Originally published in Issue 12
As the U.S. market for ornamental and food crops continues to evolve, Westland Orchids and Westland Produce are looking for products that consumers are willing to pay for and are profitable.
When Jerry Van Wingerden started growing greenhouse cut flowers at Westland Orchids Inc. in Carpinteria, Calif., in 1971, he never imagined that someday he would be growing greenhouse food crops along with flowers. But in 2010 a sister company, Westland Produce Inc., began growing hydroponic lettuce. Even before a lettuce crop was planted, Westland Orchids went through an evolution in terms of the flowers it was producing.
“We started with carnations and chrysanthemums and then later added cymbidium orchids,” said David Van Wingerden, who is Jerry’s son and president of Westland Produce. “We were also doing bouquets for the supermarkets, but we evolved and stopped doing those and began to specialize in orchids. Five years ago we started growing the produce.”
Cut flower competition
Van Wingerden said the reason for the change in the cut flower crops was a direct result of the flowers that started to be shipped in from South America.
“The flowers coming from South America were competing too much with our standard crops including chrysanthemums,” he said. “Chrysanthemums were one of our biggest crops. These were the flowers that would go into our bouquets. Bouquet prices were driven down by offshore product. We were not able to increase prices on our bouquets, yet our costs were rising. Since we weren’t able to make much money on the bouquets, we discontinued them and started focusing on the floral crops that generated more revenue and profit for us.
“We grow primarily cut orchids and sales are increasing every year. We also have an 8-inch pot program for cymbidium and phalaenopsis orchids and we do some poinsettias for Christmas sales. Our floral products are sold to supermarkets across the United States. There are some that are sold wholesale. The cut cymbidiums are sold in the form of sprays in a sleeve. Sometimes we add aspidistra leaves to make spray bouquets. For the holidays, including Mother’s Day and Easter, we sell a lot of orchid corsages.”
VanWingerden said sales of the potted orchids have remained steady.
“At one point sales of our potted orchids had declined because several other U.S. orchid growers were pushing 6-inch plants, which have a lower price point to make it more affordable for consumers. We lost some traction on the potted plant side.
“More recently our 8-inch orchid program has started to gain in popularity because consumers have begun to value larger plants. These plants have taller spikes, more flowers and larger flowers. About 80 percent of our orchid sales are cut flowers and the remaining sales are potted plants.”
The cut orchids are grown in 12-inch plastic pots containing rockwool.
“Rockwool is an inert growing medium that allows us to control the fertility of the crop in order to maximize yields,” Van Wingerden said. “We have our own tissue culture lab in which we multiply all of our orchid varieties to rejuvenate the crop. It takes six to seven years before we have a sizable plant that is producing flower sprays.
“The cut orchids stay in the same pots until the yields start to decline. The orchids remain in the pots from 12-15 years depending on the variety. Every year we evaluate the plants for vigor. We pull out some plants with less vigor and replace them with ones from the tissue culture lab.”
In 2006 Van Wingerden went to the Netherlands to look at potential vegetable crops that could be added to Westland’s production.
“There were other growers in Carpinteria who were producing hydroponic greenhouse vegetables and it was a crop that we wanted to take a look at,” he said. “We knew we had to diversify what we were doing because we didn’t know for how long cut flowers would be sustainable. In Holland they grow a lot of hydroponic vegetables and they have the technology to grow those vegetables.
“We looked at various Dutch crops. Lettuce seemed to be the most economical crop to grow. So it was relatively easy to add to our production. Our total greenhouse production area for both the floral and vegetable crops is about 32 acres.”
Water-saving production system
Van Wingerden said some changes were made to the infrastructure of the greenhouses to accommodate the deep water culture system used for vegetable production. The biggest investment was in a water treatment system to clean recycled water.
“The deep water culture system is a less expensive investment initially than nutrient film technique or water film,” Van Wingerden said. “We are using well water for both the orchids and the vegetables, but it is sterilized before it used with the vegetables.
“We don’t replace the water in the deep water culture. The plants are floated in extruded polystyrene foam rafts on the water. The only water that is lost in the system is taken up by the plants. The system refills the bath with fresh water and fertilizer once it has dropped below a certain level. We never change the water out in the bath.”
With the drought in California, Van Wingerden said water is always an issue.
“People ask us what are we doing to help conserve water for the drought?” he said. We haven’t been doing anything different than what we’ve been doing for many years. Hydroponic production in itself is water conservation. Using hydroponics allows us to produce the highest yield per acre foot of water vs. conventional field growing.”
When Van Wingerden first began trying to grow lettuce he used a small trial bath.
“I’m still using it,” he said. “Anything that I want to trial I use the small bath. I can move it wherever I want. That’s how I started with the different varieties to find out if we could even do this. We gradually built a full production size bath. We trialed it and it proved to be successful. We are now producing over 1.2 million heads of lettuce per acre per year.”
Marketing food crops
Westland Produce grows lettuce (green butter and red butter), upland cress and a mix of red oak lettuce, green oak lettuce and red multi-leaf lettuce that are grown together and called a Medley. Green butter lettuce is the biggest crop.
“Everything we grow and harvest is with the roots attached,” Van Wingerden said. “We sell our produce to a mix of wholesale and retail outlets. We sell to a lot of wholesale markets in California, which distribute our product across the United States. We also sell to wholesale customers across the United States.”
The upland cress is packaged in a poly bag. It is marketed in a retail bag or a food service bag that is sold to restaurants.
Butter lettuce is a soft variety so it is packaged in recycled plastic clamshells.
“We also have a food service pack for the butter lettuce,” Van Wingerden said. “It’s a freight-saver for shipping across the United States. It allows us to ship double the amount of product we can with the clamshells. It’s good for food service because it cuts down on unnecessary costs.”
Van Wingerden said Westland Produce adheres to a stringent testing protocol for food safety. The company is certified by Primus GFS. The company also grows some of its lettuce organically and it is certified organic. The company also is certified by the Non-GMO Project for not producing genetically modified food crops.
Van Wingerden said he could grow many different food crops in the deep water system.
“Growing the crops really isn’t the issue,” he said. “The issue is whether or not there is a market for the crops and whether there are customers willing to pay for them. Growing hydroponically it costs more to produce so we need a higher price for the product. Another question is will consumers see the value in the product and be willing to pay for it? Growing hydroponically results in higher yields and the product is cleaner and has a longer shelf life.”
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.