Thursday, July 26, 2007

Promote Our Brand, Keep Expanding?

Our heads were still reeling from the suggestions put forth by Wallace and Mr. Wong, when Wendy showed up at our door. What is it with the letter “W”? Three strikes and you’re out? Or is it third time lucky?

Wendy had an entirely different approach from her two predecessors. She didn’t want us to change a thing—she likes the operation as is. So what did she want, you ask?

She promised to put our brand name on the map.

Whereas now only a handful of retail outlets buy all of our produce, she proposed that through the magic of marketing and publicity, she would make the average consumer aware that our Lettuce, Herbs, and Pak Choi were absolutely the best, and that they should clamor for more.

“How can we possibly produce more? I asked naively. “Our four greenhouses are working to capacity; we have trouble fulfilling all the orders that come in.”

It seems that if the demand is created for a certain brand, by the rules of the marketplace the brand has to expand production to meet the demand.

“We’d have to double our greenhouse space if demand doubled,” said Chuck, “and that would mean putting the cart before the horse. Would the banks lend us the money to expand, on the possibility of future orders?”

“Not possibility,” answered Wendy, “certainty. By giving your brand name my treatment, I guarantee that demand for your produce will double in three months and exponentially increase over the next year.”

“What if you’re wrong? What if we expand and the market for fresh salad stuff and vegetables collapses? We’re left holding the bag and the bank has us on the hook for a huge amount,” countered Chuck.

Sounded like another pie in the sky venture to me. I drew Chuck aside and whispered in his ear to help me get rid of her. Chuck, however, had other ideas.

“Is your marketing company ready to come in as partners and take the risk with us?” he asked the visibly surprised Wendy. She hemmed and hawed but then she speed dialled a number on her cell and stepped outside to talk to her partner.

When she came back, she said that her partner had thoroughly researched our business and that he liked what he found. “He especially liked your use of Advanced Nutrients products,” she added.

Her partner turned out to be an avid gardener, who has used AN products for years. In fact, he applied the same fertilizer we did, Micro, Grow, and Bloom, even though he has an outdoor garden. AN products can be used equally well whether you grow in hydro or in soil.

“Ernie says that if that’s the way you want it, he’ll go for it. He’s tasted your Boston and Specialty Lettuce and he says it is the best of the lot grown in the area. He’s not too fond of Chinese food, so he passed over the Pak Choi tasting to me, but he loves your Herbs.”

So once again we’re consulting lawyers and drawing up partnership papers. I’m not so sure about all this, but Chuck was persuaded by the marketing company’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is.

Part of the 38-page contract is our solemn promise that we will use no other fertilizer, vitamin supplement, calcium additive, or root colonizer, other than the products made by Advanced Nutrients.

The contract even names the products—Micro, Grow, and Bloom (without the Bloom), Sensi Cal Mg Grow, B-52 (B-complex vitamin supplement), Grandma Enggy’s Humic Acid and Fulvic Acid, Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice (root colonizers), Mother Earth Blended Super Tea Grow, and Grandma Enggy’s Seaweed Extract.

Wendy’s partner doesn’t miss a thing. The contract even mentions that Humic Acid is not to be used on the Herbs, which are marketed with their roots on. The rich black, organic additive colors the roots of plants black. For the Lettuce and the Pak Choi, whose roots get cut off before marketing, this is not a problem.

“It is imperative,” reads the contract, “ that Mother Earth Blended Super Tea Grow be added to the nutrient mix in all of the greenhouses, present and future, since the 100 % organic ingredients of this product will help balance the synthetic nature of the basic fertilizers used in this horticultural operation.”

“The alfalfa extract, canola, crab, fish, and shrimp meal, along with the citric acid, earthworm castings, and sea kelp nourish the Lettuce, Pak Choi, and Herbs in such subtle and tangible ways that synthetics are just not able to duplicate.”

“We, the undersigned, promise to keep on using all of these products and not take any shortcuts for cost-cutting or any other reason. The present high quality of our produce is to be kept intact, otherwise this contract becomes null and void.”

Chuck and I have a few days to consider all the angles before we sign on the dotted line. We are researching their company, just to see whom we’re considering as future partners. Wish us luck!

posted by silvio @ 11:21 PM   0 comments

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Art or Artifice of Chinese Persuasion

I don’t know what it is about our four-greenhouse operation that attracts strange people, but we sure get our share of them. First there was Bjorn, the zealot Swede, enemy of polyethylene, friend of glass and herbs.

At least he spurred us on to expand from three to four greenhouses. And our herb producing operation is going really well, so we should be thankful to him. But he was still an odd bird, as my mother used to say.

Our latest arrival in that category was a Chinese-American gentleman, let’s just call him Mr. Wong. He knocked on the door of our Greenhouse Number One, the one that grows Boston Lettuce.

