A Lean approach to growing

Departments - Meet the grower: Pablo Costa

Pablo Costa keeps looking for ways to improve production at Van Belle Nursery.

September 28, 2021

Photos courtesy of Van Belle

Since growing up on his family’s cherry farm in Chile, Pablo Costa has dedicated his life to plant production. Throughout his career, he has managed every stage of the plant cycle and traveled around the world looking for better ways to grow.

“I enjoy the challenge of meeting production goals and developing a team to work together,” Costa says. “Being involved in the operation from the beginning to the end gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Costa’s career began with an agronomy engineering degree (the equivalent of a master’s) that he earned through a six-year horticulture program in Chile. Every summer during school, he worked in various nurseries, even spending one summer working in the U.S.

Then, Costa spent seven years working as a seed production manager, producing over 3 million gerbera daisy seeds annually to supply ornamental breeders around the globe. “My experience grew as I visited our customers in the U.S. and Europe,” says Costa, who also spent two weeks training in the Netherlands with Syngenta to learn about breeding techniques for flowering plants.

One day while reading an industry magazine, Costa saw a job ad for Van Belle Nursery in British Columbia, Canada, and applied on a whim. Years later, Van Belle’s owners reached out to him when they finished construction on their new greenhouses. That’s when Costa decided to move north with his wife, who had studied in British Columbia, and their two young children.

“We agreed that it would be a good job opportunity and family experience,” says Costa, who joined Van Belle in 2017 as head grower of finished plants, and later added operations manager to his title. “Now I’m responsible for all operations, from planning and transplanting to shipping. Thanks to the great team that’s working with me, we keep growing.”

Here’s how Costa led Van Belle’s finished plant division to double-digit growth every year for the last five years.

Costa (top row far right) and his growing team at Van Belle. The head grower says people are the key ingredient to Van Belle's success.

Automating efficiency

Through his worldwide travels, Costa observed some of the most cutting-edge automation technologies in the industry. Now, as Van Belle’s production volume increases, he seeks ways to standardize the operation by adopting these innovations.

“One of our company values is ‘find a better way,’ and we put it into practice every day by looking for opportunities where we can gain efficiencies and affect the bottom line in a positive way,” he says.

One of Costa’s first investments at Van Belle was an automated pruning machine that he saw at a trade show in Germany. The equipment saved his crew time and labor from manually pruning shrubs, grasses and perennials, while improving the quality and consistency of finished plants.

“The pruning machines increased productivity 100%, and we saw payback in less than a year,” he says.

Costa recently identified another opportunity for automation when Van Belle expanded its Page Creek location, adding 2 acres of greenhouse space and 2 acres of warehouse to the existing 6 acres of hoop houses.

“We do most of the potting of annuals in this location, and the Bobcat is always running to fill hoppers,” says Costa, who oversees about 2 million square feet of production space across three locations. “I saw a lot of advantage to automating the soil dispenser, so we redesigned the soil delivery system to avoid using the Bobcat.”

Next year, Costa plans to run two fixed potting lines with this automated soil delivery system, which he says will “facilitate better use of the space” while allowing the potting lines to run continuously during peak season.

Van Belle Nursery in bucolic British Columbia, Canada.

Building a team

Although technology is an essential tool, Costa says that people are the key ingredient to Van Belle’s growth. Keeping his team focused on the company’s goals is one of his top priorities.

“One of the most important things each day is teambuilding. You have to continue mentoring and supporting them to grow,” says Costa, who manages three growers, two assistant growers, a plant health manager and a production labor force that includes up to 80 people at peak season (including the shipping department).

Costa coordinates internal seminars, where growers from Van Belle’s young plants division and finished unit get together to share ideas and advice. Growers meet regularly throughout the fall and winter to take turns presenting education and innovation from both sides of the business.

“If someone takes a course on biological controls, they can share that experience with the group,” he says. “Or if we make any improvement in one of our farms, we want to tell the story of why and how it’s working. We have opportunities to share those lessons across the company.”

These seminars help expand the team’s knowledge, while giving employees opportunities to develop their own specialties that help drive the company’s overall growth.

“Collaboration between growers is key,” Costa says. “We have one common goal, which is to produce the best plant at the right time, and we have to work together to find the best way.”