Ron van der Hengst – South Central Growers
Those long racks and shelves of annuals are an explosion of color that gardeners long to see through the winter months—an effusion of reds, yellows, pinks, blues and more awaiting a new home in a patch of soil.
While the gardeners buying their annuals in big-box stores such as Lowe’s in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and some of southern Indiana, enjoy the abundance of colors, the source of the beauty—South Central Growers of Springfield, Tennessee—remains little known to them.
But those petunias, marigolds, zinnias and begonias, as well as the mums and poinsettias that make fall and holiday seasons colorful, are grown in 1 million square feet of greenhouse facilities and 17 acres of outdoor fields. South Central Growers President of Operations Ron van der Hengst is hesitant to estimate how many species are grown within the 100 genus types the company offers.
And for van der Hengst and his brothers, Alex and Tim, operating South Central Growers as second-generation family owners of the business is as much an expression of beauty as faith.
“We have a deep understanding of not just the customer but the end user and communication is one of the company’s biggest strengths,” van der Hengst says. “We understand end users don’t need flowers. It’s a want. They choose to add them to their homes.”
A cultivating family
The van der Hengst family bought South Central Growers in 1990 after emigrating from the Netherlands in 1981. First generation ownership included two of the brothers’ uncles before their father purchased the business.
Alex van der Hengst was the first of the brothers to take on a leadership role when he became leader of the sales and marketing department after graduating college with a business degree in 1994. Ron joined in 1996 and eventually moved into his father’s role leading operations. The youngest brother, Tim, who’s 11 years younger than Ron, joined the company in 2007 and leads the cultivation operations.
The company’s service areas are kept within six hours or fewer because the annuals are sensitive to travel. Markets include Nashville, which is 40 minutes away while Louisville, Kentucky, is about 2 1/2 hours distant and St. Louis is about a four-hour drive. The company also partners with a grower in VanBuren, Arkansas, enabling it to sell to customers in that state, as well as in Missouri and Oklahoma, van der Hengst says.
South Central Growers has a fleet of temperature controlled trailers for shipping and more than 9,000 rolling racks to hold flowers in containers. The trailers typically hold 42 racks and are rotated as independent drivers contracted by South Central Growers deliver new shipments and collect empty racks for the return trip to Springfield.
Automation is essential
While South Central Growers employs about 90 people onsite, van der Hengst says the company relies on automation for irrigating greenhouse bays and adding fertilizer and other chemicals as well as using three robotic arm transplanters to place cuttings in containers.
Automated transplanting provides precision that can’t be matched by human hands—the depths are preset for each liner or container. The automation also supports an immense working schedule—beginning each February and extending to Memorial Day, South Central Growers can cycle through three growing periods. For instance, petunias are produced every week for 12 to 14 weeks and van der Hengst says the company can fill entire 24-foot or 36-foot greenhouse bays with one type of annual before they’re shipped.
“We’re always in stock and never run out because we can match the forecasts for the retailers, especially if they are running a promotion,” van der Hengst says.
South Central Growers also conducts genetic trials in the greenhouse and on an outdoor plot that resembles a customer’s garden. van der Hengst says trials include providing data to the breeders about fertilizers and chemicals used and how annuals hold up in heat and humidity.
Understanding that customers aren’t buying household necessities underscores the need for genetic trials, he adds. South Central Growers can decide which species of annuals it’ll continue to grow while ensuring consistency and preventing any declines in sales because of poor quality.
Sustainability and service
The company has also embraced sustainability in its operations—it’s certified by the Dutch Milieu Programma Sierteelt, or MPS, an international organization. The top A rating from MPS reflects South Central Growers’ commitment to reducing fertilizers and chemicals, preventing any run off and recycling water the water it uses.
South Central Growers also recycles the plastic containers holding its annuals—van der Hengst says Lowe’s encourages customers to return individual plant holders and ships them back to Springfield. From there, the plastics are compacted, baled and sent to Michigan-based East Jordan Plastic Company to be recycled.
The company is also helping plant the seeds of faith in Central America through its Bountiful Plant Ministries initiative. The program, which is administered with help from van der Hengst’s cousin, Ed van Hoven, resembles a program started by their grandfather called Double Harvest, that taught gardening while supporting ministries overseas.
Bountiful Plant Ministries works with a bible institute to identify areas in Central America in need of a church or pastor and raise the funds to provide them. The program is inspired by Proverbs 22:9: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.”
“We also use our talents and abilities to further the work of the gospel and Christ. It’s what we’ve always done and will continue to do,” van der Hengst says.
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. III 2023 Edition here.
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