Title: 2005 Ag-Environmental: Kerry's Bromeliad Nursery
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
They have been the symbol of love, luxury, and beauty for centuries. They are the most highly evolved plant on Earth, with over 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 fact, one orchid, in 1890, sold for 1,500 pounds -- the equivalent of almost $120,000 today. 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.
Kerry Herndon, Owner, Kerry’s Bromeliad Nursery: I fell in love with the bromeliads. I thought they were the most beautiful, amazing plants that I had ever seen, and I couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t want to have bromeliads. So when I was 17 years, 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. But though he cultivated a niche market, Herndon knew if he wanted it to succeed he had to expand his business.
Kerry Herndon: 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. And, of course, it didn’t take me long to look into orchids.
After a trip to Taiwan and Thailand, major growers of commercial quantity orchids, Herndon returned to South Florida and planted a select variety of the flowers. He struggled to get his orchid enterprise to take root; and before Herndon could collect his first crop in the fall of 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck.
While the hurricane destroyed that crop, it did give Herndon a great opportunity to create a whole new environment, a whole new nursery, a whole new company.
With an eye toward mass-marketing, Herndon rebuilt his operation based on a Dutch automated model. Huge greenhouses were erected. A system of rails and conveyor belts was installed to move plants quickly through the facility.
But 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 an outside consultant, the nursery redefined their 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.
Kerry Herndon: And when you start analyzing the number of seconds per operation and you see that sometimes you do work like you walk from one place to another or you pick something up from over here and you bring it over here that that’s work but it doesn’t add value. So the idea behind lean flow manufacturing is you eliminate the non-value added work so all of the work content adds value. The idea is you can control manufacturing and you can actually understand exactly what your resource requirements are before you start work that day and set up all of your lien flow tables, work station tables are on wheels so we can reconfigure manufacturing in any given day.
One 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, Florida. 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, 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 which are then 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 is monitored by computer: temperature, relative humidity, ventilation, carbon dioxide levels, and irrigation.
Kerry Herndon: This is a hard science and it requires plant scientists. It requires a lot of technology, and a lot of process and a lot of discipline. This is not yesterday’s agriculture; this is a scientific, science-based industry.
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. 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 using a simple recovery system. Kerry’s can capture and store up to 250,000 gallons of rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses.
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 dirty 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 one hundred 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.
Kerry Herndon: We’re not in the plant business. We’re in the home decor and the gift business so everything gets changed from those plastic pots or the coconut whatever into something that looks beautiful in your home, something that you’re happy to give as a gift. So we have to, we call it manufacture the final product. If you walk into a grocery chain they have 40,000 items in the store. The average person buys about ten items when they walk in the store. 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. And 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:
Kerry Herndon: Orchids are the most beautiful romantic plant in the world. 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.