Green Giant

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2004

How we'll get from Moby Dick to fertilizer is entirely unclear, but that's what Ed Rosenthal wants to talk about in his expansive corner office at Florikan E.S.A. Corp., the "green" fertilizer company he started 22 years ago. With his English literature degree and his on-the-job knowledge of horticulture, Rosenthal explains the connection: Moby Dick is not just a story about a whale, but about the lesson that all is destroyed if we go against the natural world.

So it is with pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. Growing is not enough. Rosenthal has made it his mission to teach people to grow without killing the land, or themselves, which is what Rosenthal believes happened to his father. His death fired a passion in Rosenthal to make green agriculture his life's work.

"It was 100-percent personal," Rosenthal says, proudly pointing out all the products stacked in his warehouse just east of Interstate 75. "There's no doubt chemicals killed my dad. He had a lot of good years left."

Rosenthal, his wife Betty, and now his sons Jonathan, 29, and Eric, 27, have grown Florikan into a top company in Sarasota County, with 55 employees and projected sales this year of nearly $50 million. They have four facilities throughout the Southeast, including the 30,000-square-foot blending plant off Cattlemen Road, manufacturing slow-release fertilizers that need fewer applications. While converting traditional growers to the green method is an endless challenge-many say the products simply don't work as well as the old method-Florikan continues to grow and innovate, building on a history dotted with bumps and roadblocks that Rosenthal revels in recounting.

The story starts in Quebec, Canada, where Rosenthal's father was a farmer, peddling by horse and cart until he could open a store.

"You eked out a living as a farmer, and it was a very Spartan existence," Rosenthal remembers. "I wanted to get as far away from agriculture as I could, because it was really tough. I remember going home and opening the refrigerator and all I saw were empty steel shelves."

After his father died of stomach cancer and a neighbor developed a brain tumor, Rosenthal found dozens of jars in the family shed, most labeled with skulls and crossbones, noting their hazardous contents. That's when he began his quest, still on today, to read as much as he could about hazardous chemicals, and to try to change traditional agricultural thinking.

"I just keep reading and reading. I got this brain for reading from school, and now, with the Internet, the sky's the limit," Rosenthal says.

By 1981, Rosenthal found himself hauling around plastic nursery pots in a 1975 Pontiac Granville, trying to replace Florida growers' old clay pots-and their toxic chemicals. He chose Florida because the weather made it a perfect place to change attitudes while he could make a living selling pots.

"The fertilizers and pesticides the growers used worked well enough for them, and they really didn't care to hear a pot salesman from Canada tell them they were harming the environment," he says. "They thought they had natural resources coming out of their ass in Florida-plenty of sun, plenty of water. Farmers are farmers. Some are business people and are willing to listen. Others you can talk to until you're blue in the face. They'll never change unless they're forced to."

But the main problem was that there wasn't a reliable, slow-release fertilizer on the market. Standard fertilizers require several applications each year, and harmful nitrates from these products eventually run off the soil into lakes and streams. With slow-release, the nutrients remain effective for a longer time, requiring fewer applications. Of course, they cost more as well. A bag of granular fertilizer might cost about $15 while one of Florikan's products has a sticker price of $50 to $55 a bag. 'Of course," adds Eric Rosenthal, "the granular fertilizer has to be applied every two months." A Florikan fertilizer can last up to 540 days, he says: "Unfortunately farmers don't factor in the labor costs; they see sticker shock."

A representative from a Japanese manufacturer ran into Rosenthal at an Orlando trade show, and eventually agreed to sell Rosenthal four truckloads of their slow-release fertilizer, formulated for warm climates. They agreed on a one-year test with 12 growers. The biggest challenge was that the company would not allow Rosenthal to give the product away; he had to convince growers to pay for the privilege to test the product. He persuaded one large grower in central Florida to take the leap of faith, and others followed the lead. Within six months, Rosenthal says, people were convinced.

"We were overwhelmed. They were overwhelmed at the Japanese manufacturing facility," Rosenthal says. After the initial success, Rosenthal contracted with the Japanese to bring in 12 truckloads in the next six months. Within a year, he had to double the size of his warehouse.

He then set his sights on the pesticide market.

"We were teaching them how to grow, but we hadn't made a dent in the pesticides market," he says.

The problems with pesticides are similar to fertilizers. While they do the job of killing their targets, they can be harmful to people and deadly to other "nontargets," such as birds, earthworms and beneficial insects. One solution is predatory insects that eat those harmful to agriculture.

Although they are a very small part of Florikan's business, predatory insects, along with other natural pesticides, have made the company a leader in integrated pest management. "We could not measure our success in integrated pest management in sales dollars," Rosenthal says. "What we have accomplished is the use of the least toxic methods of pest control we can find." Those include beneficial fungi, plant-based pesticides and even oils that essentially smother pests.

Although not all growers are sold on Florikan's products, governmental agencies and agricultural groups certainly are. The company's walls, and Rosenthal's office, are lined with awards, commendations and honors. In 2002, Florikan won the Governor's Award for Most Innovative Product. In 2004, Rosenthal won the New Product Award from the National Professional Engineers in Industry for one of its fertilizers and was named the American Nursery & Landscape Association Allied Associate of the Year.

One of those customers Rosenthal has won over is Sarasota County. In fact, county environmental leaders gush with pride over Florikan. "I'll brag on him if he won't," says Nina Powers, an education specialist with Sustainable Sarasota, a county government department charged with helping the county, businesses and the public understand how better to care for the environment by using the least toxic applications available.

"The reason he has a successful company is because it's what everyone else in the world wants as well. And his products are not just not toxic, they work. It doesn't do any good to be the least toxic if the products don't do the job," Powers says.

She worked with Rosenthal on developing a fertilizer to feed the county's palm trees, because Florikan had no formula with just the right mix of nutrients. "He did a custom blend for us," Powers says. "He calls it the Sarasota County Blend. He's great because he's a horticulturalist and he wants to do the right thing. And he knows how to do the right thing."

Rosenthal's employees say he is the idea man in the company, sort of the mad scientist coming up with new products--200 at last count-and discovering new ways to use existing products made by others. He'll also custom blend for any customer. But he admits a large part of his job, despite all the awards, is still sales-selling growers on the benefits of green products. His son, Eric, calls it his "missionary work." "He spends a considerable amount of time trying to change people's minds that his way really would be better."

Florikan continues to grow and is now sold in nine Southeastern states. Still, by fertilizer manufacturing standards, it's a small operation, with its competition posting sales upwards of $800 million annually. That doesn't bother Rosenthal at all.

"We don't care if we never become an $800 million company," he says. "Personally, I was happy at $20 million. My children see the potential. I think that they'll be taking it wherever they want to take it."

He says being well capitalized from the start has kept the pressure off. "There's no noose around our neck to grow," Rosenthal says.

If there's any legacy Rosenthal wants to leave, it's that a "green" company can make it. "Green companies typically die on the vine," he says. "There's no other model for us. There's no other company like us anywhere. It proves that there are lots of ways to make money. You can make money the right way."

The tour of Florikan ended in Rosenthal's office, where he turned the interview on its head. He wanted just a few minutes, just five minutes, to explain about a new pesticide on the market using an old, toxic chemical blend. He spread his papers out on the conference table, took out a highlighter, and took five minutes, then 10, and soon 20, passionately explaining the dangers.

The only way to leave the office without spending the night was to promise to read the documents-and take another look at Moby Dick.


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