Chris Higgins, Hort Americas:
“Labor is the number one topic in all the conversations we are currently having”
As we begin 2019, the moment is here to take a general look at the industry, and who better to discuss today’s topics with than Chris Higgins? With Hort Americas continually competing to be one of the leading wholesalers in North America, and Chris being a complete horti-geek, he’s on top of the industry’s topics of today and tomorrow. And there’s much to cover at the moment. “For us, Hort Americas, the only constant thing we see is change. Being a wholesaler and being constantly aware of the need to add value to our customers’ businesses, we are focused on finding the winning innovation of tomorrow”, he explains.
It’s been almost a decade since Hort Americas was founded. In April 2009, a group of young American entrepreneurs united with the Dutch suppliers of Horticoop and started bringing horticultural products to the quickly growing horticultural industry of the USA and Canada. Operating as a wholesaler, the company made many products accessible to bigger and smaller companies.
Within their client base you can find vegetable growers, ornamental growers as well as a wide variety of growers implementing a wide variety of innovative techniques used to produce an even wider variety of crops. However, there are various topics that unite them. “Labor is the number one topic in all the conversations we are currently having. It does not seem to matter if we are talking about commercial horticulture, field agriculture or vertical farming. This trend seems constant. In vegetable production as well as in ornamental horticultural production – the quality, availability and cost of labor is the number one topic in North America”, Chris explains. To the company, being on top of these trends and offering solutions to them is key.
“We have a fairly narrow focus on a niche market and we are in contact with our client base daily. This allows us to understand their needs intimately and find and deliver solutions that make our customers more profitable and more successful.” He continues, “This includes new emerging markets as well as established industries that are evolving to meet demand and stay relevant, like indoor farming of medicinal crops and the hydroponic production of soft fruits.”
On a side note he offers, “I do believe that out of these new or evolving grower populations, we are going to see some all stars: people that do things differently – apply new technology, or operate their business in a different way – and become the leaders. But, as common throughout history, it will only be a small percentage of the companies that change the industry. And it is not our desire nor our goal to pick winners. To us, the focus is the complete industry: seeing the similarities between the companies and the way trends and novelties impact their operation. Within these topics, we select products that are winners to us: that can add value to most growers’ businesses. That’s how we’re serving the industry and how we are on the look-out for our own product range.”
Role as a wholesaler
The company’s vision sounds clear – but there’s challenges in the market. In 2018 Horticoop, the Dutch partner of Hort Americas, announced it would resign their wholesale activities and focus on production only. Whilst this does not affect the Hort Americas business, it did urge the company to rethink their role as a wholesaler. Adding value is key, Chris explains. “Being a distributor is more than just selling or providing products. To us it is offering growers solutions to better their business in both the short and the long term.” To do so, HortAmericas puts a lot of effort in helping growers with their specific challenges and, if needed, educate them about the solutions. “Before, being a supplier meant supplying products. Now it’s about understanding what our growers need and value, then finding ways to fulfill those needs as a service: educating, improving the crop(s) quality, creating a better more efficient work environment, and eventually helping growers find ways to become more profitable.”
It’s not just a vision to Hort Americas. Besides being active continuously in educating growers and researching a lot, the company (which two years ago started their own demo greenhouse) is focused on creating positive change within their community while at the same time improving the knowledge of the Hort Americas team and their ability to communicate that knowledge with both their vendors and their grower partners.
“Thanks to our relationship with the State Fair of Texas (better known as Big Tex Urban Farms), who’ve continuously supported our business, we’ve been able to combine our efforts, energies and resources to create a demo greenhouse at the fairgrounds based in Dallas, Texas. As long as you have scheduled an appointment, it is open for both the community and growers year round. It is in production year round. It is in a constant state of learning and development. But most importantly it is contributing free, safe and healthy food to members of the south Dallas community in need.”
When asked why Dallas, Texas, Higgins responds, “We are testing products and trying to prove their value. The hot Texas summers offer a tough and difficult environment to grow in. If we can make it work in Dallas, we are confident in the quality of these products and their abilities to perform in some of the most harsh circumstances.” From their commitment to have a positive social impact to their commitment to playing an important role in both the success of their vendors and their grower partners, Higgins is excited and enthusiastic about the future.Then there’s the social aspect: adding value to the local community.
