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Growing smiles is their specialty

Jan./Feb. 2006 California Country magazine

San Bernardino nursery owners know that plants add humanness and warmth while making people more creative and productive.




 

Are you seeking improved health and a renewed outlook on life? A surprisingly effective solution doesn't involve the gym or pharmacy, but instead your nearby plant nursery.

"Plants make people smile," said Jim Rietkerk, who with his wife, Kathye, owns and operates Kallisto Greenhouses in Fontana, San Bernardino County. "Take any building and strip the plants out, it's bare bones and cold. Plants add humanness and warmth. People are more productive and creative in that environment."

Plants provide an intrinsic boost, and research shows they clean the air, relieve stress and improve creativity and productivity--for customers as well as the green thumbs behind the scenes.

"This to me is challenging, stimulating and fun," Rietkerk said. "These plants add to the environment and help to enrich people's lives. I wanted to make something that helps people, not hurts them. I love producing something. That's the real passion that I bring to this job."

Early in his life, it would have been difficult to imagine Rietkerk in the nursery profession and raising plants in such an urban, industrial location.

Rietkerk's father, Ray, ran Bella Vista Orchids, a nursery in nearby Upland for 35 years. The son has vivid memories of hard labor in the greenhouses, including spreading pungent fish emulsion on the plants on Saturdays, then trying to explain his exotic aroma to his date for the evening. This and other factors sent him to college with different goals in mind. He received a degree in sociology from University of California, San Diego, anticipating a career in academia.

A trip to Iran shortly thereafter provided the fuel for a fundamental career change. Upon the request of one of his father's clients, Rietkerk took his first-ever airplane ride to a village near the Caspian Sea, where he spent the next eight months at a nursery. He helped produce orchids used for a historic event in the Middle East--a celebration attended by dignitaries from throughout the world, honoring 2,500 years of Persian monarchy.

His time a world away from home provided more than scrapbook material; it was a life-changing look at a starkly different culture.

"When you're working with people who are getting their hands dirty, there's a common bond," Rietkerk said. "They showed me respect. The difficulties associated with Iran come at a higher level of politics."

He was in a place where scarce resources were used to the fullest. It took a trip into town and two hours to place a telephone call. He lived off mutton, rice and melons. Little pyramids of rocks with mounds of dirt were used to make a level greenhouse floor. When a tractor broke down, it took two months to repair, and villagers did their best to help with their only tools: pick axes and gunnysacks.

Rietkerk learned early how to clear an important hurdle of being a stranger in a strange land. He earned the Iranians respect by wrestling them.

"If you show you're tough and strong they follow you," he said. "I wrestled them and could pin every one of them. I didn't lose and that's a part of their culture. It's certainly a different management style than here, but it works for their people."

His Iranian excursion provided him with a thirst for hands-on work and running his own business. As a result, his time in graduate school was short-lived.

"The trip opened my eyes, self and mind," Rietkerk said. "Going back to a cubicle just didn't cut it. Working in the nursery field was a better match."

Shortly thereafter, the Rietkerks set out to achieve a combined vision of starting their own nursery operation.

They built Kallisto Greenhouses in 1978, which has grown steadily ever since. The operation spans 10 acres in Fontana and serves as the largest remnant of production agriculture in a now heavily industrial area. Kallisto is a wholesale business, where merchants choose from more than 300 varieties and an inventory of about 500,000 plants.

Their specialty is indoor tropical foliage, most notably Spathiphyllum or Peace Lily, a hearty plant with alluring white blossoms. The Rietkerks fuss over every detail of the operation, to live up to the company name, which in Greek means "the most beautiful."

"My wife and I walk around the greenhouses at night after everybody's gone," Rietkerk said. "We look at the plants and constantly think about how we can do it better. We built these greenhouses. They're our dream and our passion."

"In our business, we're selling a look expressed in a plant," Kathye Rietkerk said. "People want a houseplant that looks really nice now. Aesthetics are the key for people to impulse buy a plant, so it needs to be a work of art, basically."

The couple achieve premium quality product in an ultra-efficient setting. Instead of growing plants on a single level like greenhouses in southern Florida, Rietkerk employs what he calls a "cube approach." To maximize space, plants are grown on several different levels, with placement based on the amount of light they need. Each plant has just enough room to grow without being crowded.

Workers tend to plants using a gondola system that Jim Rietkerk devised. Water is judiciously applied, whether it's via a computer-driven drip irrigation system, or by a fog, mist or worker-guided gondola. Natural gas is used to maintain an optimum temperature. Vents on top of the greenhouses are periodically opened to regulate greenhouse conditions.

"If we hadn't adopted the newest technology, we wouldn't be here today," Jim Rietkerk said. "If we don't keep doing that, we won't be here tomorrow."

Kallisto Greenhouses has an international flair. A coarse, fibrous peat moss from northern Europe is used as a planting medium, while some of their plants are imported from a veritable United Nations of countries, including Guatemala, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Holland, Thailand and Belgium.

Jim and Kathye Rietkerk have been married for 35 years and they knew from the start they would be in business together. The partnership has been harmonious.

"She balances my personality," Jim Rietkerk said. "She tends to details much more than I do, while I am more of the big-picture person. We really complement each other's personalities well."

"It's an accomplishment we do together," Kathye Rietkerk said. "It's something we take great pride and joy in. However, if you want to go home and complain about the boss, you can't very well do that because he's sitting across the dinner table. But we work through things. We've been married a long time and we know how to do that."

The Rietkerks have plenty of upgrades planned for their business, though they hope to stay right where they are.

"Years from now, maybe we don't set the alarm clock quite as early, but I would like to always be involved here," Kathye Rietkerk said. "My mother is 80 and she manages a McDonalds and opens it at 5 in the morning. There's no reason to stop being engaged in life!"

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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