Focused on constant improvement

Features - Cover Feature

Charlie Kurtz of CK Greenhouses is always looking for ways to make his operation better, from improving energy efficiency to incorporating biologicals into his pest control program.

April 23, 2010

Charlie Kurtz is continually upgrading his greenhouse facilities so that they are more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.Charlie Kurtz, owner of CK Greenhouses in Cheshire, Conn., is well aware of the increasing loss of growers due to industry consolidation and the economic downturn. Kurtz, whose company is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, is constantly looking for ways to improve and upgrade his operation. This spring he will open a new 3-acre Rough Brothers open-roof, gutter-connected glass greenhouse range. The new facility, which is about a mile away from his main facility, will expand his production to 11½ acres. The new house is the same style that he put up three years ago.

Upgrading facilities
The new greenhouses will be used to finish bedding plants for spring and fall sales. The floor is sand, which is covered with ground fabric, with concrete aisles. Horizontal airflow fans help to circulate the air in the naturally ventilated houses. Hot water generated by dual fuel (natural gas and oil) Hurst boilers is pumped through perimeter and overhead pipes. A Svensson energy curtain was also installed. An Argus environmental control computer ties everything together. The set up is similar to his original location.
When Kurtz first started his business he put up separate Quonset houses with forced air unit heaters. Most of those houses and the unit heaters have been replaced.
“With unit heaters they’re either on or they’re off,” Kurtz said. “The hot water gives us the flexibility of using the temperature of water that’s needed to maintain the proper growing temperature.”
Kurtz, who has been propagating vegetative cuttings for about seven years, said the new houses won’t initially be used for propagation.
“Since the new houses don’t have benches it would be difficult to work on the floor with cuttings and our prefinished crops,” he said. “Even though we don’t have any of those crops scheduled for this year that could change.”
The reason that Kurtz chose the dual fuel boilers is that the gas company that services his town cannot guarantee a dependable supply.
“The gas company will advise us when the supply is going to be curtailed and we have to switch over to oil,” he said. “It happened a couple of times last year. The gas company has the option of curtailing the gas if the temperature drops to 10°F or less for 48 hours or more.”
Even under those conditions, if the gas supply is adequate, the gas company may not interrupt the grower’s service.   “By monitoring the weather, we have a good idea whether or not we are going to have to switch fuel. The switch to gas has helped offset the rise in oil prices,” he said.

Increasing production efficiency
Another area where Kurtz has done considerable upgrading is with irrigation equipment. To produce consistent quality cuttings and finished plants, Kurtz has been installing GTI irrigation booms, which are controlled by vapor pressure deficit. For overhead hanging basket production, Kurtz has equipped the greenhouses with Boomerang irrigation systems.
“When we first began propagating the irrigation system consisted of old fashion mist timers and sprinkler heads,” he said. “That’s not to say that we don’t occasionally pick up a hose and irrigate if something needs to be watered. But the majority of watering is now done by the boom and basket systems.”
Automated irrigation systems are used for rooting cuttings, prefinished and finished crops and hanging baskets.Kurtz has also narrowed down the growing medium used for the Dummen, Green Fuse Botanicals, Selecta First Class and Suntory cuttings that he propagates.
“Right now we’re using mostly Ellepots in a variety of sizes,” he said. “We’ve been happy with the results in regards to rooting as well as with how they’ve shipped.”
The reason that Kurtz started producing the cuttings was for cash flow.
“I was trying to round out the company into an 11-12 month business instead of an eight to nine month business. I wanted to have something to sell each month.”
While cutting sales account for 80 percent of the company’s propagation/prefinished business, the young plant production accounts for only 15 percent of overall sales. Eighty-five percent of sales are attributed to the finished plants.
Kurtz said sales of rooted cuttings have remained relatively stable. Cuttings are sold through several brokers. He said about 1 million cuttings were sold in 2009 and he is expecting a similar sales volume this year.
“We sell mainly to small to medium size growers,” he said. “Overall I’ve been happy because the business has been steady, but it hasn’t increased like I was hoping it would.”
Finished plants are sold to independent garden centers (60 percent of sales) and mass market customers (40 percent of sales), including supermarket chains and mass markets. Kurtz ships finished plants in most of the New England area, New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.
Kurtz said he grows annuals in a variety of container sizes including packs, various pot sizes and hanging baskets. One young plant product that Kurtz has seen an increased demand for is called a Basket Starter. The 6-inch pots can contain a combination or monoculture of annuals that can be dropped into the container of choice by a wholesale grower or retailer.
“Rather than buying a prefinished hanging basket in the same type of container that is commonly available, the Basket Starter allows growers and retailers to differentiate themselves by planting it into the container of their choosing,” he said. “We sell these through most of our brokers and they’re shipped on our trucks.”

Incorporating biologicals
Another area where Kurtz is looking to make his operation as production efficient as possible is the pest control program. Two years ago he started using biological controls on his poinsettia crop. Based on the success he had with poinsettias he plans to expand the use of biologicals to gerbera and regal geranium crops this year.
“We initially chose poinsettias because they are a long term crop,” he said. “There are so many things involved with biologicals including extensive scouting and monitoring. It just made sense to start with a crop that we could monitor for quite awhile. At other times of the year we might ship half a house or relocate a crop somewhere else to make room for a new incoming crop.”

CK Greenhouses Inc.
Founded: 1995 by Charlie Kurtz.
Location: Cheshire, Conn.
Production space: 11½ acres of greenhouse production and 6 acres of outdoor production. During December through April, up to 3 acres of production space are dedicated to cutting propagation and prefinished plants. Poinsettia cuttings are produced from June through August.
Market: Ship finished product to independent garden centers and mass market retailers throughout the New England area, New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Rooted cuttings and prefinished plants are shipped to wholesale growers primarily in the same area as finished plants. Cuttings are also shipped by Federal Express outside this area.
Employees: 25 full time and 25 seasonal.
For the first time around, to keep track of things, poinsettias were the logical choice, he said.
He initially started with 2 acres, “but once we got into it, we decided to do the entire crop that covered 5 acres.”
Kurtz initiated the biological program with Biobest, but is also purchasing biologicals from Syngenta Bioline.
“There is some variation in regards to which biological does best on a particular crop and the time of year,” Kurtz said. “Some beneficials are available at specific times of the year. Also, we grow our regals very cold and there are some beneficials that can’t be used if the temperature is too low.”

Taking the next step
In February Kurtz began the registration process for MPS certification. MPS is an international organization whose activities focus on encouraging sustainable practices in the horticultural industry.
“It’s something that everyone should look at — to be more responsible,” Kurtz said. “We have to go through a year-long registration. Every month we have to document our materials and energy use. You don’t start to be rated until the 13th month when MPS starts comparing you to what you did the previous year.”
Before deciding to become involved with the MPS program, Kurtz talked with Doug Cole at D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, N.H. In 2009 Cole was the first North American grower to receive MPS certification.
“The MPS program takes a grower-friendly realistic approach,” Kurtz said. “It’s going to take more effort on our part. Once we’ve collected the data and start to receive feedback we’ll be able to make comparisons. I see it as being a good management tool.” 
For more: CK Greenhouses Inc., (203) 271-2600;