It's a Miracle: Scotts plant turns waste into products for yards

By Tom Gibbons

January 27, 2014 - 3:44 pm
Hills of agricultural waste will be turned into growing medium for plants to flourish. Tom Gibbons photo

First in a four-part series on the business of agriculture in Maricopa

You know that smell, the one that sometimes wafts over Maricopa and makes you head inside.

In polite society, or for publication, you would call the source of that odor agricultural waste. In real life, it’s called something else.

It doesn’t exactly smell like flowers.

But through a process that takes place on the east side of Maricopa, some of that waste eventually helps flowers bloom in Arizona, Southern California and Utah.

At a 44-acre plant on White and Parker Road, mountains — or at least hills — of waste are mixed with other material such as peat moss and bark to produce 9 million bags a year of Miracle-Gro, and other plant-growing media and ground cover in the company’s line of products.

Just what part is waste and what part is other material?

“I can’t tell you the formula for Miracle-Gro,’’ said JR Falcon, the plant’s manager. “That’s a secret.”

It’s a valuable secret.

Miracle-Gro is one of the flagship brands of the Ohio-based, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, which describes itself as “the world’s largest marketer of branded consumer products for lawn and garden care.” Its consumer division, which includes all the products that come from the Maricopa plant, had worldwide sales of $2.53 billion for fiscal year 2013, which ended in September.

The company name is the result of a merger in the mid-1990s between Scott, which traces its roots back to a seed company founded by Orlando Scott in 1869, and Miracle-Gro, a relative upstart founded by Otto Stern in 1951. Miracle-Gro became a household brand in the 1980s with a series of TV ads featuring actor James Wittmore.

Today Scotts Miracle-Gro operates 24 processing plants in United States and more than 40 worldwide.

The Maricopa plant dates from the 1980s and originally was run by Hyponex, which was acquired by Scotts in 1988.

Agriculture and related services have long been a big business in the city of Maricopa and Pinal County, said Micha Miranda, economic development director for the city of Maricopa. While no exact figures are available for the city, it’s a $1 billion industry in the county, Miranda said.

During the past 15 years, Maricopa has turned farm land into subdivisions, but the city sees agriculture and agriculture tech, such as the processing plant, as important economic building blocks for the future, Miranda said.

“What you are going to see is agriculture that uses less land and uses less water,’’ he said.

And the know-how for that will be developed in Maricopa, Miranda said. The city wants to attract businesses that can take advantage of research taking place at the USDA Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center and the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center, he said.

Falcon surveys hills of raw material on the plant’s north side that will become Scotts product. The piles of manure are perhaps 10 to 15 feet high. The piles retain heat and they have to be turned regularly or they will start to smoke. They could even catch fire.

Sometimes at night, coyotes sneak onto the property.

“They climb on top of those piles to stay warm,” Falcon said.

The process of taking bedding for a heat-seeking coyote and turning it into an addition worthy of a suburban flower bed starts with proper proportions of the raw material dumped into bins and sifted over grates. Pieces too large are shaken out.

The mix is sent on one of two conveyer belts into the plant. Machines measure the product and seal it in a plastic bag. The two machines can churn out as many as 30 bags a minute.

A worker quickly checks each bag to make sure it is properly sealed, and the bag heads on a belt to the next step.

A computer selects the arrangement of each bag for the stacking on pallets. A machine then arranges and compresses the bags on pallets. This was once a labor-intensive process requiring four or five workers.

The plant employs about two dozen workers full time. They make up to $20 per hour, depending on their skill level. They work in two shifts.

During busy times, seasonal workers are brought in.

A forklift driver moves and stacks the pallets, and the stacks of pallets are wrapped in plastic sheets. This allows the product to stay fresh when stored for long periods.

The wrapping process is about to change. Scotts will soon shrink-wrap the pallets. The machine that will perform that task is too tall for the current building. So the plant is about to add on another wing to accommodate the new machine, Falcon said.

Customers, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Ace Hardware, drive into the lot and park their trailers. The plant puts a sign in front of each truck that isn’t moved until plant workers have loaded up the trailer. This is to prevent the drivers from accidently pulling out before the loading is finished.

Plant personnel work hard to come up with ways to prevent accidents, Falcon said.

“Safety is job No. 1 around here,” he said.

A giant board on the factory floor displays in scoreboard-like fashion how the plant is performing against various measurements.

The spot that gets the most attention is the safety record. The plant has gone eight years without an accident that resulted in an employee missing time.

To make sure its product is mixed properly, the processing plant sends samples to quality control people, who grow plants in the sample at a test nursery. If the plants don’t thrive, the processing plant is informed and the problem is fixed.

“The stuff has to work,’’ Falcon said. “And it does.” 

Day One – It’s a Miracle: Scotts plant turns waste into products for yards
Day Two – The tractor goes high tech
Day Three – A fun field of study
Day Four – Crop of the Cream

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