November 2014 Newsletter (vol.35)   >>   Follow That Cutting!

Jennifer Zurko | Photography by Southwest Airlines
Taken from Grower Talks



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Think about the liners that will be arriving in a few months to your greenhouse. Or the finished plants that you’ll be seeing on those metal racks come spring. Do you know how they got there?


Unless you’re a supplier or a rooting station, you may not really know the full complexity of shipping unrooted cuttings. You know that they’re grown in a greenhouse by your supplier, but they have to get here first. Unrooted cuttings are “born” in Central America, Mexico and even as far away as Africa and the Middle East, and shipping them into the United States and Canada takes lots of planning in a short amount of time.


“That’s why the logistics drive the business,” stated Dr. Mike Klopmeyer, GM of Darwin Perennials, which now has a production farm in Colombia. “Yeah, it’s great genetics, you’ve done a great job in production, but if you don’t have the logistics down, you will not be successful.”


For unrooted cuttings everywhere, this is your life…


Planning and ordering

The process starts when the rooting station places an order, obviously, but it isn’t as simple as keying it into the system. Unlike seed varieties, there isn’t product sitting in a bag on the shelf. There is a ton of planning that goes into growing vegetative stock plants because it takes three months to build up the plants that only last up to 12 months at the most, depending on the crop. And typically, you only take a few cuttings off of one stock plant at a time.


However, in order to even fulfill that order, stock must be planned months ahead of time—about 18 months before shipping.


“You can’t just grow what you think you’re going to sell,” said Betsy Edwards, operations and logistics manager for Ball FloraPlant. “You have to grow more so that you have a good selection and lots of availability.”


Ball FloraPlant forecasts what they’re going to grow at all of their production farms around the world, including what the approximate supply per week is going to be for every single variety. The availability is posted to Ball Seed’s WebTrack online ordering and tracking system so that the customers can see what varieties are available when. Betsy has two full-time people on her team whose job it is to manage the inventory all day, every day of the year, so that it’s as accurate as possible. During the last few years, Ball FloraPlant has an almost 100% fulfill rate, give or take 0.5 percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at.


“By managing that inventory, customers can be certain they will get what they ordered and on the week they wanted it,” said Betsy.


When the order is placed, the system knows how much is available and how long the crop times are. Say the rooting station wants the plants to be ready to ship to their customer by Week 12 and it takes five weeks to root that particular crop—the computer automatically works backwards when the unrooted cuttings should be at the grower (in our example, it’s Week 7). Betsy and her team download the orders from the system for that week, send them electronically to the production farm and they start harvesting. This is when branches on a stock plant become “cuttings.”


The first cut is the deepest


Before taking over Darwin, Mike was in charge of Ball FloraPlant’s production farms in Costa Rica and Guatemala, so he knows what goes into harvesting and shipping cuttings from offshore. After the farm receives the order, cuttings are harvested, counted, put in a bag and taken from the greenhouse to a packing shed where they’re chilled and scanned. From the beginning, each batch has a barcode associated with plant type, who harvested it and where it’s going.


“It’s been 25 years that offshore farms have been producing and delivering cuttings this way,” said Mike. “New technology has made it a lot easier.”


Once they’re put in a box, they’re sent to the airport to be shipped to a port in the U.S. or Canada. (There are 17 points of entry in the U.S., with Miami and Atlanta being No. 1 and 2, respectively.)


One thing to keep in mind is that, even if you have your logistics down pat, if your unrooted cuttings are substandard or come in with a disease or insect, all of that planning and work is for naught. The key is to not only ship on time, but to ship quality product, which is a daunting task.


“We’re not even talking about the need to grow the plant properly, feed it properly, because if you have a subpar cutting going in the bag, it’s not going to come out very well. So you have to have a very well-fed cutting that will survive the transit time,” said Mike.


Every farm has different ship times and multiple shipments in a week (Ball FloraPlant’s farms have more than 20 shipments a week in winter peak alone) and they adjust their harvesting plans based on the crop and ship day. Some crops can take more stress than others and, just like the growers know which plants need to be stuck first, the breeders and the freight brokers they work with know this ahead of time—including the temperature that the cuttings need to be kept when they arrive at the port.


