After a lengthy and rigorous dissection of its practices, Loma Vista Nursery entered a program that will drastically reduce pest-related risks and enrich the company. Late last year, the nursery received SANC certification. SANC — Systems Approach to Nursery Certification — is administered by the National Plant Board, a non-profit organization that includes plant pest regulatory agencies representing each of the states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Guam. The program is voluntary, audit-based and designed for production nurseries to reduce pest risks associated with movement of nursery stock.
Nursery owner Lyndsi Oestmann learned about SANC from a longtime customer who thought they could benefit from the program because they ship to multiple states.
Soon afterward, Lyndsi and members of her key leadership team attended a SANC panel at Cultivate.
When Lyndsi told the leadership team she wanted to pursue SANC, the first question asked was, “Will this sell more plants?” But she was looking at it from a different perspective. It wasn’t about sales, it was about being accountable.
“I really like the fact that SANC holds us accountable to the practices we should be doing,” she says. “Because when it gets really busy at the nursery, it’s easy to slip out of habits, and SANC is how we get consistency throughout the year.”
Emerging and ongoing pest problems directly affect the bottom line. Through SANC, this systems approach can lead to healthier plants and facilitate commerce for all sizes and types of nurseries.
A competitive spirit was another motivation to go through the meticulous risk assessment. When Lyndsi told the inspector from the Kansas Department of Agriculture about the nursery’s plans, he said he didn’t think they could do it. That lit a fire under her and her dad, Mark Clear, who co-owns the nursery.
“My dad and I are both very competitive,” she explains. “He was a professional baseball player and I grew up playing competitive sports. If someone says we can’t do something, we’re going to do it.”
But it wasn’t just someone’s lack of faith in their ability. Lyndsi also knew it was the right path for the nursery to take.
“Deep down I knew it was something great for our team to do together.”
First, the nursery had to get the state of Kansas on board before they could even be accepted into the program. When the state gave its stamp of approval, the nursery’s inspector — the same one that didn’t think the nursery could pull off SANC and all of its requirements — really got into the process and was volunteering to help at every turn.
“He’s from a nursery background, so he understood how SANC could make both the inspection process and our relationship better,” Lyndsi says. “Inspectors don’t want to put a no-sale on a crop. Our inspector knows we’re doing things to prevent that.”
Once accepted into the program, the nursery hired a manager to solely help implement the program. She led the nursery’s SANC committee and eventually helped write the SANC manual.
Step one in the process is the risk assessment where every detail of the nursery is put under the microscope. The team identified potential pest pathways and strategies to assess them.
“We’d never looked at IPM or production so closely before,” Lyndsi says. “It was a huge process that involved almost every single person in the nursery.”
During the risk assessment, Lyndsi was pleased to find out they were already doing several things to reduce pest risks and all they needed to do was document those processes.
“We found we didn’t have to make huge, sweeping changes. We weren’t re-inventing the wheel,” she says.
Throughout this tedious process, Lyndsi helped put things in perspective for those involved.
“This is about our livelihood — the livelihood of 100 other people. Healthy plants mean a healthy business,” she says.
Loma Vista worked with its state qualifying agency to create a customized plan (also called the SANC manual) that addresses identified pest risks and maintains records of what is done. A subsequent audit by industry and state regulatory agencies assesses the grower’s plan and provides checks to identify if the plan is working.
The nursery set timelines to complete the necessary steps and met each one. They were certified in a shorter amount of time than any company in the program to date. Loma Vista’s SANC manual was used as the sample in national training for other state inspectors, she adds.
Lyndsi’s goal was to have a plan in place that was not only documented but could be repeated year after year despite any management changes.
“In the past, we’ve struggled when someone left and we didn’t have all of their processes documented. When our head grower retired, we realized he had so many things stored in his head,” she explains.
The nursery’s SANC Manual is now part of its daily business and drives training sessions for new employees.
“Each member of the team has responsibilities to SANC that are critical to the health of our plants and the success of our nursery,” she says. “They have always had those responsibilities, but with the level of SANC training we now administer, they are stated front and center. Everyone knows what they need to do and does it.”
One of the important changes that came out of the risk assessment is restricting visiting vehicles to certain parts of the nursery.
“We used to not consider all the trucks that would drive through here. Customers would drive right up to a bed to load plants in some cases. Now, we require everyone to check in at the office and we restrict where vehicles can go in the nursery,” she says.
The nursery’s team of scouts is about three times larger than it was prior to SANC certification. And growers from one growing section scout different sections for a fresh set of eyes.
Loma Vista is in the maintenance phase and has been audited by the state. SANC has improved the nursery/state relationship.
“At our last audit, I asked them to list the top five things on their radar that they were looking for. It’s more like a partnership now,” she says.
SANC also provides transparency and trust with the nursery’s state ag department.
“They are privy to our company’s best-management practices and plant health care plans, so they know we are going above and beyond to ship the healthiest plants we can,” she says. “This makes their jobs easier because they have confidence in the plants we are exporting and shipping within the state.”
Training is paramount to keep crews on point and not stray from the plan. New employees go through a training protocol. And the nursery makes sure all front-line employees understand what’s required to be compliant with the plan, what role they play in the plan and how it’s important to the business.
“The SANC training board lays out the responsibilities of every section in words and pictures. And the state comes in and helps by providing pest identification workshops. AmericanHort has been a great resource for us, too,” she adds.
The initial risk assessment was a year and a half ago, and occasionally the nursery finds something they should have addressed.
“Last winter, someone brought up the fact that our racks sit at our customers’ facilities and we don’t know what plants are put on them or where they’ve been stored. They could easily have a pest or plant pathogen on them when they come back to the nursery.
If the nursery needs to make changes to the manual, they have to be approved first by the state and then by the National Plant Board.
Lyndsi and the rest of the leadership team realized the absolute importance of teamwork during a process such as SANC certification.
“Challenge your team to get out of their comfort zone and outside the box,” she says. “Everyone was involved in some way and now the team has a sense of ownership in the SANC process. Our team is laser-focused on healthy plants, and I can see that affecting how they feel at work.”
The nursery celebrated wins during the process and celebrated when they attained certification. The leadership team established an incentive program for the scouting team to complete their duties in a timely matter. Within a six-week period, if everyone turns in their scouting records on time, lunch is brought in. If records are turned in on time all year, the team receives a personalized scouting notebook.
For the nursery’s team of front-line employees, if they identify an issue such as a pest, disease, water problem, etc. and report it to their supervisor, their name is entered in to a drawing for Loma Vista apparel, hats and gift cards for $20 to the local grocery stores.
“This helps keep people engaged and rewards them for paying attention to plant health. Even though we have a formal scouting program and a formally trained scouting team, everyone on the nursery is a scout,” she says.
Sue Markgraf contributed to this story.