Whether growers are producing vegetables, ornamentals or other hydroponic crops, Hort Americas is working to provide its customers with the products and knowledge they need to be successful.
When Hort Americas in Bedford, Texas, started operating as a wholesale horticulture distributor in March 2009, the company had no existing customer base.
“We would sell anything we could to anyone who would buy from us,” said general manager Chris Higgins. “That is not uncommon for new companies starting out, especially those that are doing wholesale supplies.
“When Hort Americas first started, the partnership we had with horticulture distributor and cooperative Horticoop in the Netherlands allowed us access to a lot of products that the company was already selling in Europe. Initially our focus was European products that were well suited for commercial vegetable hydroponic growers in North America. Most of the products we offered were not available from U.S. manufacturers.”
Even though the North American hydroponic vegetable industry is not as large as the Dutch industry, Higgins said U.S. growers have been interested in European technology.
“We looked to build off of our partnership with Horticoop which enabled us to consolidate orders in Europe on co-loaded containers. The products were shipped to the United States, unloaded in Dallas, and then shipped to our customers. The North American market is sophisticated enough to use the products shipped from Europe. But it does not always mean that the European manufacturers completely understand all of the needs of our customers.”
Higgins said the North American customers differ widely depending on geography, market demand and opportunity.
“These differences create opportunities for both low and high technology production methods and products,” he said. “It became glaringly important that our vendor partnerships needed to allow us to address each customer’s specific needs and level of technical expertise.”
Maintaining the right product inventory
When Hort Americas first started operating its product inventory was very limited.
“If we didn’t have a product in inventory then we were looking at eight to 12 weeks to deliver a customer’s order,” Higgins said. “Both our customers and Hort Americas had to be very good at planning in advance. This also meant we had to be even better at communication. Something we admittedly struggled with early on and continue to always improve at.”
“We focused on providing our smaller customers with the insight to what the most high tech growers in the world were doing. It was our job to figure out how to take what sophisticated Dutch operations were using and then find a way to fit parts of that into modified U.S. production systems.”
One key difference is that unlike many Dutch greenhouse ornamental plant and vegetable growers who specialize in one crop, growers in the United States produce multiple crops in the same greenhouse.
“One of the biggest challenges for us was working with U.S. hydroponic leafy greens and herb growers, who grow a wide variety of crops in the same greenhouse,” Higgins said. “We work with growers and researchers on how to take the best products, equipment and knowledge that were built for monocrops and market them to U.S. growers who produce the variety their markets demand.
“Hort Americas also realizes it cannot do this for all products and technologies. Instead it has chosen to focus many of its resources on lighting, substrates and nutrients, including the products needed to make these categories ultimately successful.”
Evolving customer base, product mix, focus
As Hort Americas evolved so did its customers. Its product offerings have evolved with its customers’ needs.
“We listened, learned and then changed so that we could continue to add value to our customers and help them continue to grow,” Higgins said. “As we listened to our customers, better understood their needs and learned more about our competition, we found the areas where we were able to evaluate our capabilities and find ways where we could excel.”
Even though Hort Americas chose to focus on three product categories (lighting, substrates and nutrients), it didn’t abandon the other products it was selling.
“We took what our customers were asking for and tried to develop more expertise in those categories,” Higgins said. “This is where Hort Americas has really worked to add value. We do our best to share information and answer the technical questions consistently and as unbiasedly as possible.”
Filling the lighting knowledge gap
Hort Americas was a very early adopter of light emitting diode (LED) technology.
“We tackled LED technology much like we do everything else, we started visiting growers,” Higgins said. “We heard their concerns, questions and comments regarding light. This forced us to go back and do a lot of research. We found the gaps between the growers, the lighting companies and the horticulture lighting researchers. After that it was simple, fill the gaps.”
Higgins said there still might be a gap in lighting knowledge, but the industry continues to grow, learn and improve on the way it communicates.
“Early on our value came from focusing on the basics,” he said. “This started with helping growers gain the knowledge they needed to make a lighting decision. When we first started, 90 percent of our customers only spoke in terms of footcandles, lux, lumens and joules. Our goal was to get everyone communicating exclusively in micromoles and moles.”
To better advise its customers on managing light, Hort Americas has initiated new business partnerships and added more products including advanced shading products and other reflective materials to enable growers to make the most of natural light levels.
Clean, consistent substrates
Hort Americas is focusing on engineered substrates.
“These are substrates where we are either working with the manufacturers or we are the substrate manufacturer focusing on engineering certain physical traits based on what our customers require,” Higgins said. “This may be guided by the crop, the production/irrigation system or the regions of the country in which the growers are located. We want to offer engineered substrates that are very clean and consistent.
“For growers producing ornamental crops there is a lot of attention paid to weight, consistency and aesthetics. For growers of edible crops there is a lot of focus on consistency and yields. Since the substrate is an important part of the foundation of the plants, we make sure the substrates are as consistent and precise as we can possibly make them.”
Hort Americas has begun to look at how substrates best fit into each grower’s production system. This has led to the addition of a variety of products including containers which assist growers in making the root zone more controllable and manageable.
Simplifying fertilizer numbers
Hort Americas is selling both traditional and organic fertilizers to all size growers.
“What we learned with nutrients is that there is a big part of the U.S. hydroponic market that struggles with understanding nutrients,” Higgins said. “Some growers were also finding it difficult to get answers that they could relate to. We created tools like the online hydroponic fertilizer video series that makes it easier for growers to plug in their numbers. That also extends to working on problems that didn’t, and in some cases, don’t have any simple answers like organic fertilizers for hydroponic production systems.
“There are more growers trying organic fertilizers. This combined with the increasing demand for locally-grown produce, is creating a need for “systems” that don’t sacrifice yield. Hort Americas continues to work with growers to find the answers.”
Supporting industry events, research
Hort Americas has also made the choice to reinvest in the industry through education by supporting and sponsoring research and events. This includes supporting events like the International Congress on Controlled Environment Agriculture in Panama, the Lighting Solutions open house at Michigan State, the East Meets West conference in November 2016 and Ag Tech Worlds Collide in February 2018. The company is also supporting the horticulture research programs at Cornell University and Michigan State University.
“That is our way of reinvesting in the industry and helping to educate the industry,” Higgins said. “We are investing our profits to make the industry stronger and we are doing that through education.”
Demo greenhouse expands product, customer knowledge
In 2016 Hort Americas retrofitted a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse in Dallas for the purpose of demonstrating and researching new and existing products. Tyler Baras was hired as special projects manager to oversee the trialing of crops in different production systems along with the testing of existing and potential products for the company’s online catalog. Baras conducted studies on substrates and fertilizers.
“We are focusing on better understanding the trials and tribulations growers go through when making decisions on what products to use,” Higgins said. “For example, we want to make sure we clearly understand how different irrigation regimes or different irrigation methods impact the substrates or the fertilizers we are recommending.”
For more: Hort Americas, (469) 532-2383; firstname.lastname@example.org; https://hortamericas.com.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; email@example.com.