Fully engaged

Features - Cover Story

Backed by a new certification program, McKay Nursery is leading the industry with a focused approach to plant health.

October 10, 2016

Tom Buechel, head of production, says the effort needed for the SANC program is worth it.
Photos by Eric Tadsen

Some two years ago, McKay Nursery in Waterloo, Wisc., was in the midst of a significant transition. Some key staff members had retired, and the nursery was preparing to exchange much of its traditional production practices for newer, more efficient systems. At the same time, the state of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture was serendipitously looking for a nursery to participate in a pilot program that addressed a risk-based nursery and greenhouse certification of plants.

McKay’s production and business diversity created an interesting set of circumstances with the SANC process.

Tom Buechel, head of production at McKay, received an application from Brian Kuhn, director of Wisconsin’s Bureau of Plant Industry, for this new program called the Systems Approach to Nursery Certification.

“From previous conversations, Brian knew we were in the process of making some major changes in production,” says Buechel. “We’d been investigating the U.S. Nursery Certification Program and looking at some of the food safety programs to help us with our goals of adopting a more proactive approach to producing the cleanest and highest quality plants we could achieve.”

As the nursery investigated the Systems Approach to Nursery Certification, or SANC, it became clear they’d found the best tools to transition to the next level.

The foundation of SANC involves risk management: Preventing problems from coming in to the nursery; monitoring and scouting crops; accurately diagnosing pests and diseases; addressing problems and documenting them; and performing audits to avoid shipping pests and pathogens. SANC requires growers to identify critical control points, which are specific steps in the process where procedures can be applied to most efficiently manage risk.

“It’s putting in a HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point] – the parallel in food safety – approach to the nursery process,” says Kuhn, who is also on the SANC evaluation committee. “It not only brings cleaner, healthier nursery stock to the market, but higher quality stock. It brings structure to production and accountability to staffs.”

Mike Gates, propagation manager, reviews the best nursery practices with his team.

SANC is a voluntary, audit-based program. It’s a three-way partnership involving the National Plant Board, various parts of the green industry, and USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. Certification is based on how plants are produced rather than exclusively on how those plants look at the time of a single inspection.

Systems approaches look at potential hazards throughout the production and handling processes – what can go wrong, where – and points where proactive measures can be applied, like sanitation, a diagnostic test, or a treatment, says Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy and research programs at AmericanHort. “In such systems, the role of inspectors often shifts from looking for pests to ensuring compliance. In other words, is the grower doing what he or she said would be done.”

Earlier this year, McKay Nursery was one of two growers to be SANC certified, along with Pennsylvania-based Star Roses and Plants/Conard-Pyle. The two growers are part of a total lineup of eight growers participating in the pilot program.

McKay faced a set of different circumstances from some of the other participants because of the diversity of their business. McKay is a wholesale nursery that produces B&B, container and bareroot plants. McKay is also a retailer, operates an online store, and ships plants across state lines.

Thanks to SANC, every single employee at McKay is engaged in the business.

During the certification process, McKay developed best nursery practices (BNPs), which clearly identify steps in all aspects of production such as sanitation, scouting, and shipping and receiving procedures, says Joe Kern, container manager.

“This allowed us to better educate our employees on what to look for and what to do if they found a problem,” Kern says. “One of the biggest benefits of this process and this certification is that it allows for better employee engagement and accountability on all levels.”

The BNPs were created with a simple format that’s easy to understand, adds Sam Noel, land manager at McKay.

“They’re in a simplified presentation that allows us to easily train our employees and they’re written in a way that we can easily post them in highly visible places,” Noel says.

All BNPs are posted in English and Spanish. McKay created the red tag procedure BNP. If any crew member sees a problem, they mark it with a red tag and notify a supervisor, who then performs the proper follow-up procedures. The red tag acts as a visual key and creates much more employee engagement, Noel says.

Communication between employees and supervisors are key to the program.

“Now everyone is looking out for red tags and red-tag situations, not just the crop assurance leader,” he adds.

The red-tag procedure is the most powerful tool McKay has given the employees, Buechel says.

“Employees are always on the lookout for issues. They’re not just going through the motions. It’s created a lot of enthusiasm within the nursery,” Buechel says.

SANC steps

Once a nursery is accepted into the program, there are several basic steps to complete. First is the risk assessment where potential pest pathways are identified, BMPs for preventive approaches are addressed, and mitigation strategies are discussed.

Next, a nursery develops a SANC manual in which a plan addresses the identified pest risks and keeps records of what is done.

