John Bonner spends serious time nurturing his leafy greens and the proof of his success is in his business, which has matured in a few…
John Bonner spends serious time nurturing his leafy greens and the proof of his success is in his business, which has matured in a few years far beyond its salad days.
Named by Crain’s Cleveland magazine as one of its “40 under 40″ up-and-coming business people in 2009, Bonner’s youth hasn’t stopped him from establishing Great Lakes Growers as a major supplier of lettuce and basil to area stores and restaurants.
Speaking to a room full of area businesspeople at the quarterly Geauga Growth Partnership success breakfast last Friday, Bonner traced the history of his company and his passion for hydroponic agriculture.
The 60,000-square-foot greenhouse on Kinsman Road just inside Burton Township is at the epicenter of his growing business, but it is the third location he has occupied in the few years since he and a partner started Great Lakes Growers, he said.
The learning curve has been fairly steep, Bonner said.
His family is strongly invested in various businesses and ventures in Geauga County, and he gained experience and knowledge in those operations.
But he followed his own dreams.
The Green Niche
Bonner believed there was a market niche in supplying fresh, locally-grown lettuce, basil, water cress and rocket arugula year around. Because seasons and climate in ?Northeast Ohio don’t favor that goal, hydroponic production was the only answer.
Working with a partner, Bonner first leased 6,000 square feet of greenhouse facility. Demand for the product surfaced quickly.
“It was a small greenhouse. We sold out instantly,” he said, adding the experience convinced him there was a market for his healthy greens.
They graduated to 17,000 square feet, experimenting with an automated system to keep the seedlings watered, fed and warm for the six or seven weeks it takes them to mature and go to market.
Bonner had no intention of reinventing the hydroponic wheel, but the big operations in the U.S. were not interested in sharing their secrets, he said.
European operations were more welcoming and he picked the brains of their managers with his goal in mind.
Bonner said he knew he would need to borrow a lot of money to make his dream come true, so a comprehensive plan was vital.
“If you’re going to make a big investment — millions of dollars — you’d better have your ducks in a row,” he said last Friday.
Middlefield Bank asked a lot of tough questions, but the business plan Bonner presented convinced the loan department that Great Lakes Growers was worth the risk, he said.
“We achieved everything we wanted and more,” Bonner said, crediting Geauga County’s revolving loan fund for its part in his start-up.
Fresh, Local Produce
Success depends on restaurant chefs and home makers wanting attractive, local produce year around, Bonner said.
“In the green house, it is beautiful,” he said.
Pictures on his website show containers full of clean, vibrant, delicious lettuce, basil and water cress plants.
“We had to make it look in the store like it looks in the greenhouse,” he said.
Transportation is hard on tender leafy greens, as is shelf life.
In the produce section of the stores it supplies, Great Lakes Growers offers its greens in plastic clamshells that keep the leaves from being bruised, Bonner said.
But shoppers also have the option of buying living lettuce, basil, water cress or arugula plants with roots still attached. The roots are kept viable by setting in water in the bottom of the container. The customer can take them home and keep them alive and healthy for several days by adding a little water to the container, replacing it as it is absorbed by the roots, according to the website.
He sends 250 cases of greens to Heinen’s every week and recently started supplying Giant Eagle. Fresh produce sells best, so sprinter vans make direct deliveries early, leaving the 10-peaked greenhouse at 3:30 a.m. full of produce for that day’s sales.
One part of the process they decided to leave to the experts is marketing, Bonner said.
Because good marketing is essential, the company hired a firm to handle it.
Guinea Pig Greenhouse
The $2.5-million automated hydroponic facility built by a company out of Virginia was an experiment that has proven its worth.
“I was a guinea pig,” Bonner said. “The green house was one of a kind. Everything was custom built.”
Water is the prime ingredient in the growing cycle, carrying nutrients to the plants suspended in troughs on conveyors, he explained.
The water comes from rain and snow that runs off the 10 roofs of the green house and channeled to a pond where it is stored until it is pumped into the greenhouse. There it is tested and adjusted before filling more troughs. The troughs are seeded and in about five weeks, the plants are ready for market, Bonner said.
Growing in a liquid solution means the plants are very clean when they get to the store, which is a big advantage, he said, adding pests and microorganisms are easily controlled.
But the plants can’t be certified “organic” because they are not grown in the soil, Bonner said.
His enthusiasm for his project is not exhausted by the challenges of the last 12 months. In the spring, he wants to add on to expand the business.
He also wants to continue signing up customers within a 120-mile radius of the green house. That is about as far as the delicate produce can be shipped and stay fresh and attractive to buyers, he said.
Great Lakes Growers employs 17 people to help with the daily tasks, but Bonner remains in charge of the process.
“I do all the growing. The most important thing in the business is quality,” he said. “I want to understand everything.”
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