Business sprouting at local plant

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
A company renting space in the empty Associated Milk Producers Inc., building in Hillsboro is on the cutting edge in this age of convenience and environmental awareness.

PrecisionGRO is manufacturing two products that promise convenient gardening through more effective distribution of fertilizers and less water requirements for new trees, shrubs and plants.

For years, Jerry Nowak, a Colwich resident and avid gardener, was losing plants because he lacked the time in his busy life to get home and water them. So he did something about it.

“He worked in his garden for probably five to eight years, just figuring out a way to take care of his plants when he wasn’t there,” said his sister, Judy Steinborn of Marion.

In the early 1990s, Nowak developed PrecisionGRO-a premeasured, premixed fertilizer in a packet that promises to hold the fertilizer and nutrients in place at the root system of a new plant. One packet is designed for vegetables and flowers, and the other is to be used on shrubs and trees.

Two of the shareholders in his company are Steinborn and her husband, Kevin.

For the past two years, the couple has been assembling this product in their garage. But they recently required more space. Two weeks ago, they started working out of the AMPI plant at the north end of Main Street.

“I got involved with it when Jerry came to me and told me the idea, and I thought it was the coolest thing I ever heard,” Steinborn said.

Each packet contains 14 percent time-released nitrogen; 13 percent phosphate; 9 percent soluble potash; nitrogen broken down into 3.5 percent ammonical nitrogen, 2.5 percent nitrate nitrogen and 4 percent urea nitrogen; vitamins B1, C and E; and a water-retention polymer. These elements are all contained in one packet.

For the gardener who isn’t concerned with scientific terms, the product is a biodegradable power packet engineered to place a time-release fertilizer at the root level of the plant. This mixture is designed to obtain maximum effectiveness in stimulating root growth and fostering a healthy strong plant.

For new vegetable and flower plants, the gardener digs the hole two inches deeper then normal. For trees and shrubs, the hole is dug as usual.

“You don’t have to open anything,” Steinborn said. “You just drop the packet in the hole, and plant like you normally do.”

For each vegetable and flower plant, one packet is thrown in and covered with two inches of dirt before the plant is put in the hole.

For trees, one packet is used for every 1/2-inch diameter. On shrubs, one packet is used for every 1 foot height.

“Then you just water it,” Steinborn said. “And when water hits that bag, it will dissolve in about 20 seconds.”

The water-soluble fertilizer reacts first to help stimulate the roots and prevent transplant shock. Next, as that wears off, the time-release fertilizer kicks in and will feed the plant for the entire growing season.

“So there’s no need to go back and reapply fertilizer,” Steinborn said. “We put in a powder form of polymer. What that will do is it will gel up, and it will gel into the dirt and hold the fertilizer plus moisture all under the plant.”

Steinborn used the product on her tomato plants last summer and said her tomatoes were still blooming during the hot spell.

“So you can cut down on your watering,” she said. “If you’re watering four times a week, you can probably cut back to twice, and that’s because of the polymer.”

One of the earlier prototypes of the product was burlap bags placed under shrubs.

The current product was officially released in spring 2000 after two years of testing in a university horticulture department.

Convinced the product was good, the company’s next step was to develop a way to educate and inform the gardening public.

“We started with the Garden Wise show in Wichita two years ago,” Steinborn said.

Next stop was getting into the retail market in nurseries such as Graber’s Nursery in Newton and Seivley’s Garden Center in El Dorado, where packets sell for about $7.98 for a four-packet strip.

Following the Big Western show in Kansas City, the Steinborns have been to garden shows in Kansas City, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

But one show was the stimulus for the move to the AMPI plant. The company had to prepare PrecisionGRO for the mass market of the QVC Home Shopping Network.

“A year ago, we submitted it to the QVC, and it’s taken us a whole year to get on the air there,” Steinborn said.

The product is scheduled to be aired at 6 a.m., Thursday, March 21, on the QVC network.

Special tubes were designed to hold 20 bags of the vegetable and flower fertilizer and 10 bags of the tree and shrub fertilizer.

“To QVC, we sold 1,600 (tubes) of the vegetables and 1,500 (tubes) of the tree and shrub,” Steinborn said.

“They reach millions of people all at one time, and you can explain your product to them. They’ve also broken it down so they know they have an audience of roughly 11 million gardeners.”

The product is safe around animals and is environmentally friendly because it’s buried in the soil well below the plant.

Surface fertilizers, on the other hand, have the tendency to run off in high rains, and therefore raise soil nitrate levels, according to company information.

Because the packet is designed to be biodegradable, Steinborn cautions against handling it with wet hands. Once any moisture comes in contact with it, the packaging will dissolve.

“It’s not a fragile bag, it’s just when it gets wet-we designed it like that so it will dissolve fairly quickly,” she said.

The Steinborns live in Marion and have four children ranging in age from 10 to 20. Their eldest, a son, doesn’t live at home anymore, but their three daughters help with the company production line when needed.

“And we’ve had other people help us out,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been possible to get out the orders with out all the good part-time help.”

The Steinborn family has also experimented with the product in their personal landscaping.

“Last year we put out three river oaks,” she said. “We did two with (the packets) and one without.”

The one without the packets is taller than the PrecisionGRO treated trees, which is the result Steinborn expected.

“The tree and shrub (product) has a 12-month release so it will feed for a whole year. By then it should have a good root system, and the tree should start shooting up.

“So you don’t want a great big top growth because you’re roots won’t be able to support it,” she said.

Nowak is looking to the future and is developing a rose variety of fertilizer, Steinborn said.

“And we’re wanting to get more specific like with the evergreens, fruit trees and nut trees and possibly even something just for peppers.”

They are also looking into trying to get the product into Home Depot stores in the future.

“All you have to do is submit it and see what happens,” she said. “Most of your stores like that order anywhere from 11/2 to two years in advance.”

The product is also marketed at www.precisiongro.com. Steinborn said she welcomes retail shoppers to visit them at the AMPI plant. But they do not have regular hours at this point and for appointments can be reached at 620-381-1358.

The product is unique, Steinborn said, and she looks forward to growing sales and expanding the product line in the future.

“There is nothing else out there like it,” she continued. “You can get your fertilizer separate and your polymers separate, but what we did is we just combined it all into a bag.”

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