During my 40 minute drive to Bob’s HQ each morning, I like to listen to podcasts. Among my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics Radio. Last week host Stephen Dubner explored the complexity of making something as simple as a pencil. The episode featured a famous economics essay, “I, Pencil: My Family Tree” by Leonard E. Read. When you visit one of our markets, you are only seeing a small part of a huge supply chain. Let’s take a look at how a plant grown from seed gets to one of our markets. Since spring is just around the corner, let’s take a look at growing pansies.
Here at Bob’s we are an exclusive grower for the Ball Seed Company, the largest seed distributer in the U.S. Our pansies get their start at breeders in the U.S., Germany, and Japan. Wholesale customers place orders with Ball Seed sales reps. for seedlings grown by Bob’s Market. We then fill those orders.
Each day we get a file from Ball with a listing of upcoming orders. We use this information to generate a “seed forecast” to compare to our existing inventory of seed. We then purchase the needed seed from Ball to fill these orders.
Everything we grow at Bob’s is produced on a strict schedule determined by the growth rates of different plants. To simplify things we go by week number. For example, we are currently in Week 08/2016. So for various items ordered to ship out this week we subtract the “crop time” for that plant to get the “sow week”. In our example, pansies have a six week crop time. This means pansies shipping out this week were sown in Week 02/2016.
A week prior to the sow week tray labels are printed for what is going to be sown along with tons of paperwork to organize the process. The labels are applied to trays of 144, 288, or 512 individual plugs depending on what the customer ordered. Organizing the filling of the trays with seed starting mix produced by our soil production facility, pulling the seed from inventory, and sowing the trays is a complex logistical ballet. During peak production, we’ll sow over 30,000 trays per week! (Check out this video to see our automated seeders in action.)
Once the seeds have been sown, they head off to the germination chamber. It is a room where the temperature and humidity are controlled to give the seed the perfect environment to start growing. After 6 days at 64-68F and 100% humidity, the seed coat has cracked and the first signs of green begin to appear in the trays. They are now moved to the greenhouse to continue growing.
Once in the greenhouse, the grower for that section takes over. They are now his/her little plant babies. Seedlings need constant care. Our growers come in 7 days a week to water, check for pests, and fertilize. We even have monitoring systems that can call them in an emergency like a heating failure.
About halfway through the growing process any plugs that failed to sprout are replaced with a good plug from extra trays that were sown in a process we call “patching”. We used to do this process entirely by hand, but now we grow too many trays to keep up (nearly 150 million seedling per year!). Some tricky varieties are still patched by crews of workers, but we also have a robot that helps.
A week before the ship week, a list of the deliveries is downloaded, delivery notes, and order pull sheets are printed. Then when the ship date arrives, in a Tetris-like feat of logistics, the orders are organized into truckloads along shipping routes, packed into boxes and palletized for Fed-Ex shipping, or pulled to be transplanted for our own finished products like hanging baskets, pots, or bedding flats.
This represents just a small portion of the “behind-the-scenes” operation of Bob’s Market. If you would like to see this in-person, join us April 15th at 5:00 pm for our Spring Color Tour. Please RSVP below if you plan on attending.