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Tomato Plug Transplants and More

The Tomato Magazine
October 2005

When Rock Kietzer of Kietzer Farms built his first two greenhouses in 1981, his intentions were to produce enough tomato plug transplants for his own production needs. Within a year, however, the entrepreneur was also supplying neighboring growers and soon was on his way to becoming a major, regional vegetable and tobacco plug transplant supplier.

Kietzer Farms is located in Sister Lakes, a resort community near Hartford, Mich.

What began as a business decision to meet an in-house need has since developed into a major niche-market business. Today, Kietzer Farms produces and markets tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, watermelon, cantaloupe, celery, cucumbers and onion plug transplants for a market stretching from Georgia on the south to as far east as Connecticut and Rhode Island. The main distribution area is the Upper Midwest.

“Depending upon the year, we’re marketing 150 to 180 million plug transplants,” Kietzer says. “That includes everything. Tomatoes are one of our major crops. We’re marketing enough plugs to plant approximately 3,000 acres of processing tomatoes and 1,000 acres of fresh market tomatoes.”

Kietzer Farms acts as a custom grower. Individual commercial operators contract with the company to grow enough plug transplants to meet their needs. They select the varieties to be grown and provide the seed. Two of the more popular tomato variety picks are Florida 47 and Mountain Spring.

Gave the First Plugs Away
After finishing his first year producing tomato plug transplants in 1981, Kietzer found himself awash in product. The two greenhouses produced double the number of plug transplants actually needed. Kietzer ended up giving the surplus to neighboring growers. With no greenhouse suppliers servicing the area with plug transplants, most were happy to accept his offer, especially since everything was free.

“By fall, all of us recognized that these plug transplants were superior to the root plants we had been using in the past,” the grower recalls. “Soon, our new side business began to blossom and rapidly expand, particularly during the 1980s. We currently have 17 acres of greenhouses under production and service many loyal customers.”

Kietzer’s greenhouses are all Quonset style, most 30 x 400 feet long. The manufacturer is Les Industries Harnois of Quebec, Canada. Each greenhouse is equipped with a traveling, overhead irrigation system as well as natural gas heaters. Eighty percent of the space is also heated with hot water flowing underneath. The equipment is controlled through a centralized environmental control system manufactured and sold by HortiMax, an Irvine, Calif.-based company.

“Our Quonset-style houses allow us to have varying environments for different crops,” Kietzer explains. “They also help us reduce the risk of disease by isolating different crops — even within the same crop. Because these houses are naturally ventilated, they also tend to help harden the plants a little better than gutter-style houses.”

An added plus is the ease of material handling for those with custom orders.

“ When filling a particular order, we can remove the plants from the sides of the house and load them into the shipping containers,” he explains. “The farthest we are from any one spot is 16 or 17 feet. Quonset-style houses permit improved materials handling.”

The transplant flats are all secured in 160-flat containers. Each container has three sides. The front is left open to provide for access and air circulation. The containers are fork lifted onto flat bed trucks from both sides with the open sides positioned towards the middle. As each box transfer is completed, the load is closed off, reducing the risk of spillage.
“Since many producers do not have docks, a flat bed works much better for the agricultural community,” Kietzer points out. “They make it easy to transfer the flats directly to the site, which, often, is the site where everything will be planted.”

Season Cycle
The tomato plug transplant production cycle begins in late January or early February. The shipping season winds up around July 10, stretching over roughly six months.
Since Kietzer’s vegetable and tobacco plug transplant business is seasonal in nature and, for the more part, services mature industries, the grower continues to look for ways to stretch out his season and augment his income. Health concerns have diminished the demand for his tobacco plug transplants. What once accounted for 50 percent of his business, today has shrunk to around 20 percent.

“We’ve been experimenting with tree seedlings,” he explains. “Our peach tree seedlings are now on line and are making money. We’re also looking at cherry tree seedlings, but that venture is still in the developmental stage.”

One of the major challenges of being in the transplant business is the responsibility that goes with it, the grower acknowledges. Frequently, a grower may contract his entire tomato crop needs—deliver the necessary seed—with the expectation that that the plugs produced will be delivered on time, in healthy condition and in the numbers promised. During the production cycle, there is always risk that something unexpected will go wrong.

No Misleading Promises
“I always tell my growers up front that I make no false promises,” Kietzer says. “We are growing an agricultural crop that is subject to many of the pitfalls of producing a crop. My promise to the grower is that if we do experience a rare problem, he will be informed up front and that we will try to resolve it as expeditiously as we can.

“On the positive side, over the years we have been exceptionally blessed. We have a wonderful group of growers, many of whom have been with us for years. We share a mutual trust relationship. They have learned to trust me and I have learned to trust them.”

Like many involved in agriculture, Kietzer is concerned about accelerating fuel prices and the effect they are having on the cost of production. Local gas prices have quadrupled over the past four years. Transportation, heating and plastic costs all continue to rise.

“Typically, we replace the plastic on these greenhouses every four years,” he adds. “We have them on a scheduled replacement with so many to be replaced each year.”
When you are growing under plastic, wind can be a worry, and the 2004 production season brought major challenges to growers in the area, Kietzer recalls. Winds, in places, gusted up to 103 miles per hour.

“Whether it was luck, we don’t know, but our Harnois greenhouses held up exceptionally well,” the grower smiles. “After everything had quieted down, we discovered there was more damage done to some of our out buildings than to our greenhouses. That’s amazing as we could have experienced a major collapse. These greenhouses have, and continue, to serve us well.”

© 2006 Columbia Publishing

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