Issue 48: The Hydroponic Merchants Conference – 1999

Issue 48
September/October – 1999
Story Title: The Hydroponic Merchants Conference – 1999
Author: Steven Carruthers

STEVEN CARRUTHERS reports on the 2nd annual meeting of the Hydroponic Merchants Association, held in Orlando, Florida.

“The Hydroponic Merchants Association was established by, and for, retailers, suppliers, distributors and manufacturers of indoor/outdoor gardening and hydroponic farming equipment and supplies. The Association provides an international forum for the purpose of exchanging ideas and information to promote commerce and expansion of the industry.”

HMA Conference, 1999

1. Working the floor – Harmon Davidson (Green Air Products, OR) and Kurt Aschermanm (A+ Plant Technologies, CA).

2. (L to R) Bill Graham (Hahn’s Lighting, CA), Peter Creevy (Accent Hydroponics, Australia), Justin Henry (Growell Distribution, UK) and Grant Creevy (Accent Hydroponics).

3. (L to R) Bill Harpole (All Seasons Gasrdening, TN), Kathy Giovannelli (Garden Indoors, PA), and Michael Christian (American Hydroponics, CA).

4. HMA Executive Director, Bob LaGrasse (Left), and HSA Operations Manager, Dan Lubkeman, compare notes.

5. (Left) Jeff Edwards (Home Harvest Garden Supply, MD), takes an interest in the new range of organic plant stimulators formulated by Erwin Rosario (Atami Laboratories, Holland).

6. Raymond Jackson (Milwaukee Instruments, MA) showcases the new range of Milwaukee pH, TDS and EC monitors.

7. (L to R) Danny Boskovski (HydroShop Corporation, Australia), Matt Addams (Sunmaster, UK), Brent Parker (Sunmaster, Canada), and James Delaney (HydroShop Corporation, Australia) discuss lighting matters.

8. (L to R) Jim and Chee Keong Fah (Agromatic Corporation, Australia) showcase the innovative Smart Valve and expandable HydroPak growing system.

9. Claudia and Rudolf Rueter (Oekotau Easy Green, Germany) showcase Hydrotron expanded clay.

10. Mark Wuilliez and Traci Peltzer (Homegrown Hydroponics, Fl) take time away from their Longwood store to attend the HMA Exposition.

11. (Left) Keynote speaker Dr Howard Resh (Left) and system developer Matt Schow (Diamond Lights, CA) examine the spectacular Future Farm 196 system.

HMA Conference, 1999
The HMA tour group gather for a photograph following a behind-the-scenes tour of the ‘The Land’ exhibit at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center.

A week of torrential rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of delegates from around the world, who had gathered in Orlando, Florida, for the 2nd Hydroponic Merchants Association (HMA) conference and exposition. It started with a grand exhibition opening and reception, and ended with a behind-the-scenes tour of the world’s most famous hydroponics display –

‘The Land’ exhibit at Walt Disney’s World EPCOT Center. In between, conference sessions gave retailers, manufacturers and distributors plenty to digest, to help them ride the hydroponic wave into the new millennium.

On all counts, this annual industry event was a spectacular success. There were 241 delegates who attended the conference, up 35% on last year’s inaugural gathering of international industry players. The exhibition space was filled to capacity with 47 colourful, interactive and visually exciting exhibits (up 46.9%) representing traders from the United States, Canada, England, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. The high standard of exhibits and technology demonstrates a rapidly maturing and market-savvy industry. The trade display area once again proved a popular meeting place for delegates, giving exhibitors maximum exposure.

Business was clearly on the agenda, as key decision-makers sought out the latest information and product innovations to take back to their customers. Hydroponic retailing has become serious business. The surprisingly large presence of retailers has validated the need for such an event, and signals they have embraced the HMA as their peak industry body. To paraphrase Dr Howard Resh in his keynote address, “hydroponics has become a very recognisable industry”.

Conference Sessions
Cultivating the Educational Market
Educational institutions are excellent sources for product sales and customer referrals, and this session looked at how schools can help promote your business. The session was presented by Gordon Redman (American Agriculture), recipient of the Business Education Compact’s 1999 Most Valuable Partner Award for his work with students at Colton District School, Oregon.