“Every facility in the program must have the SANC manual, and it will eventually be audited to formalize documents, processes and procedures,” Buechel says.

Then the manual is approved by the state and representatives of the National Plant Board to make sure the facility meets SANC standards on a consistent basis. Next the nursery implements the components listed in the manual, and a huge factor of this step involves training, Buechel adds. The internal audit process comes next, and each facility must conduct multiple internal audits before the external audit takes place.

“We handled the internal audit with our managers,” Buechel says. “The form had a basic yes/no column and we established a rating of 1-10, with 8-10 being in conformance and 7 is minor non-conformance. Anything below a 7 is non-conformance. All managers rated all parts of the nursery, even if they didn’t work in that area. This is big from an engagement standpoint, and this rating system fits our model of continuous improvement.”

The process provided some excellent feedback between the managers.

“One of the biggest aspects of the internal audit was looking at things in a different light. I found that our propagation manager, for example, may see something that I don’t, which allows me to open my eyes and take a step back,” Kern says.

The term audit often strikes fear in anyone on the receiving end. But with SANC, it’s meant to be a productive term, and McKay found that to ring true.

“An audit produces extraordinary results when done right,” Buechel says.

The state of Wisconsin’s Bureau of Plant Industry was a fixture at the nursey during the internal audit.

“Our employees got used to seeing them here, and got comfortable with them asking questions. The state learned a lot about our business and the industry. We were totally transparent,” Buechel adds.

The process changed McKay’s relationship with the state in a positive way, says Kern.

Finally, came the external audit which entails a systems audit and a surveillance audit. Once those were successfully completed within the terms of SANC standards, McKay became SANC certified.

SANC benefits

Each employee has a stake in the nursery’s success.

As part of the SANC program, growers can expect to reduce pest control costs and pest pressures in general.

“The increased focus on scouting as a key part of the program has been one of the biggest benefits up to this point,” Noel says. “It’s improved our organizational structure, the overall flow of information, and created a structure where things are time stamped and acted upon.”

Implementing all the steps saves a “substantial” amount of money in crop damage and controlling pests, Buechel says. It also created what Buechel calls “elite teamwork,” and within the nursery it’s helping to create the best employee.

While the focus may be on plant health, this system creates efficiencies throughout the growing operation including shipping inspection and certification costs, easing the time crunch during the shipping season, and improving customer satisfaction.

“Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of the workers has helped many companies develop or fine tune their business plans. This has helped them position themselves for future development and growth,” says Dana Rhodes, a state plant regulatory official at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. She’s also the chair of the SANC committee at the National Plant Board. “Ultimately the goal of SANC is to have plants which are free of pests. Consumers will have healthy, quality plant material, and there will be a reduction of disease and insects moving around the U.S.”

Sam Noel (L), land manager, and Casey Rufener, VP of wholesale sales, were both on the nursery’s SANC coordination committee.

Casey Rufener, vice president of wholesale sales at McKay, says the nursery’s customers, including the end consumer, will eventually understand the significance of this certification.

“They’ll recognize the extra steps we’re taking to ensure a healthy and high-quality product,” he says.

Something else to consider is that becoming SANC certified does not require a large capital investment.

“SANC results in good improvements without a lot of costs,” says Kuhn. “There’s an investment of time and commitment, but not million-dollar renovations or high-dollar investments.”

To any grower contemplating this program, Noel emphatically says, do not hesitate to check it out. “It may seem daunting, but with some organization you can push through it,” he says.

This first group of nurseries have paved the way for the next round of pilot participants.

“We’re hoping that the second phase of the pilot will soon be underway, and also soon, SANC will become an option for growers around the country,” Regelbrugge says. “Incentives for adoption will be key to our success in this space. Those incentives can be regulatory – greater ease in shipping without pre-shipment inspections, for instance. Or marketplace incentives – retailers and other customers seek out SANC-certified growers because the approach means plants are consistently free of regulated pests.”

The program is recruiting more nurseries to be in phase two of the pilot program, Kuhn says. Growers may contact their state agriculture departments to see if they are currently part of the SANC program.

SANC is open to large and small operations, says Kuhn.

“SANC is scalable – a mom-and-pop operation will benefit just as much as a large nursery, but their tools may be a little different,” he adds.

For more:http://sanc.nationalplantboard.org; www.mckaynursery.com

This is part of McKay’s red tag procedure. More instructions appear on the backside of the best nursery practices, which are posted in an easy-to-read format (in both Spanish and English) throughout the nursery.