So the plane has landed and the race is on…


An amazing race


Think of unrooted cuttings as alive.


(Of course, it’s “alive,” you say. It’s a plant!) But really think of it as a living, breathing thing, not a plant with a small stem and a couple of leaves. It’s a living, breathing thing that’s wrapped in a plastic bag, practically suffocating, until it can be released from its prison and out into the open air of a greenhouse … because as soon as a cutting is harvested, said Mike, it’s dying.


“When a plane lands, the race is on to get it cleared by customs and APHIS, while the broker tries to get their hands on it to keep it in a cooler as it’s going through that paperwork and inspection process,” said Mike.


The first step is to get it through customs and then through APHIS (Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service), whose job it is to make sure that the cuttings that come into the U.S. aren’t carrying any extra “baggage”—like diseases or insects.


Recently, APHIS changed the way they inspect product. What used to be a manual, random process is now computer-generated based on historical data. APHIS felt that there was too high of a risk of something slipping through the cracks, said Mike, so now they’ve developed a “risk-based sampling” protocol.


APHIS requires the paperwork from the broker on what’s coming in and which farm it came from, then they look at the list of genus and species that are being imported in. They look at the number of boxes and the number of cuttings for each and the computer tells them which boxes to inspect based on where they’ve found pests in the past.


At first, suppliers were concerned that it would slow down the process of getting the cuttings from the plane into the cooler holding area, but Mike said that, so far, they’ve done a good job executing this new process.


“Keep in mind, there’s a billion cuttings coming in on an annual basis,” said Mike. “There’s no way [APHIS] can legitimately look at every box and every cutting. They’re doing this risk-based sampling to make sure, from a statistical standpoint, that they have done a suitable job on trying to detect any insect or disease pest to protect American agriculture.”


And the relationship between APHIS, the brokers and the suppliers has really gelled in the past few years. By implementing this new process and trying to understand our business a little better has helped companies like Ball FloraPlant offer the best products to their customers. Even categorizing cuttings along with animals and human organs instead of fruit, for instance, has improved the process tremendously, said Nina Materazzo, logistics manager for Ball Seed.


Again, cuttings are alive. Putting “PERISHABLE” on the box wasn’t enough to get the point across that cuttings are living things. Now, all of the boxes coming out of the production farms say “LIVE PLANTS.” It changes the mindset of most APHIS agents.


“They’ve become much more sensitive to our industry than ever before. They understand the perishability of our product,” said Mike.


Ship 'em out


Ball typically uses a third-party broker to ship the cuttings to the customers once they arrive at the port, like Perishable Transport Solutions (PTS) out of Atlanta. Each week, the broker gets a list of orders and where they’re being shipped, so that when the cuttings arrive, there’s no time wasted on figuring out which boxes go where. So the relationship between the breeder and the broker is pretty important because you have to trust that the broker will ensure the right cuttings get shipped to the right place—all the while making sure they aren’t under stress (you don’t want them sitting on the tarmac for hours).


“It’s not just managing the temperature control and how long it’s in transit, but also, making sure it doesn’t get handled by too many people,” said Nina. “Because the more people touch it, the more issues can come down the pipeline.”


There’s a lot of pressure involved with this because you could be shipping poinsettia cuttings in the heat of the summer or New Guinea impatiens in the dead of winter. Jeanne Porter is sales and logistics for PTS, which is owned by her son Matt Fratino. They handle all of Ball’s product through Atlanta and act as the liaison between Ball and APHIS. It’s PTS’s job to make sure that the cuttings go through the inspection process with customs and APHIS quickly. Jeanne and her team also ensure that the cuttings are in a temperature-controlled environment while they’re waiting to be shipped.


Many suppliers like Ball use third-party shippers because they just don’t have the means to be at every port to ensure that their product is delivered and cleared without any problems. Hiring a company like PTS to do the job for them relieves some of the headaches and stress. After all, Ball isn’t an expert in the freight forwarding business, nor do they want to be.


