September 6, 2011

Maine high-tech firm's 'grow plugs'
help garden industry thrive

Grow-Tech produces at least 50 million of the small sponge-like masses a year in South Portland.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In a production warehouse in South Portland, Edwin Dijkshoorn holds a brown blob that looks in every respect like a double-layer chocolate cake.

click image to enlarge

James Chittum, director of business development, shows how “grow plugs” are run off and packaged at Grow-Tech in South Portland. The company makes products for seedlings of all types for the flower, plant and agriculture industry.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Julie Dresser assembles starter kits at Grow-Tech, which produces 50 million “grow plugs” a year. The company recently relocated to a 30,000-square-foot building in South Portland from a smaller facility in Lisbon Falls.

But Dijkshoorn's employer, Grow-Tech Inc., isn't in the baking business.

Instead, the company makes artificial soil products that plant growers and home gardeners use to germinate and cultivate young plants and flowers.

In the last few months, the company has been on the rise, relocating to South Portland, boosting production and hiring more staff, including employees laid off from Portland's Barber Foods.

"Our growth last year was 100 percent," said Grow-Tech director of business development James Chittum. "We went from two production shifts to three."

The brown material Dijkshoorn held was a soil-like substance Grow-Tech designed to be laid on the roofs of large buildings. Plants, which absorb sunlight, can take root in the stuff and help reduce surrounding city temperatures.

"If every roof in New York City was green, it would drop the temperature of the city by 5 degrees Celsius," said Dijkshoorn.

Rooftops aside, Grow-Tech's primary business is making so-called "grow plugs," small, sponge-like masses used to grow plants.

Grow-Tech produces at least 50 million plugs a year in South Portland, and sells them to a range of clients, including forestry companies, which use the plugs to grow saplings. Other clients include commercial growers and plant-breeding firms, which use the plugs to cultivate a range of flowers, like impatiens and geraniums, and vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and many others.

Scott Kennedy, head of product development and research, launched Grow-Tech in 1978 in Boothbay Harbor.

The company, which was affiliated with Dole Food Company, later relocated to California before moving to Lisbon Falls in 1993.

Grow-Tech is now a subsidiary of Portland-based Anania & Associates.

At the production site in South Portland last Tuesday, workers made plugs by mixing peat moss, water and foam into a muddy slurry, which was then pumped into molds on plastic trays.

Some of the trays, such as those sold to forestry companies, held 400 plugs, enough to cultivate an acre's worth of timber.

Some plugs are as small as pen caps, while others are the size of Dixie cups. The plugs look like packed potting soil, but are rubbery and rebound when squeezed.

Peter Anania Jr., Grow-Tech compliance officer, called the soil plugs "dirt sponges." He said they have the optimal mix of air and water and are easily transportable.

Grow-Tech works with clients worldwide, including those in Colombia, Japan, England, Israel and Africa. The company also licenses its technology to growers, who make plugs using Grow-Tech's methods.

Consumers in the United States can purchase the plugs at big-box and home and garden stores. Grow-Tech's retail products are marketed under seven different brands, which Chittum declined to disclose.

In the future, the company plans to sell biodegradable plugs made from plastics derived from starch-based plants, such as potatoes. Grow-Tech developed the technology with help from two $12,000 grants from the Maine Technology Institute.

Because Grow-Tech operates in a highly competitive market, Chittum declined to discuss the revenue of the company, which has 21 full-time staff and 25 part timers.

But executives say that increasing demand led them this summer to relocate from a 20,000-square-foot production site in Lisbon Falls to a 30,000-square-foot building in South Portland.

They are also adding production lines and hiring at least six new production employees.

Chittum said finding new workers accustomed to the fast pace and strict quality controls of production-line work is difficult.

But the job has been easier because Anania knew where to look: A few months ago, he read that Portland-based Barber Foods, which was acquired earlier this year by Cincinnati-based AdvancePierre Foods, was laying off production-line staffers.

Anania phoned Barber Foods and explained that his company was seeking production-line employees. A Barber human resources staffer spread the word, and Anania started receiving resumes.

Since then, Grow-Tech hired one Barber staffer, and has plans to hire five more.

"We think they will be a great resource," Chittum said. "It's harder than you think to get new staff."

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or: jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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