manhole covers. Those two industries primarily support most of the town," says Elzinga. "That's good for Michigan. I like to buy from Michigan. Not all people agree with that, but I'm proud of my part in helping create jobs in Michigan."

Elzinga is also a board member of the Michigan Floricultural Growers Council. They're doing a lot of work with Michigan political culture and making growers aware of what's coming down the pipe from the government on taxation, energy, etc.

"We need friends of agriculture," says Elzinga, and this offers an excellent opportunity for Michigan growers.

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Jasmina Dolce

Jasmina Dolce is managing editor of GPN magazine. She can be reached at [email protected]

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