“A lot of the flights come in at 5:00 in the morning or 10:00 at night. And they come in seven days a week,” said Nina.


“For 38 years, I’ve handled plant cuttings and a lot of our customers have been with us for a long time,” said Jeanne. “We are proactive, not reactive, and that’s the way you’ve got to be in this business. You have to care. Everyone’s counting on you to move that product as efficiently and as quickly as possible and that’s what we do.”


And it’s a very busy and stressful business. Jeanne said that more than 200 million cuttings went through Atlanta last year alone and PTS handles 90% to 92% of them—and that doesn’t even count tissue culture vessels, which totaled 92 million. During peak shipping season, Jeanne said that PTS can handle 20 million cuttings in one weekend.


Luckily, Jeanne said that they don’t have a lot of “interceptions”—meaning boxes that are destroyed because a pest was found. “The product is pretty clean,” she said.


Oh, and don’t forget about another possible wrinkle that you know too well: the weather. Even when the cuttings arrive from Central America on time and unscathed, there could be a weather event happening in the U.S. (or even in another part of the world) that will delay any shipments to the rooting station—sometimes for days. So, besides being an expert in logistics, Betsy also sometimes feels like a Meteorologist.


“I track winter storms, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods—I’ve had customers call and ask if I know where a hurricane is going to land,” said Betsy. “We had a volcano in Iceland [in 2010] ruin weeks and weeks of European orders because we couldn’t fly our cuttings at all. We’ve had volcanoes erupt and close airports in Central America. Every year, there’s something going on and we always have to have a Plan B and a Plan C. Always.”


Final destination


This is how involved with our product Jeanne and PTS are: First, someone from PTS always has to be on call because the airlines don’t call to say that a shipment arrived. After the cuttings are cleared by customs, PTS takes the boxes to the APHIS inspection station at the port, pulls the boxes APHIS wants to inspect out of the pallets, literally opens the boxes (because APHIS won’t) and steps back to wait for the inspection to be completed. Once they’re cleared, PTS puts “release tape” on the boxes, puts them on their trucks and takes them back to their facility where they’re put in a cooler. Sometimes, PTS will replace the cold gel packs with new ones. Then, after all that, the cuttings are ready to be delivered to the grower. And depending on where they’re located, the product will arrive at the greenhouse either via FedEx or by airline, like Southwest. (For local growers around Atlanta, you can either pick up the cuttings at the airport or PTS will deliver them to you.)


Many of the shipments are sent via FedEx, while the more sensitive material that need extra care—like tissue culture perennials—and products that need to be sent by air are shipped from Atlanta on Southwest. Especially during this past winter, with the frigid weather—Jeanne increased their use of shipments on Southwest.


“[Southwest’s] customer service is excellent,” said Jeanne. “They take care of the product and they go above and beyond. And their flights go to the smaller markets where most of the greenhouses are, like Grand Rapids.”


And Southwest doesn’t use special cargo planes to ship product, which allows for the freight and fuel costs to be relatively cheap compared to other airlines, said Jeanne. They just use their normal passenger planes to haul people and cuttings. Nina said you have to “think of the plants as passengers without the ability to vocalize their complaint.”


“Our passengers might not be aware that a floral shipment for a Mother’s Day bouquet is below them in the plane’s belly or even aquatic plants being shipped to fill a new tank at the local aquarium,” said Amy McKinney, Business Consultant for Cargo and Charters Marketing at Southwest. “We have a wide range of items we ship throughout our domestic network, including floral, herbs, plant cuttings, aquatic plants, seafood and live tropical fish.”


Once the cuttings land and are delivered to the greenhouse, the rooting stations take on the task of getting them rooted—which is a whole other story all in itself.


So, after the trauma of being cut, packed, shipped, inspected and shipped again, don’t you appreciate those cuttings a little more? Maybe the next time you see an unrooted cutting or finished vegetative variety, you won’t take the trek they took to get here for granted.


“There are a lot of scientific things that go on with the movement of plants,” said Jeanne. “To get them to the grower in the U.S. in good condition to be able to have them for sale in the spring—it’s a truly remarkable thing when it happens.” GT