Kerry’s Bromeliad Nursery
They have been the symbol of love, luxury, and beauty for centuries. They are the most highly evolved plant on Earth, with more than 30,000 known species growing in the wild. Charles Darwin wrote two books about them.
Orchids. So prized were they in Victorian England that wealthy aristocrats would pay hunters to travel the globe to find rare specimens. In 1890, one orchid sold for £1,500 -- today’s equivalent of almost $120,000. Now you only have to journey as far as your local home improvement store for one of these exotic flowering plants -- at a cost of about $20 -- thanks to the mass-marketing efforts of Kerry Herndon, owner of Kerry’s Bromeliad Nursery.
Herndon’s love of exotic flowers began in his hometown of Homestead. As a way to earn money while in high school, Herndon started growing plants in his grandparents’ back yard. It was there, among their collection of plants and fruit trees, that he first became infatuated with bromeliads.
“I fell in love with the bromeliads,” Herndon said. “I thought they were the most beautiful, amazing plants that I had ever seen in the world, and I couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t want to have bromeliads. So when I was 17 years old, still in high school, I bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica and went collecting bromeliads in the jungle.”
Over the next 10 years he began to build his first nursery with three acres of shade and 600 different kinds of bromeliads. Although he cultivated a niche market, Herndon knew if he wanted it to succeed he had to expand his business.
“After doing bromeliads only and exclusively for about 12 years, I was really looking for the next product that would be embraced by consumers, something that wasn’t real commonly available,” Herndon said. “And, of course, it didn’t take me long to look into orchids.”
After a trip to Taiwan and Thailand, the major growers of commercial-quantity orchids, Herndon returned to South Florida and planted a select variety of the flowers. But before Herndon could collect his first crop, Hurricane Andrew struck in the fall of 1992.
While the hurricane destroyed that crop, it gave Herndon a great opportunity to create a whole new environment, nursery, and company. With an eye toward mass-marketing, Herndon rebuilt his operation based on a Dutch automated model. Huge greenhouses were erected and a system of rails and conveyor belts was installed to move plants quickly through the facility.
While the new operation allowed Herndon’s nursery to process large quantities of potted flowers, it was still not as efficient as it could be. With the help of a consultant, the nursery redefined its method using a process called “lean flow.” The idea is to look at the operation not in terms of units per hour, but rather in seconds per operation.
“When you start analyzing the number of seconds per operation you see that sometimes you do work that doesn’t add value -- like walk from one place to another or pick something up from over here and you bring it over here,” Herndon said. “So the idea behind lean-flow manufacturing is to eliminate the non-value-added work so all of the work content adds value. The idea is to control manufacturing. You can actually understand exactly what your resource requirements are before you start work that day. With our work station tables on wheels, we can reconfigure manufacturing in any given day.”
On the first day of implementing the lean-flow system, the nursery saw a 25 percent improvement in through-put, and a dramatic improvement in quality.
Kerry’s Bromeliad Nursery is one of the largest potted orchid production complexes in the world -- and the largest in North America -- growing more than 5 million orchids at its facilities in Homestead and Apopka. The tranquility and natural beauty of the plants in bloom belie the complex technology behind the nursery. Kerry’s has pioneered and implemented numerous Best Management Practices for potted plant production. These BMPs include rolling benches, robotic transport and transplanting, ebb-and-flood irrigation, rainwater recycling, reverse-osmosis water treatment, total containment of pesticide runoff, and environmental cooling chambers for year-round orchid flowering.
Despite the automated nature of the facility, the process of growing orchids begins with pollinating the plants by hand. Seed pods are harvested, labeled, and shipped to Thailand for germination. While overseas, the seeds are raised in glass tubes and allowed to grow into seedlings that are shipped back to Homestead. At the nursery, the seedling roots are planted in a coconut-based media and sent to the greenhouse to continue in their growth cycle.
Every aspect of the environment -- temperature, relative humidity, ventilation, carbon dioxide levels, and irrigation -- is monitored by computer.
“This is a hard science and it requires plant scientists,” Herndon said. “It requires a lot of technology, and a lot of process and a lot of discipline. This is not yesterday’s agriculture.”
Over 1 million square feet of automated aluminum benches carry the plants on railways through the 2.8 million square feet of production space. Some are moved by people, while others are moved by computer-controlled robots. Automated irrigation is done using a simple recovery system. Kerry’s can capture and store up to 250,000 gallons of rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses. Though the nursery only has to pump groundwater for two or three months of the year -- and has a reverse-osmosis unit as a backup -- its goal is to eventually meet all of its irrigation needs with collected rainwater.
A closed-loop drench line assures that, should the plants require fungicide or pesticide, no chemicals ever touch the nursery floor. Unused chemicals that pass through the plant are recaptured off the aluminum bottom benches and pumped back to the mother tank.
Once the plants have been unloaded for shipping, the soiled benches are sent via the rail system to a robotic washing facility. The benches are sterilized after each use with large pressure washers. The waste water is then collected in another tank where it is disinfected, and any residual dirt and chunks of organic matter are separated. Collected piles of this very high-quality compost are given to local landscapers.
The nursery has converted its plant growing media from non- and semi-renewable ingredients to 100 percent renewable resources. By-products like pine bark and cure pith from coconuts have become the primary media. Coconut husks are also used for their stability and durability.
After growing for 25 to 30 weeks in the greenhouse, the orchids are sorted by size and bloom. Immature plants are placed back on the benches for more growth. Orchids that meet the criteria are resorted and moved to the shipping department.
But even a perfect plant is not good enough for Kerry’s. Production isn’t complete until each specimen is arranged in an elegant presentation.
“We’re not in the plant business,” Herndon said. “We’re in the home decor and the gift business, so everything gets changed from plastic pots or the coconut into something that looks beautiful in your home, something that you’re happy to give as a gift.”
Said Herndon: “If you walk into a grocery chain they have 40,000 items in the store. The average person buys about 10 items; that means that they’ve got to walk past 39,990 other offerings and put my plant in their cart or I lose. That’s a pretty competitive marketplace. So the only way to win is to deliver more relative value. We do that by giving a bigger, healthier, more vigorous, obviously more valuable plant than the comparable product.”
While its combination of innovation and technology has made it a model for the horticulture industry, the cornerstone of Kerry’s Bromeliad Nursery is a flower for which men once journeyed across the globe.
“Orchids are the most beautiful romantic plant in the world,” Herndon said. “They are the most highly evolved plant on the planet. Their flowers are intoxicating, they’re astonishingly beautiful; they last a really long time; they’re alive. They’re this astonishing living art in your home. It doesn’t really get a whole lot better than that.”