April 1, 2014

Winkelmolen Nursery gets points for quality and innovation

Grower of the Year reacts to marketplace changes


At CNLA’s National Awards of Excellence gala held in St. John’s, Nfld., in January, Winkelmolen Nursery was recognized as Canada’s Grower of the Year. The companies who have won this award have several things in common; they are equally passionate about their plants and their people, they are always looking for mechanical or technical innovations to improve quality and efficiency, and keep an open mind about trying new ideas.

Now in its 35th year, Winkelmolen Nursery farms in Lynden, Ont., grows trees and shrubs for wholesale markets. Owners Jan Winkelmolen and Ans Mertens started off with 15 acres in 1979, and over the years, have bought six farms around their original property, now encompassing 600 acres. Their clients are garden centres, municipalities, conservation areas, landscape contractors and other wholesale nurseries.

The company built its reputation growing top notch bare-root trees, but recognized most Ontario garden centre customers didn’t want to pot up their own trees anymore, so the nursery added a complete line of container-grown trees to its inventory in 2008. Trees are grown in the fields, but dug and potted up for a year to be ready for the retail sales yard or landscape site. Selling containerized trees has the added benefit of expanding the company’s shipping season. Bare-root trees are still a large part of their sales for growing on or for garden centres that like to pot up their own trees, as larger volumes can be packed in one container, bringing shipping costs down. Winkelmolen Nursery ships bare root trees up to 50 mm caliper.

After researching production techniques, pot-in-pot production was chosen for the container operation. So far, 14,000 socket pots have been installed, with plans for an additional 10,000 this year. Winkelmolen notes that overwintering containers upright in the ground isn’t an ideal solution yet, and they are always trying different methods to determine the best way to get their plants through the extremes of an Ontario winter.

Winkelmolen and Mertens travel extensively to industry seminars and shows in North America and Europe, always with an eye to improving their techniques, mechanization and efficiency, plant list and employee safety. With respect to new plant introductions, Winkelmolen says, “We update our inventory all the time, but err on the conservative side. We like to trial new plants for about five years before adding them to our production.” He adds that more than 20 plants of each new cultivar are tested at the nursery before making it into Winkelmolen’s inventory. It’s a slow process, he admits. The plants they see in Holland and Europe this summer won’t be introduced for a number of years.

Throughout their travels, the Winkelmolens keep their eyes peeled for innovative products and machinery. They found a siebeck tree-tying machine in Germany that has enabled the company to keep its product tied tightly, control the quality of the ties and do more tying in less time. This allows more trees to be stacked efficiently, allowing more product per load for more cost-effective shipping. An investment in battery-powered pruners has allowed work crews to get more done, and without the worry of injury. A pot-in-pot planter sourced in Oregon has been well worth the investment, as it allows crews to install new sockets in the fields at an incredible rate. GPS on the tractor ensures the rows are perfectly straight and correctly spaced.

Some of the innovative growing techniques used at Winkelmolen come from participation in the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program. Through this federal program, they have hosted a number of horticultural research projects and directly benefitted from the knowledge gained.

As any nurseryman knows, fall digging can be held hostage by the weather. Winkelmolen notes that one of the nursery’s best investments has been its digger. It has enabled crews to dig faster and more efficiently without having to worry about weather conditions or wet fields slowing down progress. “With this machine we can dig up to 15,000 bare-root trees a day, and it removes the soil efficiently and preserves the root structure.”

One of the factors contributing to the company’s national recognition is its commitment to the preservation of the environment. Winkelmolen Nursery is dedicated to growing the best possible product, while keeping the nursery and its surroundings healthy. In 2007, it completed an Environmental Farm Plan to take advantage of the government grants that help with innovative and environmentally responsible solutions for nursery production, and have made the most of this program every year since.

There are no streams or creeks on the nursery properties to provide a water source for the plants, so nearly all of Winkelmolen’s fields are all tile drained and tied into one of several irrigation ponds on each farm. Winkelmolen admits the challenge can be to make sure their supply of water lasts throughout the summer, so even the drip-irrigated pot-in-pot production area has tile drainage beneath each submerged pot to collect and recycle this precious resource.

To make sure the runoff from the nursery is clean, wetland bio-filters have been planted around each pond, to remove any nutrients that may still be in the water. This has the side benefit of creating wildlife habitat.

Mertens estimates their production is currently half native plants and half cultivated ornamental varieties. They grow all their natives from seed, as well as all the rootstock for their grafted material. In keeping with the nursery’s commitment to the integrity and quality of its products, they collect their own seed as much as possible, being careful to source zone-specific genetic material. As a certified seed collector, Mertens tracks the source of the seeds, to ensure Winkelmolen is supplying locally-adapted native woody species.

Most companies in the green industry are family-owned businesses, and as such, employees benefit from family-based values. Winkelmolen Nursery is no different, and treats its staff with warm respect. The company offers a health plan and optional RSP savings plan, as well as paid holidays. Turnover is very low; most employees have been with the nursery for over 10 years, some almost 25. Foreign employees recruited through F.A.R.M.S. return annually, with some employees returning to Lynden from Mexico for the last 22 years. Winkelmolen and Mertens count on their staff, and trust them to run the business when the family is away. Winkelmolen notes that the company isn’t reliant on job titles, but rather puts its stock in flexibility and responsibility from employees, and receives honest dedication in return.

Being honoured as CNLA’s Grower of the Year means that Winkelmolen Nursery will compete for the International Grower of the Year award, created by the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH). Canadian growers Bylands Nurseries of Kelowna B.C., and Sheridan Nurseries of Georgetown, Ont., have won this prestigious award for the last three years. The AIPH congress and award ceremony takes place in China this summer.