A generational event: Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers celebrate 50 years

Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Cooperative anniversary marks a milestone for the greenhouse industry in Michigan.

Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers members in 2016 (top) and 1975 (bottom). Photos courtesy of the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Co-op.
Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers members in 2016 (top) and 1975 (bottom). Photos courtesy of the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Co-op.

On Sept. 28, 2017, amid the early evening bustle of class-bound students, co-op members and invited guests made their way into the Fetzer Center on the campus of Western Michigan University to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Co-op.

Sounds of laughter and cheerful conversation filled the atrium where greenhouse families enjoyed cocktails and hors d'oeuvres while catching up with old friends during the pre-dinner social hour. A lovely and secluded garden patio served as the perfect backdrop for photographs to commemorate the event and capture the multi-generational nature of greenhouse life in southwest Michigan. The weather was warm with a light breeze—you couldn’t have picked a better evening for this grand affair.

Michigan State University Extension educators Jeremy Jubenville and Heidi Lindberg were pleased to celebrate this important milestone in the Kalamazoo greenhouse industry with their stakeholders. Michigan State University Extension is excited to be a part of this important organization and ensure its members continue success in the greenhouse business. The floriculture team at Michigan State University will continue its valuable greenhouse production programming on pest and disease management, marketing, business management and crop production management.

As history goes, the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Cooperative was created in 1967 by a group of 18 local growers as an instrument to protect pricing while ensuring consistent high-quality plant material. The need to cooperate arose especially from the extremely dense greenhouse industry in Kalamazoo County. With such heavy competition, greenhouse operations were forced to compete on prices, which undermined everyone’s profitability. To this day, Kalamazoo County has the greatest density of greenhouse production of any county in Michigan: 12.5 million square feet under cover.

In addition to protecting price and quality, the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Co-op also had several other functions that brought meaningful benefits to its members. In its original form, the Co-op had three business divisions: the General Bargaining and Promotion Division, the Grower Supply Division and the Flower Marketing Division.

The General Bargaining and Promotion Division was designed to regulate pricing and packaging, facilitate consumer promotion activities and fund university research. The purpose of the Grower Supply Division was to leverage their united purchasing power to obtain large volume discounts on common horticultural supplies. Finally, there was the Flower Marketing Division, which focused on expanding their current markets and increasing sales.

Over time, the Co-op grew to a peak of 65 greenhouses, which has since been consolidated to 35 independent operations. The event really emphasized the multi-generational aspect of the family-owned greenhouse operations in Kalamazoo. The original board members were Mel Klooster, Larry Boven, John Schaap, Phil Gernaat and Fred Penning, most of which still have their grandchildren or great grandchildren in the business today.

Near the end of the evening, the organizing committee of this 50th anniversary celebration presented videos and photos of the journey of the Kalamazoo Co-op: good and bad. The audience reminisced about its founders, disasters such as tornadoes, and happy occasions such as the growth and prosperity of its greenhouse members.

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