Big on Gerbera

March 02, 2011
Written by
Gerbera has become one of the most versatile – and popular – plants on the market.

p32_3925-Orchard-Park-crop  
Jennifer and Gerard Schouwenaar, of Orchard Park Growers in St. Catharines.

 
There are numerous cut flower, indoor potted plant and gardening varieties available, and the list grows each year.

It is viewed as one of the most stunning plants in any home décor, patio or garden, thanks to the size of its flowers and the range of its colours. (And what a lot of people don’t know is that as a potted plant, it well earns its keep by helping remove indoor air contaminants, according to a NASA study.)

 p32_3925-Consumer  
Gerbera is a consumer favourite
 
Potted gerbera is one of the specialties of Orchard Park Growers, located just minutes from the Queen Elizabeth Highway in St. Catharines, Ontario.  The operation owned by the Schouwenaar family and managed by Gerard Schouwenaar.  The majority of its production is gerbera propagation and finished potted gerbera, and flowering vine, namely, mandevilla and passionflower.

“Gerbera has eye-catching appeal,” says Gerard. “It seems to create impulse buying. The daisy-style flower in bright colours and shades really grabs the consumer’s attention.”

GERBERA A RISING STAR IN HOUSEPLANT MARKET
Gerbera has grown from relatively few sales less than a decade ago to become a consistent top-10 potted plant in production numbers tracked by Statistics Canada.

p32_3925-Orchard-Park-water  
 Runoff water is collected and filter-treated before being mixed with fresh water.
 
The popularity of potted gerbera is a reflection of the success of its cut flower cousin. According to Stats Canada, some 62 million cut gerbera stems were harvested in Canada last year, the second largest cut flower crop grown by volume, trailing only cut tulips (84.4 million), but easily outpacing alstroemeria (21.7 million), chrysanthemum (18.7 million) and roses (12.8 million).

Marketing programs geared to certain customer demographics have helped make gerbera a staple in floral sales.

One challenge is the seasonality of sales. “Business is brisk for about 10 weeks during the spring, and then falls off for the rest of the year,” says Gerard. “We would love to build up more volume throughout the year, not just in the spring. It’s something we continue to work on.”

Orchard Park works closely with Northern Innovators, the Canadian distributor of the “Florist” series gerbera line.  “Florist” is based in de Kwakel, the Netherlands. Working with these two companies “has been a real plus,” Gerard explains. “We regularly meet with them to review the new varieties and colours and to learn further growing strategies to increase quality. They have a great product line and together we have built up the market for quality gerbera seedling and finished plants.”

GARDENING WITH GERBERA WILL CATCH ON IN NORTH AMERICA
Gardening with gerbera is becoming more popular in Europe, and it will catch on in North America, too, over time. “Florist” has a new line gaining a lot of attention for outdoor use. The “Landscape” series came out of the cut flower program, and has been developed to be more weather tolerant. “This series is used in patio pot applications, and consumers can cut the flowers to make their own bouquets,” notes Gerard.

p32_3925-Orchard-Park-Passion  
Flowering vines, including passionplant, are other major crops. 
 
“Florist” also has a perennial line – Garvinea® Perennial Gerbera – that gardeners can utilize.

Even more exciting developments are in the works. Breeding is continuing to open new outdoor options for gardeners.

Gerbera is not an easy crop to grow. It keeps growers on their toes.

Moisture levels must be closely monitored. “Gerbera have a very sensitive root system,” says Gerard. “In the winter, you have to be careful not to overwater under low light conditions.”

The change to warmer weather ushers in new challenges. “In the spring, when you start venting more, you have to make sure not to drastically change the climate. The plants have to become acclimatized to lower humidity and higher light levels. The roots have to be built up in order to work enough to support the vegetation.”

GETTING THE JUMP ON GREENHOUSE PESTS
Gerbera, unfortunately, also receives some unwanted attention. “It attracts most of the major greenhouse pests,” says Gerard. “You really have to be vigilant in your IPM program and not let problems get out of control.”

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Banker plants are used as part of the IPM program.

 
Orchard Park prefers to use biocontrols as much as possible, resorting to chemical treatments only when necessary. “Sometimes we have to use chemicals if we see things getting out of hand. It’s important to build up the biocontrol program early in the growing season.

The balance of Orchard Park Growers’ production is in mandevilla, passionflower and hanging baskets. In the fall, potted indoor mums are produced weekly.

For propagation, the company utilizes a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse area equipped with high intensity lighting and high pressure fog.

During the peak season, they will devote some 90,000 square feet of their total production space of 160,000 square feet to finished gerbera production.

ROOTS OF THE BUSINESS WERE IN PEACHES AND BERRIES
Orchard Park Growers had its start in 1969 when John Schouwenaar purchased a seven-acre fruit farm on the current site. The main crops were peaches and strawberries. John worked the farm on off-hours away from his full-time job at the nearby General Motors factory. With the help of his family, the farm slowly grew. More land was acquired, and the fresh produce was sold at the Ontario Food Terminal. A solid customer base was soon established, and John left his factory job to farm full time. (He had worked on farms in the Netherlands before emigrating to Canada in 1964.)

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Gerbera’s large flowers are instant attention-getters.
 
