The growing business: Plantpeddler owners reflect on 43 years of success

By Zach Jensen,

RIGHT- It’s illegal to import most rooted plants into the United States due to the potential to spread diseases and pests. As a result, Plantpeddler imports “slips” or “cuttings” from premium and hybrid plants from breeders around the world. The slips are subsequently grown into flowers and plants which are sold to retailers across the country.

The Driftless region is home to many headline-making companies and businesses, but one stands out as having earned regional, national and international acclaim. With the help of 100 loyal and hardworking employees and a few robots, this once-mom-and-pop retail store has set dozens of world records for its horticulture business. As part of their mission, the company helps schools around the United States and has recently earned recognition from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig for its contributions to agricultural education. 

Mike and Rachel Gooder founded Plantpeddler nearly 44 years ago in Cresco and have been “growing” their business ever since.

The beginning

“From 1980 to today, the company has averaged 8 to 10 percent growth every year,” said co-owner Mike Gooder. “We always strive to build a better plant, and that mission is what Plantpeddler is all about, and it’s been fun. We started as a mom-and-pop store, and now we’re global. We work internationally with plant breeders and offshore production to bring plant material into the country. We do a lot of exciting stuff.”

“We keep growing our wholesale and young plant divisions,” added Rachel Gooder. “In the beginning, retail was 100 percent of our business, but now, we’re about two percent retail, and the rest is wholesale and young plants.”

The largest portion of Plantpeddler’s business stems from the company’s young plant division where they provide starters for about 3,000 greenhouses throughout the country.

“We support greenhouse growers large to small,” said Mike. “They might buy a few products from us, or they might buy almost everything they need. We’re most known for our production of begonias, but we’re also one of the biggest propagators of Poinsettias in the country. We produce several million of each of those crops every year. In total, we propagate 15 to 18 million young plants per year.”

But, like most successful businesses, Plantpeddler comes from humble beginnings. In fact, Mike’s inspiration for the business was fostered by his Crestwood High School FFA instructor, Glen Dillon, who changed his life. After learning the basics from Mr. Dillon, all Mike needed was a little more “kick” to get motivated to build his dream.

“For one of my classes in horticulture at Iowa State (ISU), I had a project to design a greenhouse operation and create a business plan,” Mike remembered. “For mine, I was going to propagate Poinsettias, begonias, geraniums, mums and other crops in the greenhouse range. The instructor gave me an A on the project but wrote on it, very clearly, ‘Whatever you do, don’t try this, because you will likely fail.’ That made it the ultimate challenge, so I had to do it. That was the motivation I needed.”

While at ISU, Mike met Rachel, who was studying turf management at the university to become a golf course superintendent. 

“We met in a turf class and decided to date,” Rachel said, “and we worked at a golf course one summer to see which way we wanted to go. It was a great job, and we loved the work, but it just wasn’t for us. So, we decided to buy a greenhouse and had an opportunity in Mike’s hometown of Cresco.”

Mike and Rachel married on June 20, 1980, and just eight days later, they bought the Cresco Greenhouse from Arnie and Pauline Kubalsky and began Plantpeddler.

“We knew two college graduates couldn’t make a living off a small greenhouse and store,” Rachel said. “So, in 1984 we opened the second retail location in Decorah, and said we’d grow as much as we can for both locations, and if we had anything extra, we’d wholesale it.” 

In 1995, the Gooders big box stores started selling plants during holidays, a staple of floral operations. “That’s when we decided to pursue expansion into young plant production,” Rachel said. “In the year 2000 we started propagating young plants, and that’s when we started shipping nationally, instead of just regionally.”

Plantpeddler partnered with Dummen of Germany to produce rooted Hiemalis Begonia, and other major crop liners, for the North American market. Subsequently, this helped establish Plantpeddler as a greenhouse young plant supplier.

Plantpeddler Sales Manager Stacy Bryant said Dummen had a line of begonias, and Mike was looking for inputs of begonias. 

“The young plant liners that Plantpeddler sells now are something specific that we originally couldn’t find: Good quality liners,” Bryant said. “So, Mike was rooting for Dummen, and by doing that, we had access to the best liners in the United States.”

“The Young Plant facility (opening in 2002) was an important jump forward for us as a company,” Mike said. “Through the Dummen relationship, we built our international company and got to know the global market. We started chasing genetics, and through our focused efforts, we’ve built partnerships with leading ornamental plant breeders around the world.” 

Because of the potential for foreign pests and diseases, most rooted plants can’t be imported from other countries into the U.S. To facilitate this, Plantpeddler imports small pieces of plant material,
known as “unrooted cuttings”, from greenhouses around the world, and develops roots that turn the “slip” or “cutting” into a plant that the company’s customers can transplant and grow into finished retail plants.