Gordon illustrated how hydroponics is used as a learning tool for botany class students. Through this project, called Space Station Alpha-Z 2000, students are able to contrast and compare how quickly plants grow in hydroponic systems, versus traditional planting mediums. They learn about water and water treatment, pH levels and different types of plant nutrients. Students also use the project in other studies, including mathematics, english, chemistry and physics.

Space Station Alpha-Z 2000 has produced 450 lettuce to date, which are sold to the school cafeteria and local businesses. With the project now in its 3rd year, Gordon said botany class enrolments have gone from 7 to over 90 students. To assist retailers and educators to cultivate the educational market, Gordon tabled a curriculum outline for teachers, available from American Agriculture or the Hydroponics Merchants Association.

Your Store’s Image & How it Affects Your Bottom line Showroom appearance can affect who you attract to your store, and how much you sell. This session was presented by a panel of three retailers, who discussed store designs and how small changes can lead to greater sales.

Nancy Pierce (New Earth Garden Center, Tennessee) told her audience that retailers have to overcome the image of a ‘head’ shop. “Store front is important”, she said. “If you have a ‘shady’ operation, you would expect to find it in a remote location.”

Nancy encouraged retailers to pay the extra rent for better locations, and to invest in professional signage.

Nancy added that the New Earth Garden Center has allocated a small space for children, as an instore service for parents, complete with crayons and paper. Other tips Nancy offered included keeping windows clean, and locating colourful products at the front of the store.

Tom Noakes (Brite-Lite Hydroponix, Quebec) spoke on hydroponic merchandising, which he segmented into ‘the good’, ‘the bad’ and ‘the ugly’. Tom described ‘the good’ as live plants, colourful displays, price information, and the HMA poster; ‘the bad’ included non-certified products, inconsistent content (eg. nutrient colour), no packaging or label, and no box instructions; and ‘the ugly’, he said, are products that are hard to make pretty and market, such as substrates, blowers, parts and fitting, hoses and ducting, and some bulbs. For ‘the ugly’, Tom advised retailers to display one, and hide the rest.

“If you’re not selling soil plants, then don’t use soil displays”, said Kathy Giovannelli (Garden Indoors, Pennsylvania).

Kathy advised retailers to grow unusual plants instore, such as coffee plants and bromeliads, which hold their flowers for a long time.

“Growing specialist seeds instore, helps sell seeds and seedlings”, she added.

Kathy also suggested ‘touch-and-feel’ displays for substrates such as cocopeat, and rockwool displays that feature size, quantity and price at a glance.

“Instore growrooms should have signs and posters, so visitors can see what they are looking at”, she added.

Kathy told her audience that people are happy to share their garden with you, including their pets, and these should be featured in instore photo albums, along with photographs of previous plants and produce grown in the store.

Business Issues
From business issues to legal concerns, this session focused on issues affecting retailers in their day-to-day operations. Panelist Carl Anderson (Virginia Hydroponics, Virginia) opened the session with a discussion on how to recognise and avert credit card fraud – credit card fraud is a growing problem that typically winds up with the merchant on the loosing end. Retailers were referred to the following web sites for added information:

The use of hydroponic equipment for illegal purposes dominated the session with a lively debate on the use of warning notices, and instore signs that educate the general public to the legitimate benefits of hi-tech gardening.

Managing the Controlled Environment Garden
Environmental controls and carbon dioxide enrichment systems can be a profit generator for retailers, if you know how to sell them. According to Harmon Davidson (Green Air Products, Oregon), environmental controllers offer incredible benefits to customers.

“Managing the controlled garden does not have to be difficult”, said Harmon. “It’s primarily an exercise in commonsense.”

Lack of fresh air in a confined growing space is a common problem experienced by indoor gardeners, and proper synchronised air flow may be necessary.

“The object is to produce consistent air movement”, said Harmon.

Harmon also highlighted the need to control elevated air temperatures caused by artificial or supplemental lighting systems. While water-cooled and air-cooled lamps have less impact on temperatures than conventional lighting systems, synchronised temperature control may be necessary. Sensors are used in much the same way to control humidity.