Gerard joined the business in 1985, working the fruit crops with his father for most of the year and then working at a number of area greenhouses in the winter.

That greenhouse experience would come in handy as Orchard Park built its first greenhouse – 12,000 square feet in area – in 1990. They began with tomatoes. “The pricing back then was excellent for tomatoes,” Gerard recalls, “about a dollar to $1.05 a pound.”

Banks at the time were very receptive to greenhouse projects, and wholesalers just as eager for greenhouse produce. In short, the timing was perfect. “The wholesalers would take all we could grow,” Gerard says. “We just had to concentrate on growing.”

A DECADE OF EXPANSIONS BEFORE SWITCH TO FLOWERS
Expansions followed every two years for a time, growing to some 90,000 square feet by 2000. And it was at that time they switched their focus to spring annuals and potted holiday crops.

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 A greenhouse full of colour.
 
“The problem was that vegetable prices had been dropping,” says Gerard. He had served two years on the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Marketing board, and was well aware of industry trends. “The writing was on the wall. You either had to go big or go home. We didn’t feel we could be a player any more.”

They began contract growing a number of seasonal products, including hydrangea and mums. They soon also began working with mandevilla, hanging baskets and gerbera.

The company now has some 160,000 square feet of growing space at the home farm and at a nearby rented facility.

Orchard Park Growers is also commencing its own branding initiative with distinctive labelling and sleeves. “It’s not so much promoting Orchard Park as it is promoting a level of quality.”

Gerard’s wife, Jennifer also works in the business taking care of the garden centre accounts as well as other sales. Their five children are active as well in the business and the future will tell if any of them wish to come in full time.

(Jennifer is no stranger to the magazine, having been photographed with her dad, Cor, for an October 1988 cover story on Van Geest Brothers, which today is still a major cut flower operation in the Niagara area. It’s operated by a second generation of Van Geest brothers – Jenn’s brothers Rob, Bryan and John – and it was again featured in our September 2009 edition!)

WORKING TO BECOME MORE LABOUR EFFICIENT
After several years of expansion Orchard Park Growers is focusing on becoming more labour efficient. With the increase in minimum wage in the last few years, the company will work to reduce its labour cost to remain competitive for the future.  They welcomed their first offshore workers last year from Mexico. “It’s working extremely well. They’re great people who love to work.” Other measures to improve internal plant transport as well as increase quality are being worked on.

 p32_3925-Young-plants  
Young plants at Orchard Park.

 
Orchard Park has five full-time employees, and up to 20 people in peak-season.

Orchard Park has installed energy curtains in all of its greenhouses. The company took advantage of some incentives offered by the Greenbelt Green Energy Program for Agriculture and the Canada-Ontario Farm Stewardship Program to assist with some of the work.

Gerard is expecting a payback in under three years. “The difference is night and day,” he says of the new
curtains. “You can’t afford not to put them in.” It’s not just the heat saved in winter, it’s also the summer shading.

While energy prices have risen considerably over the past 10 years or so, their total volume of gas used has been greatly reduced.

RUNOFF WATER FILTER-TREATED AND MIXED WITH FRESH WATER
Runoff water is collected and filter-treated before being mixed with fresh water. Fresh water only is used in the propagation area. There are two large storage tanks on site. Subirrigation is used with all crops.

Gerard’s father, John Schouwenaar, is retired, but still likes to come in regularly. “He still works about full time,” Gerard explains. John handles a lot of the general maintenance duties. 

Orchard Park has two growers. Matthew Terlouw primarily looks after propagation, while Ed Gansekoele is more involved with the finished crops. Assistant grower Stephanie Veldman works with both of them, handling most of the recordkeeping and crop scouting.

Having the growers allows Gerard to spend more time on marketing and sales.

Orchard Park wants to be known for having a consistently excellent product. “You’ve got to have quality, service and price all line up to be successful,” says Gerard.

“We really enjoy this business,” he adds. “It’s great to be able to grow such beautiful products, and you know customers are going to be happy to have them in their homes. We take great pride in what we grow.”
They also appreciate the many relationships the business has fostered with fellow-growers, wholesalers and customers. “The people in this industry are great.”

www.opgrow.ca

 FCO: effective growers’ voice to government
Gerard Schouwenaar is again volunteering on an industry association, this time as vice-chair of Flowers Canada Ontario (FCO). He served many years ago with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
Flowers Canada works daily, and largely behind the scenes, on a number of key issues. “You have to speak with one voice when dealing with government,” he explains. The government wants to help growers, but needs to hear a clear message.”

For example, Flowers Canada hosted a visit by key decision-makers with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) last year. “We took them through a number of greenhouses,” and the visitors were quite impressed.

Flowers Canada also helps growers tap into a range of programs. “It’s important to be at the table and get our fair share of agricultural program funding.”

Flowers Canada’s work on the research side has been equally impressive, helping leverage matching funds for various projects.

“We have a great industry, and it’s important everyone does their share to help it.”

The Pick Ontario marketing campaign is another good example of Flowers Canada’s leadership. “Some chain stores are now asking for it by name,” says Gerard. “They’re looking to buy Ontario-grown flowers on a regular basis. Growers need to get involved and support it in order to further promote our industry and increase sales.”

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