Chilling the rootzone
In the demo greenhouse the Moleaer system is shown – one of Hort Americas’ most talked about products at the moment. “We’ve focused on the limiting factors in producing the best possible crops 12 months of the year. One of the biggest issues in Dallas turned out to be controlling temperature of the root-zone. Chilling the rootzone is not cost-effective in most scenarios. Adding dissolved oxygen to it, turned out to do the trick.”
To Chris, the Moleaer product range offered a typical Hort Americas solution. “It can benefit many growers in an affordable, easy way and it is applicable in a wide area of the countries we service”, he explains. “With Hort Americas, we want to be there for a large group of growers. Products that are only accessible to a small part of the market are not a good fit to us. We are looking for the products that help the average grower in their business.”
Add value by specializing
He explains how the North American industry on one hand consists of big companies, in need of tailor-made solutions. “Then there is a large amount of smaller scale customers. These farming operations do not follow the same pattern of upscaling or monocropping. Instead they add value by specializing in specific groups of products, serving local communities with locally grown product or whatever business model proves them to be right. Whilst we are capable of supplying the large customers, we also want to bring suitable products and services to the farms and greenhouses of all shapes and sizes.”
The Sudlac product portfolio is another example of a product line that is effective for large and small greenhouse ranges as well as hydroponic vegetable production and ornamental horticulture. The demand for the various shading solutions has been on the rise. “Creating a better production climate is of course important to growers everywhere in the world. The added value at the moment is in innovative second generation shading products that not only reduce the amount of light in the greenhouse, but can manipulate and improve light in ways that can enhance crop quality.”
USDA Fresh Herbs Grant Planning Meeting held during the 2018 Texas State Fair. (photo Hort Americas)
Relationships with suppliers
The importance of a good and stable relationship isn’t a one way road. Relationships with suppliers are of high importance to Hort Americas. “Obviously the product itself is important in our selection, but it’s not just that… it cannot be just that. Trust between us and our valued suppliers has continued to evolve into a vital part of our business model. We look for specific relationships with suppliers. We look for companies that we can count on and trust, and vice versa. We ask ourselves, ‘Can the manufacturer add value to the chain? Can we help them market their products in the better ways? Do the manufacturers understand the needs of the market?’ Again we want to create partnerships. Partnerships lead to better business for everyone involved.”
A perfect example of this is Hort Americas’ relationship with Current by GE (LED grow light solutions). Adding lighting to the crop is an important topic for many growers wanting to lengthen their season and increase their production. “This goes for vegetables, but for sure is not exclusive to vegetable crops. Managing light intensity, light quality and photoperiod is important in all crop production. LED lighting has helped everyone from tree nurseries (for example) becoming more efficient in growing maple trees to tissue culture facilities producing ornamental and medicinal crops.
“Investing in LED is all about effectiveness and efficiency – making it a perfect Hort Americas product catalog. And the engineering team at Current has helped us to develop a variety of fixtures perfect for many (not all) applications. We are working towards that.” Higgins’ excitement about the GE partnership carries over to other partners that are helping them produce innovative fertilizers and have provided them with opportunities to explore new technologies like 30MHZ (sensor products offering growers a better control and more insights on their crop).
Keeping up is a challenge
With the Hort Americas client base being super diverse, staying on top of the various needs in the industry is of vital importance. “Keeping up with all the issues along with the wide range of crops and topics indeed is a challenge”, Chris confirms. “On the other hand, trends are similar across the categories. Labor (again) is something affecting the complete industry: the quality, availability and cost of it is the number one topic in North America at the moment. The biggest difference between the various sub-segments within industries are access finance and the pace of developments and investments – depending on both the maturity of the sectors and what their opportunity for profits look like. But in the end the demand of growers is the same in all crops. It all comes down to the smart use of technology and how that technology lets the grower achieve a sound ROI. That’s the main question we are all trying to answer. This will always be the question we are trying to answer.”