Mr. Wong tried to convince Chuck and I that lettuce is on the way out in terms of popularity, and that we should switch all four greenhouses over to Pak Choi production.

He went further than that in the persuasion department. He offered to sign a contract guaranteeing that he personally would buy every pak choi plant that we grew for the next five years!

He told us he was from Hong Kong, so we checked around with our Chinese customers to see if anyone had heard of him. Our main contact in the Chinese community said that he might be the offspring of the Hong Kong “Wong” family, who are super rich and—true to stereotype—inscrutable.

Pak Choi (Brassica chinensis) is also known as Bok Choy in Cantonese or Bai Cai in Mandarin. It is a member of the Mustard family and can be added to almost any dish. Also, every part of the plant is edible.

The four types of Pak Choi are:

Chinese White Bok Choy, which has thick green leaves and white stalks and grows to the height of 30 cm.

Shanghai Bok Choy features light green leaves on the same colored stalks, is usually 15 cm high at harvest.

Soup Spoon Bok Choy has cupped leaves that look like ladles on white stalks. This is the tallest of the four, it can reach 45 cm in height.

Canton type is short, with dark green leaves that appear convoluted on white stalks. This type is often harvested early as Baby Bok Choy.

Part of the deal with Mr. Wong would be that we grow all four types, one in each greenhouse. Chuck was tempted, but I guess I’m always the defender of the status quo, so I opposed the plan.

“I happen to like growing a variety of things,” I said to Chuck. “Besides, Chinese food is not bad occasionally, but I wouldn’t want to eat it every day.”

Mr. Wong wanted to know every single detail of our operation. Before we shared any of our secrets with him, we asked him for some references.

He had letters of introduction from the head of the Hong Kong Bank, from the Chinese-American Benevolent Association, and from Connie Chung, the well-known Chinese-American newscaster.

So we told him that we modeled our hydroponic greenhouse operations on the Cornell University Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Model and that we’ll think about his offer and get back to him.

Then he started quizzing us about the nutrients we put into our Nutrient Ponds. We enthusiastically said that all the products we use come from one Canadian company, Advanced Nutrients.

Our base fert is Micro, Grow, and Bloom, without the Bloom. “We don’t want our lettuce to bolt,” we said with a laugh. He replied, quite seriously, that certain types of Pak Choi like cooler temperatures, while others prefer warmer ones.

“For instance, Canton ones, which are grown generally for Baby Bok Choy, like warmer climates. In the cooler areas they bolt too easily.”

Then we told him that in order to ensure crisp, crunchy leaves on our lettuce and Pak Choi, we use Sensi Cal Mg Grow, with its high level of Calcium and Magnesium.

He countered that Bok Choy has a high level of Calcium in each plant (10.5%), along with an elevated level of Iron (8%). “Bok Choy leaves are always crunchy,” asserted Mr. Wong.

We tried to tell him that Humic Acid and Fulvic Acid provide a fertile growing environment for our salad greens, even though Humic Acid colors the Nutrient Pond black. “We cut the roots off before we sell our produce, so it doesn’t matter.”

We also said that we make an exception for our Herbs, which we sell with their roots on. So we don’t use Humic Acid in our Herbal Greenhouse. “Fulvic Acid is okay, since it is Golden yellow.”

Then he said that his family is also in the import business and that they actually supply his other operations (he was fairly vague about these) with plant nutrients.

So part of the deal was that we’d have to buy our fertilizer and other additives from his family business. All made in and imported from China.

Now we’ve all heard about the tainted pet foods and the toxic toothpaste as well as the dozens of other examples of recent recalls and bad products involving Chinese ingredients.

Besides, Advanced Nutrients has always been loyal to us, so Chuck and I decided to stay loyal to Advanced Nutrients. We officially declined Mr. Wong’s offer.

As I mixed up another batch of our root colonizers, Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice (at half=strength for hydro) I thanked our lucky stars that keep us safe from gigantic schemes that all seem to have a catch.

posted by silvio @ 7:33 PM   0 comments

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Growing Bagged Salad, Instead of Head Lettuce?

Consumers are becoming more and more health conscious. Health and well being are uppermost on people’s minds, that is when they’re not fretting about climate change. Well being is the new buzzword that has replaced fitness.

You’d think that by growing and harvesting hundreds of heads of lettuce and pak choi each and every day, Chuck and I are on the cutting edge of the health conscious market. Not to mention the thousands of herbs that come out of our fourth greenhouse, the one that Bjorn helped to build.

Chuck suggested contacting a business guru to make sure that our operation meets the changing needs of our customers. The efficiency expert-looking individual with a buzz-cut and buttoned-down shirt collar finally sat down with us, after spending a week studying our four greenhouses and our methods of conducting business.

“You’re absolutely right in growing health-conscious foods,” he began. His name is Wallace, which I presume is his last name. That’s how he introduced himself. “But you’re ignoring the latest buying habits of consumers who have less and less time to feed themselves.”

