Southern California’s largest orchid producer Westerlay sets sustainability standards

lily in hair

I’ve always been an advocate of cutting wild local, flowers and look to cities like Montreal in Canada where hipsters have created a business around selling flowers that grow in the city. Dribing them around for delivery by bike. But orchids, which I first met in Thailand, growing on trees in jungles everywhere are an exception. They are part of the flower industry but they cultivate a flower that can last decades. This makes them a more sustainable choice. And some companies like Westerlay Orchids in California are going the extra mile. 

While its principal focus is on growing and distributing four million vibrant phalaenopsis orchids per year throughout the western United States, as part of its long term vision, Westerlay Orchids is focused on sustainability through continuous reduction of its carbon footprint. Solar panels, energy curtains, and a robust offset program will combine to reduce Westerlay’s carbon footprint by 43 percent in 2021, with a vision of achieving carbon-neutral production by 2026.

Toine Overgaag

This Cascade orchid creates a statement. Grouped or spread throughout a home or office, the  waterfall look is a can’t miss and elevates any space it is in: Toine Overgaag.

Since 2019, Westerlay has worked with Carbon Footprint of Hampshire, United Kingdom, to measure carbon emissions and determine their strategy for reduction. This third-party verification service audits Westerlay’s carbon footprint and administers the carbon offset program. Carbon Footprint is working with Westerlay to calculate, aim, reduce, and offset carbon use, with an ultimate goal of carbon neutrality, by establishing practical improvements to reduce carbon emissions.

Westerlay is undertaking three significant efforts in 2021 to reduce its carbon footprint by 43 percent from 2020:

  • Westerlay is working with Wicks Roofing and Solar, installing 561 solar voltaic cells forecast to generate 320 kWh per year of electricity at its primary location at 3504 Via Real, Carpinteria. This will provide 100 percent of all electrical needs for this facility. Westerlay has plans for the installation of solar panels at their Foothill facility in 2022 as well.
  • Westerlay is working with Greenhouse System in replacing insulating energy curtains in over 650,000 square feet of greenhouses. This is estimated to save 55,000 therms of natural gas used for heating. 
  • Through Carbon Footprint, Westerlay is offsetting carbon emissions by 2,399 tCo2 through direct financial support to construct a wind power facility in Tamil Nadu, India.

These efforts underway at Westerlay build on past efforts like installing a 300,000 square foot drainage catch system in 2018 that reduced water use by 38 percent. Another payoff beyond the conservation of water has been a reduction in natural gas consumption. Channeling the water enables a dryer environment in the greenhouse and requires less heating to maintain temperature and humidity.

Westerlay was able to reduce its natural gas consumption by 11 percent, an amount in terms of carbon footprint equivalent to taking 29 cars off the road. Westerlay has achieved an ‘A’ rating every year since 2015 from MPS, the internationally recognized independent horticultural rating agency and the carbon reduction efforts have contributed this ‘A’ rating. MPS certification goes above and beyond local and state regulations and ensures that Westerlay will always be in compliance while voluntarily maintaining standards that exceed the letter of the law.

Eco-friendly changes at Westerlay are quickly putting them on the map as an example for sustainability, and Overgaag believes that by serving as an inspiration to other companies, Westerlay can help engage and create an even more significant change. Through it all, the company’s tradition continues, constantly refining its sustainable growing practices and ensuring the highest quality orchids are produced.

I’ve always been an advocate of cutting wild local, flowers and look to cities like Montreal in Canada where hipsters have created a business around selling flowers that grow in the city. But orchids, which I first met in Thailand, growing on trees in jungles everywhere are an exception. They are part of the flower industry but they cultivate a flower that can last decades. This makes them a more sustainable choice. And some companies like Westerlay Orchids in California are going the extra mile. 

Toine Overgaag

Toine Overgaag is heading southern California’s largest orchid producer, Westerlay We speak with him to learn more about how his orchid farm uses family traditions and innovation in sustainability to produce an orchid that is beautiful on the inside and out. Westerlay orchid growers use biological pest control, drip irrigation, and energy efficiency technology to reduce greenhouse gases and more. We talk to Toine about the process and reasoning at his farm’s operations. Hopefully you can share this with flower farmers everywhere.

Q: Tell us a little about the family story of Westerlay?

My father had taken over the family nursery in Holland with his brother.  After several years he decided to sell his share and emigrate to the US, to Carpinteria where there were already several Dutch flower growers from the same area.  

My parents and my 3 siblings and I moved here in 1978.  My father bought land and built the first greenhouses by hand and started growing cut roses.  He named the company Westerlay after the vegetable auction in the Netherlands where his father has sold his produce.

My father was an innovator.  He was the first in the area to build more durable glass and steel frame greenhouses and later the first in the area to fully embrace hydroponic technology.

I worked for the business briefly after college but left to pursue other professional aspirations for several years.  When I returned in 2000, we recognized the challenges posed by offshore rose production and converted production to potted orchids.

Q: How can people care for an orchid over its lifetime in a sustainable way?

Houseplants are largely very sustainable especially compared to cut flower products.  Orchids need very little fertilizer and water, and there are organic options available.  Look for ones that have a balanced NPK ratio.

Q: What conditions do orchids love? How can we grow one to last years?

The two key things for successfully keeping an orchid alive are light and water.  Give more light than you think and less water.  A bright indoor room is the best spot.  Orchids will struggle in bathrooms and dark bedrooms.  But avoid direct sunlight.  Watering only when the pot is dry; when the roots are grey it’s ready.  Water thoroughly and let it drain. 

Q: What dream technology would you like that hasn’t been built yet? (Some ideas for future entrepreneurs)

Photovoltaic cells implanted into glass.  This already exists but is not yet being implemented commercially.  We have a plan to trial a product next year.  If this technology continues to evolve, it is likely that a commercial greenhouse can become carbon negative and actually generate more clean power that consumes.

Q: What efforts are you doing in 2021 to reduce its carbon footprint by 43 percent from 2020?

Our 3 principal efforts are the photovoltaic array at our Via Real facility, the replacement of energy curtains throughout, and the carbon offset program we are in with Carbon Footprint Ltd.

Q: Do you have any other eco-friendly changes in the works? 

For 2022, we are looking to further reduce carbon footprint by installing solar power and potentially installing water recycling technology at our Foothill facility.

Further, we also have a long-term goal to eliminate use of single use virgin plastic.  So far we have converted our largest account from plastic packaging sleeves to paper and we are trialing grow pots from recycled materials.

 Learn more about Westerlay and their sustainability practices here.

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