May 11, 2011
HealthySoil Hosts 40 Students and Staff from Iowa State University's “Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative"
by Maury Treleven
As part of a domestic study trip to California, 40 undergraduate students and staff from Iowa State University spent a week in California visiting agricultural businesses in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. The goal of the trip was to expose students from the school’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative to different forms of agricultural production with a focus on agricultural entrepreneurship.
The students spent May 11, 2011 touring agribusinesses in the Salinas Valley. In reaching out to California agricultural businesses, Iowa State University Program Coordinator Stacey Noe noted that another goal of the program was to expose undergraduate students to different forms of agricultural production—“Something other than corn and soybeans!”
The group came to Gonzales to visit Taylor Fresh Vegetables, Metzer Farms and HealthySoil (formerly “Highlands Soil + Water”). While at HealthySoil, students and staff gathered in the conference room to hear President/CEO Thomas Piatkowski and EVP/CFO Laura Kreitler describe the genesis of the business including the development of their innovative technologies that improve soil health while reducing the use of water and synthetic inputs.
Mr. Piatkowski worked in the conventional agricultural chemical industry as an advisor, researcher and salesperson for the majority of his career before taking early retirement to develop a business based on alternative methods of crop production.
He explained to the students that he started his career in agriculture by chance after joining the Peace Corps. He served in his post as a livestock officer in charge of the livestock extension service on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. “If you ever get the chance to serve in the Peace Corps,” said Piatkowski, “do not let the opportunity pass you by…you’ll never regret it.”
Ms Kreitler discussed her background in finance and career as an investment banker. She said what lured her out of big business and pushed her toward small business and entrepreneurship was a passion for sustainable agriculture and an interest to use her “big company” skills to grow a small “green-tech” business.
She explained the realities that one faces when developing a business and the importance of flexibility, adaptability and being a “utility player” to cover many roles at once, as most entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of hiring someone to fill every open position. “You may find yourself doing payroll one day and putting on a pair of boots and heading out to the field the next.”
The executive vice president and chief financial officer highlighted this point by telling a story about the staff finding an abandoned litter of kittens in the warehouse the week prior. “So I tacked ‘mother of kittens’ onto my (growing) list of job titles for the day!” Piatkowski told the students to expect partners to come and go. “Not everyone has the ability to endure years without a paycheck.” He says the smartest thing an entrepreneur can do is to find a partner and key staff members that have skill sets in areas where you are lacking.
The team explained to the students how HeatlhySoil defines “sustainable agriculture.” Kreitler pointed out that “sustainable” agriculture is often confused as being the same as “organic” agriculture. “That’s just not the case,” she said. “Over eighty percent of our clients are conventional growers who seek tools that will enable them to grow more efficiently – meaning with fewer inputs and lower costs.”
“Sustainable agriculture is not a fad, it’s a trend,” said Piatkowski who believes we are in the midst of the second green revolution not seen since the 1940s. “We have learned so much along the way…this is a very exciting time to be working in commercial agriculture.”
“Let me be clear,” he says. “We do not teach our clients to farm. We assist them in meeting their goals of quality production and yield by viewing growing as a system that considers the soil as a foundation and focuses on long-term benefits and—this is a huge issue in California—minimizes environmental and health risks.”
Kreitler spoke plainly to students when she emphasized that no business can afford to implement a new program or practice just because it feels good. While growers do care very much about the sustainability and the long-term viability of their soil, they must be competitive and profitable in order to stay in business.
“If you bring a new product, service or technology into the marketplace, you need to remember that the incentive to change has a bottom line.” She says, “Growers need to know two things—does the new program result in a higher crop value and does it lower my production costs.”
The visit wrapped up with a question and answer session for the students and their advisors. They were interested in the types of crops HealthySoil services and how HealthySoil products are applied. In his response, Piatkowski listed every annual and perennial crop grown in the Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys including sports turf and golf course grasses. Students asked about fees for consulting services and whether growers were more concerned with yield or quality. “Our soil management programs include our consulting services as well as the custom-blending, delivery and application of all products,” he said. “Quality and yield are both critical to the fresh produce market.”
The students thanked their hosts by presenting them with Iowa State University t-shirts. As Gonzales was their last stop in a very busy day, the students were excited about spending the night near the ocean in Monterey.
In 2010, the City of Gonzales assisted the award winning company in obtaining a US Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). CDBG grants provide communities with microenterprise assistance to address a wide range of unique community development needs.
Headquartered in California's central coast, HealthySoil manufactures organically-based products that build healthy soil ecology. Offering an innovative, "program" approach to building soil health, HealthySoil enables customers to substantially reduce their use of water and synthetic inputs, leading to lower operating costs and improved resource management. Further, HealthySoil improves crop quality and yield in agricultural applications. It also improves horticultural plant quality, leading to superior plant / tree health and flower blooms.
HealthySoil programs are the result of over 10 years of development with many field trials to support program efficacy. The success of HealthySoil programs is underscored by the Company’s 100+ satisfied customers and by its customer retention rate of nearly 100%. HealthySoil serves the production agriculture, golf course and commercial landscape markets from its four facilities in California and Nevada.
(2008) Champion, U.S. EPA "Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP)," for its "outstanding efforts promoting IPM and reducing pesticide risk and for its extraordinary level of commitment to protecting human health and the environment." Link -- see "Highlands Soil + Water," the prior dba for HealthySoil.
(2009) Semifinalist, California CleanTech Open, for "fostering big ideas that address today's most urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges." Link
(2010) Awarded a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) by the City of Gonzales for microenterprise assistance. Link