Wallace informed us in no uncertain terms that whereas people want to eat healthy, their penchant for fast food has not diminished. Therefore, instead of buying heads of lettuce, which involves making the salad yourself, more and more people are grabbing a bag of salad off the supermarket shelf.

Prudent companies, especially the large ones, have anticipated this trend and they’ve switched from growing heads of lettuce hydroponically, to harvesting the leaves of the lettuce and allowing the plant to grow more leaves.

Then, as a value added measure, they triple-wash the lettuce leaves and cut them up into small pieces. By combining different varieties of lettuce with some herbs, or even radishes and shredded carrots, they create 150 gram packages of ready-made salads which can be sold for triple the price of a head of lettuce.

He suggested switching our Boston and Specialty Lettuce Operations to this multiple-harvesting model, then combine our herbs with the lettuce to create interesting salads. “I don’t know how the pak choi fits into this, but you might want to switch that greenhouse into growing Iceberg Head Lettuce, which is still a favorite of American consumers,” concluded Wallace.

After he left, Chuck and I had a few heated discussions about his proposal. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was my position. “We can’t ignore the changing face of the marketplace,” iterated Chuck.

I figured out how to bring him over to my side. By looking at the figures as to how much changing our entire operation would cost, I was sure he would see it my way and give us the green light to continue with the tried and true.

“We have loyal customers,” I reminded Chuck, ”and our orders for the three varieties of Lettuce, the Pak Choi, and the Herbs are well into 2008. Finding new customers for bagged salad would require market research and hiring some more sales people.”

“Besides, Wallace admitted that the processing operation would be labor-intensive, so our costs for wages would skyrocket,” said I. “Also, buying brand new machinery to process our produce would put us back into a debt position, just when we’re within sight of the end of red ink for a while.”

Chuck pointed out that by harvesting the leaves of each head of lettuce three or four times, we would reduce our costs by not having to start so many plants each and every day. “Yeah, but it would stop the flow of our assembly line type of operation,” I retorted. "You can’t stop young lettuce from growing, so there would be a logjam at the harvest end of the operation.”

He suggested that by using VHO, Very High Output, we could keep our lettuce in the vegetative stage for an extended period. “We would still use Micro and Grow and Sensi Cal Mg Mix Grow and all the other additives, supplements, and root colonizers that we use now,” he said.

These Advanced Nutrients products have been largely responsible for the success of our operation. Grandma Enggy’s Humic and Fulvic Acid, which recreate the rich, black, fertile humus-like environment that our forebears used to grow their food in--in a hydroponic setting, guarantee that our synthetic basic ferts are tempered with organic goodness.

I don’t want to mess all that up, just because a business advisor with a brush-cut says that we should do things differently. “Who’s to say that the older the lettuce gets, the quality of the leaves will remain high,” I asked Chuck, rhetorically.” Also, older lettuce is more prone to disease, is it not?”

“You really don’t want to do this?” asked Chuck. He finally caught on, I thought. “How can we guarantee that the bagged lettuce will stay fresh?” I wanted to know.

“The processing takes place in a temperature-controlled environment, from harvest to cutting to bagging to transport, all the way to the customer. The processing room temp is kept at 5° C (41° F) and the product is carried in refrigerated delivery trucks to the customers.”

“The cost of air conditioning and refrigeration has to be factored in,” I said. “I know that we keep the temp of our packing rooms down low even now, but by being able to pack the heads of lettuce in ice, we save on the air conditioning,” I added.

The salad leaves are placed in baskets and washed three times in water that has an additive designed for washing vegetables. Then an automated Flume takes over and washes the lettuce leaves again in almost freezing water (1-2° C) after which a draining rack and a centrifuge are used to get rid of the water.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) is used to pack the salad into a plastic bag. The machine removes most of the air from the bag and replaces it with food-grade Nitrogen, before sealing it. The environment in the bag is 95% Nitrogen and 5% Oxygen, and the bags are permeable for gas exchange.

“There you go,” I jumped in, “don’t you think our customers would object to having their salads bagged this way?” I asked, but Chuck countered with stats to prove that sales of bagged salads are increasing all over the developed world.

So we took a survey of our customers and the majority said that they would prefer to continue buying entire heads of lettuce, rather than pre-packaged salads, since they were suspicious of how long the bagged salads have been on the shelf. With our hundreds of heads of lettuce delivered daily to stores in our region, our customers are assured that they were harvested in the morning of the same day.

Thanks to Barricade, Scorpion Juice, and Protector, our Lettuce-Pak Choi-and Herb growing operation is relatively pest and disease free. By going from seed to harvest in 35 days, we only deal with young lettuce, as opposed to older, disease-prone plants, which is the most persuasive argument against switching to a bagged-salad operation.

posted by silvio @ 11:31 PM   0 comments