The Authority in Propagation: ihort
ihort is the authority in propagation. The company offers propagation plugs and prefilled trays for every type of grower. Whether you field transplant, grow in loose media, or operate hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic systems, they have a plug for you. To learn more about the company, Dylan Sandstrom (sales manager/product and business development) interviewed ihort founder and President Gary Hartman.
What did you and your partners do before starting this company?
We started in the nursery business; we were Leonard Coates Nurseries, Inc., a 100-year-old wholesale nursery. It was my grandfather’s, my father’s, and then mine. We farmed miscellaneous truck crops and fruit trees throughout the Salinas and San Joaquin Valley.
How did you get into this industry?
This industry (stabilized soil media) didn’t exist; we had to invent it. It was to fill a need for automatic transplanting of lettuce and then we brought it into the horticultural field after that.
When and where did the company begin?
This company began in 1982, when we worked with Castle & Cooke, which we branched into Grow-Tech. After we sold Grow-Tech, we created ihort in 1997.
How many people were employed by the company at the beginning? What were their roles?
There were about eight of us to begin with. We all worked on the line producing plugs, with the exception of Camille Hartman, who worked in the office. Our original QPlug line was built inside two semi-trucks in the shape of an L; no electricity whatsoever, everything was on a generator. The only crew I could afford were three other guys that worked at the nursery during the day and for me at night. We would run all night; it was a great thing.
What did you first produce?
We first produced our 18/40 plug for Carnation production. We produced over 15 million plugs for Cal Florida Plant Co.
What were some of your struggles as you started the business? How did you overcome them?
Most of our struggles came from not having enough startup capital, getting customers for a brand-new product, and having enough money to purchase supplies. We had to mortgage our house like five times. In our early years, we struggled with getting the right salesmen to penetrate the business, but up to then it was just Camille and I. We would travel the world to different trade shows, sometimes 12 shows a year just to spread the word about our products and how growers could benefit from a stabilized plug.
How did you gain market share and recognition?
Just being exposed and longevity. When you invent a product, no one beats a path to your door. We had to educate people on what we had and why to use us. So, it was a real educational process more than anything and that’s why I agreed to sell Grow-Tech — I thought I needed to create competition in order to make the business and industry grow. We were supplying most of the plugs for carnation production across the world: Israel, Spain, Holland, and Columbia. We supplied all of those because of Cal Florida’s business. We supplied them all, then that business sort of disappeared when the dollar became stronger and the Euro emerged.
Most of the companies at the time disbanded or merged together. That is why I started Quick Plug. For a while the U.S. dollar was very low in relation to what is now the Euro and I thought it was better to produce plugs in Europe because of worries about not being able to afford the freight to service these different countries worldwide.
Has your company moved or expanded since the beginning?
Long ways from the trailers (laughs)! We moved from a barn into the trailers, then to a winery off Cienega Rd. in Hollister. From there we moved to Bertuccios, also in Hollister. Then we purchased the ranch which we operate from now.
What is your current product line?
Finding a need and filling it… in Horticultural propagation; trying to see what was needed and accumulating knowledge from nurseries and farming to combine them. To make the horticultural industry better through knowledge.
Where do you distribute?
At one time or another, we have distributed most all over the world. Predominantly the business is here in the United States, with our joint ventures in Holland and Japan. We will continue to expand in those areas.
What are your company’s strengths?
Being able to react quickly and to know a multitude of industries in agriculture.
What are some of your proudest moments?
Seeing the interest the world has in our product; something that we invented and seeing that it has a permanent place in the world now. The introduction of Dylan Sandstrom and my grandchildren into the family business and your interest in the knowledge we have obtained to keep the company going for years and years to come makes me equally as proud. Also, with the addition of Michael Brenner in sales and business development two years ago, we brought in a qualified plant propagation person. Michael has more than 20 years working in the bonded propagation media industry, his knowledge and experience has definitely added to ihort’s roster. We are very glad to have him on board.
What significant things have you learned so far about the industry?
It’s not going to be the same tomorrow (laughs). Being rootbound is nothing new but the solutions we came up with — we were the first. We were the very first to ever come up with an open bottom tray. I built a 72 and a 200 EPS tray; those were the first trays to ever be big enough on the bottom and 100 percent open to air prune. They had Speedling trays that had a really steep triangle taper, but those trays would plug up, so we introduced these ideas to the horticultural tray, general ornamentals/trees and shrubs, and that changed Leonard Coates operational practices. It used to be growing in a one-gallon can took us 12 months; we could knock it down to nine months and it would take us a year and a half for a five-gallon, but we got that down to 12 months through air pruning, so it changed everything we were doing and how we did it for ornamentals. It was the greatest thing ever. For sugar cane production, it was a miracle. We have gone into several different major crops and as the industry has progressed that has either stayed or gone, but we have had to move with whatever the trend was at the time just like we are now. That is why you always must be looking for something new. This won’t last, what will be next?
What have you learned about starting and growing a company?
I’ve worked for myself all my life and I’ve had several companies. From the farming, to the cattle and horses, to nurseries and of course this; I’ve loved them all. They all have worked... the biggest problem I have is I’m always building things and striving to grow things and never step back to enjoy them. It may be good and bad.
What words of wisdom can you share about the business, the industry, or the future of the industry?
Remain open to learning and adapt to change. Make yourself teachable in whatever you do.
What makes your employees so awesome? How does your team bond?
Because they like to work here and they are fun to be around, and they do good jobs.
Does your company participate in any community service?
We give miscellaneous trays and supplies to local schools. We value the importance of education and the impact the younger generation will have in both the horticultural and traditional agricultural worlds.