Cost savings possible despite higher price than planting seed The vegetable transplant business is cyclic. Bad weather at planting time can send demand soaring. Good weather means fewer transplants sold.

Nevertheless, overall transplant use is growing, according to Hoy Buell, founder and president of Greenheart Farms, which sells more than one billion transplants per season from its operations in Arroyo Grande, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz.

Buell says Greenheart recently conducted a survey of California's coastal farmers who said they are using increasingly more transplants, primarily due to cost savings, even though transplants are more costly than seeding.

For example, it takes only about two percent of the water to grow a transplant in a greenhouse as it does to grow the plant to that same size in the field. Saving water means saving money.

Because transplants are more costly, producer demands are high. And to give growers what they want demands precision in the greenhouse, according to Ted Johnston head grower at Greenheart's Yuma operation. There is little margin for error in producing millions of tiny plants in cells, each less than an inch square.

"It's very difficult, when working in a transplant environment, to get proper seed placement, moisture and heat," says Sean Foy, operations manager at the Yuma facility.

Buell started Greenheart in 1979 on California's central coast. His background was in ornamental horticulture and nursery management. Greenheart is now one of the largest transplant producers in the nation. It expanded to Yuma in 1989 as the farming area along the Colorado began its transformation from cotton and grains into the nation's winter vegetable capital.

`Wonderful area' "It's a wonderful area to produce transplants," he says. The operation began producing broccoli and cauliflower, which remain a big part of its operation, Today, tomatoes are its biggest product, primarily for processing tomato production hundreds of miles away in the San Joaquin Valley, proving that distance is no problem but transplant hardiness is.

The Yuma facility is located in the old YUCO Gin's Yuma Valley building where there are three main cropping seasons. Selling to growers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Mexico, its first season is geared toward cauliflower/broccoli growers. The first plantings start around early August, and the last harvest and shipment is usually around the end of the year.

"The (summer crop) watermelons are already in the houses," Foy says. The second season is for spring crops, primarily watermelons and peppers. The most difficult and expensive transplant to produce is seedless watermelons. This season lasts until about the end of March.

Overlapping it is the tomato season, the Yuma facility's most hectic growing period because of the high demand. That season starts as early as January, with the last tomato seedlings not trucked out of Arizona until some time in June.

"That's our biggest crop," Foy says.

Greenheart has upgraded its Yuma operations with the addition of a heated germination chamber last summer. It is a 66 by 73-foot insulated room in the old gin. Two or three days in the chamber is a typical stay for triploid watermelon seeded cells. The trays remain there for only a short period of time because emergence in that kind of heat could result in spindly or otherwise unhealthy plants.

"It's touchy," Foy emphasizes. From there the trays are taken outside into one of 25 greenhouses on the 20-acre property. These greenhouses are covered with 8 mm plastic that is reusable for two or more years.

Seedless watermelon transplants germinate in six to eight days and require about 50 days in the greenhouses. While there, they are constantly watched to ensure proper spray irrigation, nutrition and disease control.

"Every crop has a different housing time," says Johnston, a University of Arizona graduate. He compares the facility to a miniature farm "You are growing in a microclimate," he adds.

Difficult to grow "There is nothing more difficult than a seedless watermelon," Johnston claims. They are sensitive because of their delicate genetic makeup. When they reach four inches he likes to take them outside where they can acclimatize and harden off for the trip to the farm customer.

Other crops, like the processing tomatoes, are not as difficult to grow but are demanding because of the huge volume produced in a short time period. Foy said the facility produced 105 million tomato plants in 2000.

The facility also added new, high-capacity soil mixing machinery last summer. It gives the added control necessary to produce the different soils designed for each crop.

To make management easier, crop management software has been added for both Greenheart locations. From the time the company salesman types in an order on his laptop to the final delivery, the custom-designed software follows each crop daily.

"The computer figures everything out," Foy says of harvest and shipment dates.

Buell says the transplant business is "burgeoning," but just as his farmer clients are going through tough times, he is in a period when slender margins make this a barely profitable enterprise.

"It's more competitive now than it's ever been," Buell says. Demand is high, and increasing, but with energy costs high and competition abundant, his ability to make a profit shrinks every year. On the plus side, he supplies a large sector of the economy, and it is clamoring for his product. He supplies about a quarter of the processing tomato seedlings used in California, for example, and other crops such as celery are moving more and more toward transplants.