Westerlay Orchids is positioning itself to be ready when the economy recovers with an ambitious expansion program that will make it one of the major players in the orchid industry, according to Toine Overgaag, president.
Mr. Overgaag took the corporate reins at Westerlay when his father retired three years ago. Expansion plans center on acquiring additional facilities nearby that will take the Westerlay holdings up to one million square feet of greenhouse space.
Other elements of the makeover include labor-saving automation technology (adding portable roller tables and automated irrigation and shading to greenhouses, for example), and moving boldly into new products — a line of color-infused orchids — and creating finished products with upscale pot and containers for supermarkets and other retailers.
The physical expansion will include 15 acres purchased from Gallup & Stribling Orchids, the cymbidium orchid grower down the street. “This will give us a total of one million square feet of greenhouse space and make us one of the big boys,” Mr. Overgaag observed. Westerlay will move current cymbidium production to this site and convert an existing 300,000 square feet to more phalaenopsis orchids.
The automation is to improve efficiency and lower costs, and builds on quality built into the Westerlay facilities. Mr. Overgaag’s father, Joop, also called Joe, watched the fiberglass windows of the greenhouses he built in the late 1970s turn yellow after only a few years and became one of the first growers in the area to switch to glass. Glass, his son pointed out, lets in more light, insulates better and lasts longer than plastic.
To build the greenhouses, Joop Overgaag used piping from disassembled oil pipes, giving the structures a sturdy frame that has easily lasted 25 years “and will last another 25,” his son said, noting that other greenhouses built at the same time have worn out and been torn down.
The new product line is a series of phalaneopsis orchids that have been injected with dye, which they take up internally like water. The plant blooms in rich, intense color for the first blooming cycle, then turns back to its native white over the next cycles. Originally introduced only in electric blue, the orchids now come in blue, lilac and green.
“The blue orchids introduce a ‘cool factor,’“ Mr. Overgaag said, “and open the market to new customers. The green orchids could be huge favorites also.” The new line will initially come in sapphire, amethyst and emerald colors, with other colors added later, and will be sold by Westerlay in western states as the Gemstone Collection.
The patented technology belongs to a firm in the Netherlands, which Westerlay represented in Western states for the past year or so through a lease with Silver Vase Orchids in Florida. Under an agreement negotiated earlier this year by Mr. Overgaag, Westerlay will grow and sell the Gemstone Collection directly in the West.
The family-owned and operated grower in Carpinteria, CA, started in 1978 as Westerlay Roses, growing cut roses, when founder Joop Overgaag emigrated from the Netherlands to California. He later was among the first in California to apply hydroponic growing technology to flowers.
When the domestic cut-flower industry lost market share to imported roses, Westerlay leveraged its greenhouse technology and local climate to enter the growing potted orchid field. In 2005 it changed its name to Westerlay Orchids.
“Twelve years ago, we used to sell 10 percent of our roses to supermarkets,” Toine Overgaag noted, “but today we sell 85 percent of our orchids to supermarkets and big-box stores and five percent to wholesalers.” Roses, he added, required 10 times as much pesticide as orchids because orchids have thick leaves and few natural enemies.