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Oberlin Housing An Orchid Empire

(Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
(Tony Ganzer/WCPN)

In recent years the US flower industry has seen a boom in orchids. In part, that’s because they’ve become a lot cheaper with new high-tech practices and commercialization. Traditionally Florida and California were hubs for American-grown orchids, but one company in Northeast Ohio has made a major push to dominate the orchid game…and it seems to be working.

Green Circle Growers in Oberlin is a huge greenhouse operation, with nearly 700 employees and 100 acres of greens and flowerage under glass. The facilities are high-tech, largely automated, and about 5 years ago, a big part of the business started to shift toward orchids.

GIESBRECHT: “We probably invested a total of closer to 50mn dollars now, it’s a 25 acre project, and we are currently the largest orchid grower in North America at this point.”

Scott Giesbrecht is Green Circle’s director of sales and marketing. His company supplies about 110-thousand orchids a week to customers like Home Depot and Walmart. You may not think Ohio would be the site for a major orchid operation, but the climate here isn’t much different than the hot bed of global flower production…Holland.

GIESBRECHT: “Most of the orchids grown in Europe are being grown in the Ohio, if you will, of Europe so to say, not Italy. We came here and found out most orchids were being grown in Florida, so it wasn’t necessarily the growing conditions orchids wanted or needed.”

Green Circle and a handful of other major U.S. growers have a truly globalized orchid growing process. Orchid genetics are perfected in Taiwan, the starting orchid tissues are grown in a German lab, and then Green Circle’s flowers spend 18 months in Oberlin, going from heated to air conditioned greenhouses depending on where they are in their lifecycle.

Robots do much of the work, pushing plants along and even sorting them. All the while a digital code on the pot keeps track of where the plant has been.

GIESBRECHT: “The pots just planted will be put in these saucers which will allow for transport around the automation they’ll experience.…and the first thing they will experience is a camera taking a picture and grading the size of each plant.”

MCMAHON: “The robotics there are incredible. Orchids there are graded by size, number of flowers, number of spikes…all electronically. It’s all done by electronic eyes.”
Robert McMahon is an associate professor of horticultural technologies for Ohio State University. He sometimes takes students to Green Circle Growers. Greenhouses have leveled the geographic playing field for growing orchids, and McMahon says being in Oberlin also helps Green Circle get its consumer-friendly wares to Northeast population centers more quickly.

MCMAHON: “The orchid that they specialize in is a moth orchid, this is an orchid easy to grow in the home, I have four in my home here, and they bloom profusely. And because they literally produce millions of orchids every year, the volume…they were able to bring the price down per plant.”

Orchids from Green Circle might run you $14 to $20, compared to decades past where they were $40 or $50. This price drop has likely helped push orchid sales past another big seller—poinsettias, according to David Toyoshima, a trustee for the American Orchid Society. He says modern companies, seem to drifting toward orchids like early 20th century growers did.

TOYOSHIMA (PHONE):“They started out as rose growers, hot house rose growers or carnation growers, and when they found that they could grow orchids easier, and profitability for orchids was better, they switched over to orchid growing. I think now some of these large [companies] like green circle are seeing a similar progression, that we saw 75 years ago.”

GIESBRECHT: “There’s very little subjectivity in what we do here..we are always trying to drive that out. Our facility is wireless..so our growers are constantly monitoring all levels, and in addition we have partners and consultants in Europe monitoring our facilities 24/7.”

Green Circle Growers is much more high-tech than growers of the past, but its success has other companies eyeing Oberlin’s methods. But Green Circle is already eyeing its next possible market…Mexico.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.