The bounty of Santa Maria Valley agricultural land is most easily seen at harvest when vegetables, fruit and flowers are loaded onto trucks, but the work begins long before that.
The harsh conditions a crop faces before it is harvested is most apparent at the beginning; when weather, pests and predators can have a dramatic effect on a plant’s growth and even its ability to survive.
This is where plant transplants, such as those produced by Plantel Nurseries, come in.
Growing in a controlled environment until they are transplanted into the field by trained and experienced staff, Plantel’s vegetable transplant seedlings can give farmers a better start to their crops than live broadcast can provide. When Plantel Nursery first started operations, the owners thought Santa Maria would be an ideal location for a transplanting business, as the lack of available agricultural land in the area meant that one of the best ways to increase the productivity of the farmland was to increase the amount that could be harvested in a year.
Plantel opened a second location in Gary in 1987, a second location on Telephone Road in Santa Maria a few years later, and its newest manufacturing facility at 2775 E. Clark Ave. Between these three facilities, they have 1,350,000 square feet of greenhouse space and about the same square foot available for outdoor cultivation.
At any given time, the facility’s growth is entirely dependent on farmers’ orders, and is usually doomed to end up in fields on the Central Coast.
Plantel CFO and Secretary Les Graulich explained that by transplanting in the field rather than using seeds, farmers can harvest one or two more rounds of crops per year than they would have sown.
Using transplanted vegetable plants instead of seeds maintains consistency in overall crop yield by eliminating the possibility of germination failures that can cause gaps between production rows, and growing the transplants in the controlled environment of the Plantel greenhouse allows for greater quality control Early plant growth.
“We’ve built a quality factory for our customers,” Graulich said.
Most Plantel plants end up in local fields and farms, with approximately 70% of operations in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The remaining grafts will be shipped to farms across the state, even in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona and Wisconsin.
Plantel’s business is growing as more potential customers see the value of using transplanted crop seedlings during each harvest transition.
When Graulich arrived in 2001, he said Plantel was growing and shipping about 400,000 plants a year, and that number had grown to more than 1.8 billion. The company’s growth is directly attributable to land costs, he said.
“Agricultural land is very expensive today, and if you’re direct seeding on that land, you’re spending a lot of time increasing yields and growth rates,” he said.
This reality has led to the growth of the company, with the potential to grow into a 140-acre primary production facility, with plans to add an 80-acre facility. The expansion will place the same emphasis on the environmental impact of production as the rest of the plant.
“One of the things we’re proud of is what we do for the environment,” Graulich points out. “We have our own water recycling program, so we sometimes recycle 70-80% of our water.”
The company uses large 250,000-gallon tanks to recycle water used to grow seedlings, and has a large groundwater collection system to ensure any rainwater enters the facility and is used to water their newest crop.
Plantel technicians test the nutrient levels of captured or recycled water to ensure their plants receive the same nutrients as freshwater. Plantel has also created an automated pallet stacker in-house and is currently awaiting delivery of machines that will impact the productivity of the on-site transplant process.
Adapting to new labour realities, climate and environmental demands or upcoming growth and development will allow Plantel Nurseries to continue to grow, helping local farmers produce quality products for an increasing number of near and far markets.