CosMic Plants celebrates 20th anniversary and new ownership structure

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Canadian Phalaenopsis grower CosMic Plants is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Since October 2023 they are also under new ownership as Connor van Steekelenburg, son of Neil van Steekelenburg joined his father as co-owner of the company. So, it’s a good time to look back and ahead with Connor.

Neil and Connor van Steekelenburg in the greenhouse.

From 2,000 to over 20,000 finished plants a week
In 2004, Neil and his brother Mike emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada. Despite having a passion for growing all kinds of crops, they did not have any experience with the cultivation of phalaenopsis. “My father wanted to start up a Phalaenopsis greenhouse in the Netherlands, but at that time getting starting material was a challenge as it was becoming a very popular product for growers. However, when they decided to move to Canada, it allowed suppliers some lead time. Tissue culture plant suppliers now wanted to work with us as we represented an opportunity in a new market. Neil and Mike were first-generation growers in Canada, which is quite uncommon nowadays as you often see well-established, multi-generational operations.” Neil and Mike started small, with a 5,600 m2 double poly greenhouse that needed a complete makeover to meet modern standards. “At that time, the market was still quite young, and phalaenopsis plant quality was not always consistent. Due to their trust in the quality and professionalism of Dutch plant suppliers, Neil and Mike decided to grow straight from tissue culture, a growing cycle of 1.5 years. It was their opinion that by growing from tissue culture, we would be more in control of the quality and consistency of our product. They purchased starting material from all major breeding companies and started with a production of 2,000 plants per week. As the market reacted positively and as my father and uncle gained knowledge and experience along the way, they gradually increased production. Now, we finish over 20,000 plants per week from tissue culture in 3has of modern greenhouses at two locations in Beamsville, Ontario. On top of that, we have a pre-finished program for a grower in Virginia. This is also a challenging but rewarding program for us.”

Connor entering the business
Connor was 8 years old when his father and mother, together with his two younger brothers, immigrated to Canada. He loved to be in and around the greenhouse, but his father always encouraged him to gain other experiences. “So, I studied civil engineering and worked a few years in that sector.” However, it was not the job he was ‘made for.’ “I always describe the feeling like being built as a runner but trying to become a powerlifter. I could do it if I dedicated myself, but I am not built for engineering. I always had an interest in the family business, so I decided to give it a real good try. In the beginning, I had no clear plan, so I started in production to get to know everybody and our processes again. Then, as I always had the itch to go back to the Netherlands, I decided to seek temporary work there. I was lucky enough get an opportunity to help optimize some production processes at Ter Laak, a large orchid grower in Wateringen. I lived with my grandparents, practiced my Dutch, biked to work, and enjoyed seeing and learning about the state-of-the-art greenhouses of Ter Laak. Unfortunately, due to Covid, my time in The Netherlands was cut short.”

Coming back after his stint in The Netherlands, Connor helped the business navigate the pandemic in any way he could. After experiencing the greenhouse automation that existed in The Netherlands, Connor had hopes to optimize the processes at CosMic Plants, but first a significant expansion happened in 2020. Connor was responsible for coordinating this expansion, which helped him learn more about all the climate and crop-related systems that go into their greenhouses. After the expansion was complete, Connor transitioned into a hybrid maintenance and process optimization role. “So, I did that for almost three years, and it worked out well. I also quickly became part of the management team. Last year, my father Neil and uncle Mike decided to go separate ways. Neil only wanted to go forward with the business if I was ready and committed to step in. I seriously considered this because it is no small undertaking, but in the end, I decided that I wanted to do this together with my father. I agreed, and since October 2023, we are 50-50 partners in the business.”

Connor at the IFPA 2023.

Eyes on the future
So, what will be the plan for the coming years? Connor: “The focus now is on setting our base right, creating a strong foundation for future growth. We want to continue to focus on quality, improving our growing practices, technologies, climate control, water quality, and so on. We want to focus on our weak points and improve on those. Our goal is to produce the nicest orchids possible. We do quite some different things, that few orchid growers in Canada do. We grow from tissue culture. We produce 3-inch and 5-inch pot sizes, staked traditionally and in various shapes. We grow them a bit longer in an effort to achieve premium quality. We really target the high-end floral market”. Connor has two younger brothers, Liam and Aidan, who are involved on the operations and maintenance side of the business as well. They are learning the ins and outs of the greenhouse and taking on more responsibility. Leaving maintenance and productivity tasks in good hands, Connor is now starting to spend more time on the sales and marketing side of the business. “We feel there needs to be ownership representation within sales and marketing, and with everyone that we now have in our operations and maintenance team still under the direction of my father, I feel very comfortable transitioning out of my responsibilities in those areas.”

Of course, running a business does not go without any challenges. “One of our main challenges is to manage our input costs, which are rising. Labor is one of our biggest costs, so we are also looking to make production more effective. A very important element of this is making people more responsible and trusting them more. Furthermore, we are really focusing on developing the right customer base for our business. On the marketing front, we are focused on orchid care education, as well as being proactive in our marketing planning.”

Phalaenopsis market
And how is the phalaenopsis market doing in North America? “Our feeling is that the North American market fluctuates quite a bit lately. There are times in the year when you cannot have enough, and there are times when you seemingly cannot give the product away. This is a complex issue, and there are many factors involved. It would be difficult to summarize it in a few sentences. We believe that as we fine-tune our production and find the right customers, our sales will be strong for the foreseeable future.”

For more information:
CosMic Plants Inc.
4665 Bartlett Road
Lincoln, ON L3J 0Z2
Tel.: +1 905 562 9389
Fax: +1905 562 9390
Email: [email protected]

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