Getting your hands dirty naturally goes with the territory for anyone in the business of harvesting and packaging fertilizers, plant growing mixes and other such horticultural products. But its a fair trade-off for companies like the Seba Beach, Alta.-based Sun Gro Horticulture Canada Ltd., which has been really cleaning up in the North American markets over the last several years—impressively growing into the continent’ largest producer of horticultural-grade peat moss, along with blossoming into the biggest distributor of peat- and bark-based growing mixes and a leading supplier of water-soluble and controlled-release fertilizers for the consumer and commercial markets.
Harvesting peat moss from peat bogs across Canada, Sun Gro’s growing range of well-received, high-quality products—used primarily by professional greenhouses, nurseries, specialty crop growers, landscapers, and golf course operators—are today produced at over 20 production facilities located strategically throughout Canada and the U.S.
Lameque production manager Andre Fafrad (left) and Rene Duguay, general manager of Sun Gro Horticulture’s eastern Canada region, pose in front of pallet loads of peat moss product protected by a clear plastic film hood.
Employing over 1,000 people at its multiple locations, the company generated revenues of $225 million in 2010, having had processed just over 10 million bales of peat moss products for the nine months ending September 30, 2010, according to Rene Duguay, general manager of Sun Gro’s eastern Canada region situated in Lameque, New Brunswick.
“Our products are developed by professional horticulturists and produced under the industries highest standards company-wide,” Duguay told Canadian Packaging in a recent interview, attributing much of the company’s enviable marketplace position directly to the high quality of its products, as well as a well-executed series of strategic acquisitions that “helped Sun Gro become a vertically-integrated producer of value-added growing mixes with a very wide North American market.
Founded in 1929 in Vancouver under the Western Peat Company Ltd. corporate banner, the company gradually established its presence throughout British Columbia, before expanding eastward into central Canada.
After being acquired by Hines Horticulture, Inc. in 1993, which in turn was subsequently purchased by the Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners II, L.P. in 1995, the company commenced a strong marketing push to raise its industry profile by targeting n the higher-margin professional growers market, Duguay relates.
The strategic shift paid off handsomely, according to Duguay, with significant growth in the private-label market, which helped fuel a string of strategic acquisitions of Strong-Lite Products Corp. and Pigeon Hill Peat in New Brunswick; Normiska Peat in Ontario; Tourbiere Omer Belanger in Quebec; Sun Up Horticulture and Kellogg Rich Grow in California; and Florida Potting Soils in Florida and Georgia.
A Premier Tech LH-400 Series Stretch Hooder applies a film hood to a pallet load of peat moss packaged at Sun Gro Horticulture’s Lameque facility.
The acquisitions enabled Sun Gro to vastly expand its product portfolio, says Duguay, citing the company’s Sunshine, Sunshine Pro, Sunshine Redi-earth; Lakeland; Metro Mix; Nutricote; TechniCote; TechniGro; Black Gold; Nature’s, Sun-Coir, SunTrace, SunTrace Max and; Sunshine SunTower brands as some of its bestselling product lines.
Duguay explains that most of Sun-Gro’s products are soil-less mixtures of peat moss—with sphagnum peat moss being the high quality variety preferred by horticulturists—while other main ingredients comprising bark and coir, a coconut husk fiber.
Says Duguay: “Because peat moss is only grown in northern climes—it’s harvested as the decomposition of organic matter in bogs—Canada is one of the world’s largest such suppliers, accounting for 25 per cent of the world’s peat, which covers covering more than 270 million acres.
Sun Gro has about 65,000 acres of the peat bogs under lease.
“But despite Canada having so many acres of peat, harvesting only takes place on less than 40,000 acres,” adds Duguay, noting that Sun Gro has about 65,000 acres of the peat bogs under a long-term lease agreement.
“And with most of North America’s workable peat bogs containing sphagnum located in Canada, Sun Gro is in a very enviable marketplace position,” point out Duguay. “In fact, Canada produces more than 98 per cent of the sphagnum peat moss used in the U.S.”
With the U.S. market accounting for about 65 per cent of the company’s sales and Canada for another 20 per cent, the company has a fairly short window of opportunity during the year to fill its orders, according to Duguay, who explains that even though the peat moss harvesting season runs between April and October, weather conditions typically limit the actual harvesting activity to about 50 to 60 days per year.
The harvesting of peat moss begins with the draining of water in the harvested area to harrow the bog and accelerating the drying process, Duguay explains.
Once the surface has dried to about 45-percent moisture content, the peat is harvested with vacuums—with a typical vacuum harvester capable over covering about 100 acres in a day—and the gathered peat is transported to its assigned processing facility.