The selection of varieties takes place globally by the breeders. “We import from throughout Central America, Brazil, Africa, Turkey, Israel, Vietnam, Portugal and other areas.” Mike said. “There’s a long list of farms around the world that we import cuttings from. The process is similar to the modern hog industry. The sows (mother plants) are located along the equator, the cuttings come to us, and we create the feeder pig (rooted cuttings), which ship to growers across the country. 

“We do not germinate seed at all,” he added. “Everything is asexually propagated – clones. Ninety percent of varieties we offer are patented – the elite plants of our industry.” What’s really important in the industry right now is “inter-species crosses” in which breeders are creating new sub-species within a genus.

“For example, the most popular bedding plant in the world right now is Calibrachoa, which is man-made,” he explained. “It’s a cross between Calibrachoa with some Petunia background, so it’s a man-made cross. The traditional Geranium has been upgraded to an inter-species cross between the Zonal and Ivy Geraniums. We do these crosses to get the most-desirable traits from both plants. Once that happens, an asexual cross is made, because that seed won’t fully mature. Once the cross occurs, the embryo is put into a test-tube and the new plant is created. These new varieties go through a selection process to become a candidate as the super-elite grandmother, from which more plants are propagated. It may take five to seven years to develop that product into a commercial variety. Once it goes down that path, the elite stock is maintained by a breeder, who sends cuttings to offshore farms. From these cutting big blocks of those mother plants are established, which are constantly maintained, and those farms harvest cuttings of those plants. Those cuttings are then super-cooled, boxed and shipped to Cresco as fast as humanly possible — 48 to 72 hours.”

Rachel added that changes can happen in crossing plants, “A lot of plants don’t have fragrances now, because it’s been bred out of them. Roses used to smell wonderful and really beautiful, but they had weak stems and would die early. So, they started breeding them to get a stronger stem and longer-lasting flower, less thorns and larger heads. But all that breeding removed the fragrance. Now, they’re trying to get more fragrance back. We have a Begonia that smells like a peach for that same reason.”

Turning art into science

Growing Plantpeddler every year not only requires the company to stay on top of the industry’s latest trends, but also means Plantpeddler needs to stay competitive technologically. 

“Old-school greenhouses made production an art,” Mike said. “Growing plants was an art. Plantpeddler is taking that art form, and we’ve transformed it into the technological production of plants; uniform, consistent, mechanized and automated plant production that gives us a very consistent output.

“We produce Begonias 52 weeks of the year,” he continued. “The ones we ship in July need to look like the ones we ship in January, and that’s super challenging. When we’re producing any crop in the facility, we’re always focused on uniformity. It’s the steps in process to be consistent. The best media, the pots are filled by the most advanced equipment on the market, making sure the compaction is the same in every pot, and we plant the highest quality liner in them, and then utilize advanced growing cultures. We’ve really taken that art and turned it into science, and we turned that science into a manufacturing process.”

Mike said there’s also a lot of handwork in the business, especially in the young plant division. Employees and robots need to carefully place the small plant cuttings Plantpeddler receives from the production farms into a special peat-based growing media (soil), a process termed “sticking”. 

“Putting that into context, we’ll stick a million cuttings in a week,” he said. “A really, really good human will stick 1,000 an hour. So, a million divided by a thousand is a thousand man-hours on any given week. At the same time, we’re sticking, we’re also shipping. If we stick a million, we need to ship a million. It’s very, very fast-paced.”

Mike explained that the company relies on robots to support humans. “The robots handle smaller plant material easier. Some plant material is half an inch long. The smaller it is, that’s when the robots really do an outstanding job.” “There are different types of cuttings that need to be stuck at different depths to root properly,” added Bryant, “and the robots can be programmed to always stick at that depth.”

There is continual movement in Plantpeddler facilities. While the most greenhouse might average 1.5 “turns” or crop-cycles per year, Plantpeddler does at least five turns per year.

“The crop cycle on the young plant side is typically four to six weeks, which means every month, we’re turning over the capacity of the facility,” Mike said. “It’s very fast-paced and very intense.” 

The result of all that hard work and technology, however, is that today, Plantpeddler offers more than 3,000 varieties of plants and as an example, sells about two million Mums every year.

“The first Poinsettia crop I grew was 400 plants, and now we’re putting roots on over 2 million Poinsettias every year,” said Mike. “That has required a lot of dynamic change.”

And, that dynamic change has meant that several times in the last decade, Plantpeddler has grown its business by approximately 30 percent per year.

“I’m not a fan of 30 percent per year,” he said. “That’s a little too crazy, and it gets hard to maintain.”

Mike added that capacity is becoming an issue again, so Plantpeddler is once more considering expanding the young plants site.

Another upcoming change is that Mike and Rachel’s son, John, will soon take over leadership of Plantpeddler, but that doesn’t mean his parents will stray away from the business.

“It’s been crazy and fun,” said Rachel. “It’s a lot of work, but we really enjoy it.”

“People ask me if I’m going to retire someday, but what am I going to do then? My life is plants,” Mike said. “We have a great team of people, and we’re very fortunate that we’ve become very successful. We all feel blessed to be here.”

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