“Research has shown that plants can increase growth up to 200% in some cultivars when exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide”, said Harmon.

For enclosed growing environments of less than 1000 square feet, he recommends an automatic injection system for raising CO2 levels. He cautions that more frequent irrigation, higher nutrient concentrations, and more light intensity are required to maximise CO2 benefits.

For most plant varieties, Harmon recommends an optimum CO2 level of 1000ppm, with a complete air change once each day.

The session discussed different scenarios for cooling and dehumidifying, heating and cooling, and CO2 enrichment, and also looked at popular, basic environmental control systems.

Growing an Integrated Marketing Plan
Presented by industry marketeer John Monsees (Monsees & Co., California), this session highlighted the marketing tools available for retailers to increase store traffic and sales. Drawing on 20 years marketing experience, John told his audience that the most profitable form of marketing is repeat business, and that awareness, understanding, preference and trials are the key elements in the marketing mix to develop new customers, and repeat business.

According to John’s marketing approach, public relations activities (eg. press releases and trade articles) and direct mail, let the retailer tell their message in more depth, thus building customer awareness, understanding and preference. Print, radio and cable advertising promote understanding and preference, while brochures help promote preference and trial.

“But you have to get your message right”, advised John. “Be consistent and clear, and give prospective customers a reason to buy your product or visit your store.”

John told his audience that local garden shows, for example, are often overlooked by retailers focused on distant markets to develop new business.

“When you meet and talk with people, things start to happen”, he told his listeners.

With more and more retailers using the internet in their marketing mix, John observed that the Internet is called the ‘information highway’, not the ‘catalogue highway’.

“What we are seeing is everyone trying to reproduce a print catalogue on the Internet”, he said.

“It (the Internet) is a different medium. “It’s about content, content, content”, he said.

John told his audience that a reasonable marketing expenditure should be in the order of 3-5% of annual gross sales.

Global & Local Internet: Strategies that Work
The Internet can be a powerful tool to increase store traffic or generate catalogue sales – if you know how to use it. This session was presented by Dennis Dadey (HydroMall, Alberta) and discussed the Internet marketing process.

“The Web makes it easy to keep a product name in front of the market”, said Dennis. He highlighted several online marketing strategies that can be used effectively to develop new business and brand loyalty. These include brand building (eg. banner advertising), direct marketing (eg. email solicitations), customer support (eg. FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions), marketing (eg. classifieds), research (eg. cool links), and public services (eg. weather reports for growers).

According to Dennis, many companies do not realise the full potential the Internet offers for customer support. For example, Frequently Asked Questions on the web release store personnel from phone duties to pursue other income-producing activities.

“In the years ahead, many companies will shift their existing telephone customer support to the Web,” he predicted.

PPM vs EC PPM vs EC.

How does it effect you, your customers and the industry? Is it time for the US to change? These issues were the focus of a controversial session, led by a panel of international industry practitioners and experts.

Giles Gunstone (Growth Technology, UK) opened the session with an explanation on units of measurements; Michael Christian (American Hydroponics, California) gave a US commercial grower’s experience and perspective; Carl Barry (Growth Technology, Australia) explained the chemistry; and Jim McKenzie (Hanna Instruments, Rhode Island) added the technology. Although well-intentioned, the session failed to convince North American retailers there is a need to change from PPM to EC meters.

Factory calibration and conversion factors were also discussed. According to Jim McKenzie, conversions factors for PPM meters range from 0.5 to 0.7, depending on end-user applications. While PPM meters with a factory calibration of 0.5 may be suitable for water treatment industries, they are not suitable for hydroponic applications. According to Australian industry expert Kevin Handreck, a conversion factor of 0.64 (Growing Media, 1987) is more accurate for hydroponic applications. Meters calibrated above or below this can lead to over or under dosing of nutrient by as much as 30%.

Ideally, the industry should adopt EC meters as the standard meter, simply because they give the best estimate of the strength of a nutrient solution. EC meters use the internationally accepted units of measurement for electroconductivity, they are more accurate than PPM meters, and they are supported by scientific and hydroponics literature.