“At the Lameque facility, the primary professional grade peat product we harvest and package is our Sunshine brand in compressed bags of 3.8. 5.5, 55 and 110 cubic feet , as well as various sizes of loose-fill product,” says Duguay, stressing the importance of having reliable, high-quality packaging equipment in place to pack the products just right for its customers.
According to Duguay, this definitely applies to the This definitely applies to the Lameque plant’s Sloothweg open mouth-bagger and the two automatic, four-station VP-400-SE compression balers—supplied by Premier Tech Industrial Equipment Group of Rivière-du-Loup, Que.—used to produce 3.8- and 5.5-cubic-foot compressed packaged bales of peat moss mixture.
The Lameque facility employs a Premier Tech model AP-400L automatic palletizer to load massive bags of peat moss onto a pallet.
Featuring an operator-friendly, automatic bag feeder, equipped with a low-maintenance bag sealer and double-indexing bag magazine for continuous feeding, the rugged constructed VP-400-SE uses powerful hydraulics and compression chambers to load the Sunshine brand of peat moss into the plastic bags supplied either by Balcan Plastics Ltd. of St-Leonard, Que., or Salerno, Inc. of Châteauguay, Que.
After filling, the bags are passed by a Markem-Imaje 2620 print-and apply-labeling system, which tags each bag with a pressure-sensitive label featuring lot code data and other pertinent product information, and moved move along a conveyor system to be loaded onto pallets by a low-maintenance Premier Tech AP-400L high-level automatic bag palletizer.
Also supplied by Premier Tech, the low-maintenance palletizer—all its movements coordinated via an innovative electrical design to ensure a fluid movement control and smooth low-noise, low-power operation—proceeds to stack the bags onto a pallet in a pre-selected layering pattern.
“But even after the bags are packaged and palletized, we’re not done protecting the product just yet,” says Duguay, explaining the plant’s recent installation of a towering, heavy-duty stretchwrap hooder—the LH-400 Series Stretch Hooder model—also designed and manufactured by Premier Tech.
Utilizing high-strength plastic film supplied by Balcan, the LH-400 moves quickly from the top of the pallet downward to wrap the entire pallet of Sun Gro bags with a sheathe-like covering in order to protect the loads stored outside from, Duguay relates, as well as to provide an additional level of product protection during the transport and delivery to the end-use customer.
“Essentially, a tube of plastic is stretched over the pallet—from top to bottom—with a sealing process on the top to complete the wrap,” says Duguay.
“It is a very fast machine that has been doing a fantastic job for us.”
Because all the main movements of the LH-400 Stretch Hooder are controlled electrically, there is no need for any hydraulic maintenance such as oil changes, air bleeding or leak repairs, which Duguay says is an important factor for Sun Gro’s requirements to keep the packaged peat moss product as clean as possible for the end-users.
The fact that the LH-400 Stretch Hooder is, according to Premier Tech, entirely designed, engineered, manufactured and serviced in North America by a Canadian-based economy was a nice bonus factor for Duguay.
“For sure the close proximity of Premier Tech to Sun Gro was a mitigating factor in our selection, as well as having people there who can easily converse with us in French,” Duguay states.
“But most importantly, this hooder is an easy-to-use, rugged piece of equipment with very low-maintenance requirements and all the long-term reliability we sought for working in what can be a harsh production environment in our facility—plus it was available at a great price.”
Duguay says he also appreciates the quick-and-easy film roll changeovers that don’t slow down the production line, as well as the standard addition of safety fences that are fitted with interlocking doors for maximum employee safety.
Other key features of the hooder include:
• pallet transportation height from as low as 20 inches;
• programmable logic controller (PLC) with user-friendly operator interface for easy troubleshooting and error-code reading;
• quick installation with minimal on-site wiring and assembling.
Although the harvesting of peat moss is a very closed industry, competition is still fierce among the participants, Duguay states, which is why Sun Gro doesn’t mind purchasing highly technical items to not only make the packaging of its products run smoother, but also to make the package look better.
“Sun Gro has always been about being dedicated to the customer’s needs through producing a first-class product with a very high standard of quality,” says Duguay. “And that is something that we want to convey via our product’s packaging as well.
“The bags we have manufactured for us by our suppliers are fantastic, and it is only proper that we ensure they look that way when arriving at our customer’s locale.
“It’s why we have looked towards Premier Tech to help give us that edge. The extra level of protection the LH-40 Stretch Hooder provides for the bags not only keeps rain from over-saturating our product, but it also provides an additional level of product protection while helping ensure the pallet loads sit securely in transport,” he sums up.
“Our product and equipment suppliers are helping take us to the next level.”
PHOTOS BY STUDIO FOTOGÉNIK