Rooted in tradition

Features - Cover Story

In a changing marketplace, Orange, Virginia-based grower American Color is diversifying its business without losing sight of its origins.


Ed Van Hoven grew up in a family of growers, and that may be underselling it. His grandfather is Aart Van Wingerden, the late industry icon and founder of Van Wingerden International. His father is Jerry Van Hoven, owner of Battlefield Farms in Rapidan, Virginia. And across the country, Van Hoven has familial connections to several other leading greenhouse operations.

“I grew up in the industry and quite frankly never really had any interest in anything else,” he says.

Van Hoven now has his own operation, something he started by himself. And with his son, Brandon, and a full team in the growing, logistics and sales departments, he’s making his own mark on the industry at Orange, Virginia-based grower American Color. Founded as a 1-acre greenhouse in 1998, Van Hoven figured his business would top out at 5 acres. But today, the business encompasses 30 acres after a 14-acre expansion four years ago.

American Color is still changing too. As the market changes and growers seek out ways to adapt, the business’s strategy is to diversify its business — and its crops — to prepare it for whatever is next.

“I think American Color has a much brighter future now, and I have high hopes and expectations for us,” says Brandon Van Hoven.

How the business works

When Van Hoven founded his own business two decades ago, he did so after spending years working in the field. He worked for Van Wingerden International for a time and also for two businesses owned by members of his extended family — South Central Growers (located in Tennessee) and Floral Plant Growers (then located in Delaware and Maryland, and now known as Natural Beauty with several locations in the Midwest).

From there, he worked for his father at Battlefield Farms when that business was founded in 1990 and spent eight years there before going out on his own. The idea of owning a smaller greenhouse operation appealed to Van Hoven and his wife, Gwen, when Brandon was just an infant.

“We started from a hay field,” Van Hoven says. At the beginning, American Color’s business was split between growing annuals for Bonnie Plants and various plants for nearby independent garden centers.

Business picked up in 2004 when they signed new contracts to grow plants for independent garden centers and flats for Metrolina Greenhouses and Bell Nursery. Business picked up again in 2008 when American Color signed a contract with Costco and started growing plants for sales as far north as New Jersey.

When the most recent expansion — fueled by contracts with both retail and contract-growing partners — was ongoing, Tom Costamagna joined American Color as the director of growing. The connection to Ed came from Costamagna having worked previously at Color Point, another business owned by a member of Van Hoven’s family.

“I grew up in the industry and quite frankly never really had any interest in anything else.” – Ed Van Hoven

“He had a head grower working with the brokers that coordinate cuttings and seeds and all that kind of stuff,” Costamagna says. “But, when you’re 5 acres, you can be a one-man show. When you’re 15, 16 acres you can still be involved. But when you start getting to the size that American Color was, there’s not enough hours in the day.”

According to Costamagna, who moved across the country from California to take the job and settle his family down, American Color’s expansion plans work because they are done methodically. He adds that Van Hoven has put an emphasis on technology and building up the business’ infrastructure as it expands.

“We have all the necessary tools,” he says. “This greenhouse, all 30 acres, is concrete. Every bay, every quarter in this facility has booms. Every boom actually has fertilizer injectors on it, every boom has HID lights on them, so we can use night interruption or day extension.”

The greenhouse is also outfitted with black cloth curtains to shorten days and lights on the booms to lengthen them. Those improvements were directly implemented by Ed.

“I mean, that investment alone makes our life a whole lot easier from a planning standpoint,” Costamagna says.

From left: Ed Van Hoven, Brandon Van Hoven, Tom Costamagna and Reese Boyd at American Color's 30-acre facility

How it’s changing

According to Costamagna, who the business is growing for (and what it’s growing) is based on what time of the year it is. Overall, he estimates that 60% of American Color’s sales are to its retail customers with the bulk of the remaining 40% coming from contract growing.

“Spring is your packs and flats annuals,” he says. “We also grow tropicals. We also grow vegetables. Then in the summer, we grow mainly garden mums and daisies and some asters. During the springtime, we also grow perennials because now, everybody is kind of like a smorgasbord. Then, in the fall, is primarily poinsettias.”

According to Director of Sales Reese Boyd, a diversity of sales avenues is paramount to American Color’s business model. When Boyd joined American Color three years ago after his previous employer, Zelenka Nursery went under, he and Van Hoven agreed not to rely too much on one sales avenue.

“We try to diversify, because whether it’s in a contract or whether it’s end user at the retail stores, if you’re too heavy on one or the other, you’re pretty much solely dependent on how well that customer does,” Boyd says. “If something happens to one, it doesn’t happen to the whole thing. If you’re 80% of one thing and then something happens to that, then you’re in really bad shape.”

Recently, American Color started a new retail partnership with Lidl, a German grocery store that opened its first U.S. grocery stores on the East Coast in 2017. The partnership with Lidl, a store Costamagna describes as a mix between Aldi and Trader Joe’s, is the leading part of American Color’s current effort to and find new customers. For Lidl, American Color is primarily growing a variety of annuals and will add other crops based on the season.

American Color started out as a 1-acre greenhouse that Ed Van Hoven thought would only grow to 5 acres. Today, it features 30 acres of growing space.

