After 80 Years, One Company Just Says No to Chemicals
IF YOU HAVE LIVED anywhere East of the Mississippi in the past half century and you happened to wander into the well-used potting shed of a true, died-in-the-wool gardener, you would almost certainly find a simple, white bag of fertilizer. Maybe it would be half used, slightly soiled. Maybe the top of the bag would be rolled up, as if it were some left over Gold Medal flour or Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake mix.
Since the year of the Crash, 1929, the Espoma company has been producing bagged fertilizers from the same patch of land in Millville, N.J., which happened to be the town where the founder, H.G. Sanders, resided. It was the only fertilizer I ever recall my grandmother using in Bradford, Maine, back in the 1960s and it was the only brand I remember on the shelves at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop garden center in Falmouth, Maine, when I hired myself out as a gardener during high school in the 1970s. I used Espoma’s Holly-Tone for my customers’ shrubs and their bonemeal for the bulbs and other root crops. My gardening mentor, an old sailmaker named Richard Fortune Jr., swore by the bloodmeal for his tomato plants.
As a professional gardener, landscaper and gardening journalist for the past 20-plus years, I’ve visited hundreds, if not thousands of places, but for some reason it took me until Wednesday afternoon to make it to Millville, which is about 45 minutes southeast of Philadelphia and a half-hour west of Atlantic City.
And even if you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can certainly judge Espoma by the remarkably unchanged and simple package on its iconic product of Holly-Tone. The company doesn’t offer any frills or nonsense, but rather efficient repetition. The factory and warehouse has been modernized and mechanized. Many new products have been added and some are even packaged in bright blue and hot pink spray bottles. At the core, though, the company clearly lives by the mantra that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“We grow slowly but surely,” said Jeremy Brunner, the great-grandson of H.C. Sanders.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the company doesn’t take risks. Two years ago, Espoma quietly — as usual — announced it was going to offer organic products almost exclusively going forward. The company had offered many so-called “bridge” products in the past, which are fertilizers that combine synthetic materials with natural substances. Reading the market trends and sensing consumer demand, Jeremy, his father, Serge, and the marketing team made the switch with a vengeance rarely if ever seen in the eight-decade history.
The result was a complete line of organic fertilizers and potting mixes for everything from orchids and roses to fruit trees. Espoma also added a line of ready-to-use botanical pesticides in those aforementioned colorful containers. Recently, Espoma purchased the lawn care division of the company Organica — which will make the company a significant player in grass maintenance for the first time.
“You have to change with the times, but you don’t have to change your core values,” said Jeremy during our tour of the plant. “These days, so many start-up companies are competing for shelf space in the garden center, the only way to compete is to have a complete line of quality products at a fair price.”
The computerized shipping and packing and robotic packaging stations clearly give Espoma a nice edge. The efficiency allows the company to keep its overhead low and retain an emphasis on the product inside the bag — which now comes almost exclusively from natural sources.
“You have to embrace the best of the new technology to be sustainable in business, while at the same time utilize natural products that keeps the supply chain and planet sustainable, too,” said Jeremy.
Right about then, he had to leave to go coach his 7-year-old son in wrestling, the same sport his father had taught him. Jeremy is about half my size, but I knew I’d never want to tangle with him — on the wrestling mat, or in business.
In a world where gardening brands come and go like alphabet soup, I’m fairly certain this one will still be in the best gardeners’ potting sheds 81 years from now.