Is it time for the US to change? Jim McKenzie (Hanna Instruments, USA), Michael Christian (American Hydroponics, USA), Carl Barry (Growth Technology, Australia), and Giles Gunstone (Growth Technology, England) lead a lively debate on PPM vs EC.

Shedding Light on HID Bulb Options
Lighting is a major sales item for retail stores. This session looked at current lighting technology, its impact on sales and profits, and what future options are coming.

Presented by Peter Wardenburg (Hydrofarm, California), the session started with recommendations for various HID bulb types, and ended with many useful tips from one of America’s leading lighting manufacturers.

Based on the Hydrofarm experience, the standard Metal Halide (MH) lamp is okay for general growing and seed starting. It is best when used for vegetative growing, then replaced by High Pressure Sodium (HPS), or used in combination with HPS for flowering.

Daylight MH are recommended where high colour rendition is preferred. This lamp is also commonly used for aquariums and research, where close sun simulation is required. However, daylight MH may not perform as well as other lamps, due to its lower intensity.

Warm-coloured MH is the preferred option for single-fixture growing environments, from start to finish for most plant types.

Hydrofarm recommend the standard HPS lamp from start to finish for some crops, but it may not have enough blue in the spectrum for all plant types. This lamp is excellent when used in conjunction with MH, or as a switch-to for flowering. HPS is the most popular supplemental light for greenhouse applications.

Enhanced HPS lamps have improvements in the output and/or in the amount of blue spectrum, and in some cases overall lumen performance. This lamp is used for the same applications as standard HPS lamps, but it will perform better for a wider range of plants due to the enhanced output and colour spectrum.

“New types of bulbs will be introduced in an attempt to match the needs of this industry”, predicted Peter.

He forecasts the hydroponics industry will see the introduction of chemically altered MH bulbs, which will be more energy efficient, with less maintenance and longer life. Although more technically challenging, HPS lamps will also be enhanced, and more energy efficient.

“Other technological innovations will include the development of reflectors to match specific bulbs”, he said.

During question time, Peter gave retailers many useful tips. He recommends coding bulbs at the point of sale.

“Date lamps on the store receipt, with a store policy of only accepting returns with receipt, or etch the lamp base with the month and year of sale”, he advised.

How many retailers have replaced customer bulbs because of chipped glass inside the envelope?

“Chipped glass in the envelope is not a problem”, said Peter.

With regard to bulb disposal practices, customers should be encouraged to return them to the store of purchase, for return to the manufacturer and proper disposal.

The Scope of Hydroponics
The keynote address was delivered by Dr Howard Resh, who gave a fascinating insight into how the hydroponics industry has evolved over the past two decades. The slide presentation recounted Dr Resh’s early experiments with backyard hydroponic greenhouses, through hobby gardening, to an overview of crops and hydroponic systems used today in commercial food production. He also looked at the recent use of ‘popular hydroponics’ in Latin America – Dr Resh describes popular hydroponics as small-scale, non-complicated, and inexpensive units used to grow food in poor communities.

In a career spanning 25 years, Dr Resh has worked as a hydroponic consultant and full-time contractor throughout North and South America, and the Middle and Far East. He has taught courses in Greenhouse Management and Hydroponics at collegiate levels.

Sharing many of the technological and cultural problems he encountered along the way, and describing how they were overcome, Dr Resh provided much useful information for hydroponic historians and today’s practitioners.

Combining robotic technology and remote sensing to study plant health at Disney’s EPCOT Center.

Disney’s Epcot Tour
Walt Disney laid the groundwork for the grand concept of Walt Disney World, directing the planning of environmental concepts and developing basic philosophies for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT. Today, it is the most famous hydroponics display in the world.

Conference delegates visited ‘The Land’ pavilion, a dynamic depiction of the history of agriculture and a live production facility which showcases important agricultural crops, concepts and technologies. These technologies include hydroponics, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), aquaculture, computer applications, biotechnology, and space agriculture.

(The HMA conference sessions were sponsored by American Hydroponics, Hydrofarm Inc., Green Air Products, Home Harvest Garden Supply and Western Water Farms. The EPCOT tour was sponsored by Gualala Robotics/A.J. Hamilton.)