Dig in

Dig in

Features - Cover Story

Texas Natural Growers mechanized the most laborious task in its fields.

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May 2, 2018
Kelli Rodda
Luis Ochoa

Since Bibb Beale took over his father’s business, he’s consistently looked for ways to make things more efficient. Beale operates Texas Natural Growers, a small nursery nestled in far south Texas that specializes in Texas mountain laurel.

Bibb’s father, Nolton, started the business in 2003 along with a local landscape contractor. The first incarnation of the business grew and sold oak trees, a profitable crop in the area at that time. The nursery quickly grew from a side gig to a large operation, and the original owners expanded their inventory with several types of plants.

After college and a stint in the construction industry, Bibb moved back home and purchased the nursery. He focused on selling the remaining inventory, which had become extensive.

“We had about $2 million in product to sell,” Bibb recalls. “And as sales started to pick up, I shifted the focus to Texas mountain laurels and palm trees.”

He made the switch after evaluating the market price for the more common nursery plants and found that mountain laurels were the most profitable plant in the area.

“And I was tired of man-handling those big oaks – they took too much effort to grow, dig and ship,” he says.

Mountain laurel has a “cult following of sorts,” Bibb says, and the nursery has seen the demand for this crop increase across the Southwest.

Mountain laurel features clusters of lavender flowers that smell like grape Kool-Aid or a Grape Nehi soda. The small evergreen tree is drought tolerant.

Mountain laurels may have been the most profitable tree in the southwestern market, but he found that they’re difficult to grow. Bibb was determined to make it work, and he started experimenting with production techniques.

The BagBadger reduces time and effort of planting grow bags.

Texas Natural Growers produces the crop from seed, and a 5- to 7-foot-tall multitrunk tree in a 30-gallon container is ready in two years. A 45-gallon mountain laurel that’s 7-9 feet tall is ready in about two and a half years.

“That’s a year faster than the average production rate,” he says.

Many growers experience 50 percent or higher loss of seeded mountain laurels, where Bibb and his crew are losing only 5-7 percent, he explains.

“When you shift up a mountain laurel from pot to pot, that’s where most growers struggle with loss because it’s a sensitive tree and it can suffer from damage during transplanting,” he adds. “But once they’re in the ground and rooted in, they’re hard to kill.”

The nursery hand selects seeds from mother stock on site, from the wild, and from other seed sources.

Before we made the BagBadger, our entire crew was working on digging holes and getting bags in the ground. Now the rest of the nursery is functioning during dig times and we have other guys doing other important tasks around the nursery.

Seedlings are transplanted into 1-gallon fabric containers which are planted in the field. The nursery uses Rootmaker knit fabric in-ground grow bags during the majority of production. Prior to using fabric bags, the trees were grown in smooth walled plastic pots. But Bibb conducted an experiment with about 10 percent of his crop to see if the fabric bags would improve the health and vigor of the trees.

“We figured out that using the bags was a significant benefit because of our increase in growth during production, or how fast we get the plant ready to go to market,” Bibb says. “We tried all different types of plants and everything responded pretty well. But we found it was a game changer for the mountain laurel. We completely adopted Rootmaker products quickly. It was a large up-front investment, but we make all our decisions by the numbers. If we can show the profitability increase, we will do it.”

But the new production process did present a complication.

Take a load off labor

“It took us a long time to get that bag in the ground. We were using an auger and a shovel, it was hot, and it was dangerous for our crew,” he explains. “We needed a big crew to get the bags in the ground and that’s costly in terms of labor. But even so, using the bags still made sense with the positive changes in production.”

Bibb and his crew started brainstorming ideas on how to improve the process of getting the grow bags in the ground. With the manual production, it took a crew of seven guys about two and a half minutes per bag. And the nursery was planting 3,000 bags per year.

“We came up with a solution that involved an auger and a forklift, then we created this really large and really heavy piece of machinery that incorporated the auger. We ran it for nearly five years,” he says.

Although that version worked for their needs, Bibb knew it could be streamlined and improved. He also knew that any grower using fabric grow bags would appreciate it. Bibb and his team redesigned the machine so that it wasn’t nearly as large, and made it lighter and more efficient. The BagBadger was born, and it’s been in production for about two years.

With the BagBadger, it takes a crew of three from 45-60 seconds to put one bag in the ground at Texas Natural Growers.

“Our average is 53 seconds per bag, and we have a customer in the north that does it in 37 seconds,” Bibb says. “One of our BagBadger customers in Arizona has planted at least 20,000 bags and hasn’t had any issues with the machine.”

The BagBadger is an attachment and fits skid steers and a three-point hitch. It’s designed to handle fabric bags ranging from 12 inches to 24 inches. The machine can be customized for growers using larger bags. It’s equipped with a high-torque hydraulic auger, and once the hole is dug, the machine contains the removed soil.

“Before we made the BagBadger, our entire crew was working on digging holes and getting bags in the ground. Now the rest of the nursery is functioning during dig times and we have other guys doing other important tasks around the nursery,” Bibb says.

It’s also designed so that growers can do repairs in-house.

“The parts can be purchased from any local hydraulic store or auto parts store,” he adds.

Because of the labor savings, Bibb estimates that the machine pays for itself after planting about 3,000 bags.

For more: texasnaturalgrowers.com; www.bagbadger.com