Another avenue for growth is vegetable production, which Boyd says was requested by four different customers. After proving to customers that they could grow and sell crops like cilantro and tomatoes, Boyd says vegetable sales account for 10 to 15% of American Color’s current sales. According to Costamagna, infrastructure developed over several years allowed American Color to grow consistent product despite growing at scale.

“Growing plants, there is definitely science behind growing plants, the amount of nutrition or the environmental conditions or so forth,” he says. “But there’s still a huge aspect that's art. It’s just like cooking. We can take something as basic as chocolate chip cookies, and then you got chocolate chips and you got the flour and you got the sugar and everything else. You give 10 different people the same ingredients, you’re going to get 10 different outcomes. So when I have different growers for different ranges and all the infrastructure is uniform, it allows me to hone in on the critical aspects to consistently produce plants in any given range by any given grower.”

It’s an ethos that Van Hoven has embraced as the business has gotten bigger and he has more on his plate than growing plants.

“[I] went from doing it all over the years to assembling a team to handle the operation,” he says. “I am still heavily involved in the day-to-day operations — just a voice rather than the only voice.”

American Color's business is split between contract growing for other greenhouses and orders for its own customers, including Costco and independent garden centers.

Like father like son

Brandon Van Hoven sounds a lot like his dad when he talks about why he pursued a career in horticulture, and at 21, he helps his Dad run the business day-to-day.

“From the time I was young, I knew I wanted to work in the greenhouse with my dad. I never really thought about another career choice. My dad got me involved in the greenhouse at a young age, so when the time came it was an obvious decision for me,” he says. “This job is not mundane or repetitive. Every single day, there are new challenges and victories.” His younger sister, Brooke, also works for American Color in administration.

“I am still heavily involved in the day-to-day operations - just a voice rather than the only voice.” – Ed Van Hoven

Currently, Brandon is involved in a little bit of everything at American Color. Whereas Ed has largely stepped back from handling the growing day-to-day like he did early on, Brandon is throwing himself into every task. At any given time, he could be doing paperwork in the office, handling the logistics of orders, helping out the growers or doing a mix of all three at once.

In terms of how they approach the business, Brandon also reminds the American Color team of his dad.

In order to grow uniform plants at scale, Director of Growing Tom Costamagna relies on technology and a team of growers who work within a developed infrastructure.

“Many a times, he’s the first one here and the last one to leave. He breathes the greenhouse and the lifestyle and what it takes to be a leader,” Costamagna says. “I’m a little bit more than twice his age, but it’s exhilarating to see that kind of passion because when I was that age, I had that passion, but I didn’t have that opportunity being an owner’s son. He doesn’t take things for granted. He doesn’t abuse his role.”

It helps that Brandon has been a regular at the greenhouse since he was a kid and learned how to walk at the facility. Even when he was growing up, he wanted to chip in.

“He’s really going to be a great leader as far as the older he gets, the more exposure. But seeing him work day in and day out, I’m amazed that he is 21 years old,” Boyd says. “Because with how he acts, you can tell that he’s done this for a long time.”

On the horizon

Both Ed and Brandon, as well as the entire American Color team, are confident in the future of the industry and how it will continue to adapt to different economic conditions than previous decades. While they note that labor challenges are a concern, and that profit margins aren’t as high as they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they feel that the horticultural businesses can still thrive.

“Many a times, he’s the first one here and the last one to leave.” – Tom Costamagna on Brandon Van Hoven

“I believe it was better in the past, as profit margins have obviously declined while operating costs have went up,” Van Hoven says.

“It’s not as healthy as it was 10, 20 years ago,” Boyd says. “The margins have dwindled, the labor has gotten tighter and we’ve had to find new ways to automate in order to keep the overhead down, the operational budget down. But I think that people are always going to want to beautify their homes. People are always going to want the flowers in their yards each year. So there’s not going be any change in that. There always going be a need there.”

Costamagna agrees, noting that American Color’s location on the East Coast puts them in range of a large concentration of potential customers, even if there are more greenhouses (including ones owned by Van Hoven’s extended family) in the area than there might be further up into the Northeast or in the Pacific Northwest. According to Costamagna, the familial relationships do help, but it doesn’t matter if the plants they are growing aren’t up to the standard they need to be.

“I think that people are always going to want to beautify their homes.” – Reese Boyd

Boyd adds that being receptive to customers’ needs — but without committing to orders the business can’t fulfill — is key for any greenhouse operation that wants to be successful.

“I’ve been in meetings where a customer asks you to do something, and I’ve heard people say, ‘Yeah, we can do that. We can do that. We can do that.’ And I’m thinking, How in the world can you do that?” Boyd says. “And I’m thinking, I don’t see any way you can do that. You have to really be honest. And there’s been many times I’ve told customers, ‘I know you’re going to get people that tell you that they can do that, and they will probably get the business," he says, adding that in order to stay in business you need to understand your limitations.

That, ultimately, is why American Color prioritizes having more than one way to create sales and is willing to try out new retail partners and new crops. Led by Van Hoven, the business builds by capitalizing on opportunities when they present themselves.

“Ed started this company that was a hayfield, and oftentimes was heckled because he never wanted to be bigger than five acres,” Costamagna says. “Well, from a hayfield of five acres is a pretty big dream. From five acres to 10 acres or 10 acres to 30 acres is a big dream.”