The Ins & Outs of Importing: How to Work Well with Suppliers & Customers

By Susan Stauber, Sales Representative, Ball Horticultural Company

Developing solid relationships, fostering good communication, and following strict protocols for maintaining plant health are the basis for success in importing plants and plant products. Ball Horticultural Company, founded in 1905, partners with suppliers from all around the world to offer the best, most innovative varieties to our customers. Our family-owned company has been sourcing products from some suppliers for nearly a century, but for many “newer” suppliers, our relationships may still go back decades. 

Ball bedding plant farm in Nicaragua

Ball has a global presence on six continents in 17 countries, and imports seeds from more than 50 countries. Plants and cuttings are grown in the U.S., as well as being imported from many locations in Africa, Central America, South America, Israel, and the Pacific Rim.

We often work with our suppliers to share cultural information, to help them help us to produce the best possible products for our customers. We follow up on leads from our supply chain, as well as pursuing new opportunities with new suppliers through travel and visitation to various industry functions worldwide. A segment within our distribution company also looks for plant breeders that need an assist to get products to market by utilizing our internal supply chain.

Avoiding & Responding to Issues

Communication and visitation are key to maintaining and expanding relationships with suppliers in other countries. A whole group of folks within Ball Seed, known as our supplier relations group, specialize in that. Within our own breeding companies such as Darwin, Pan American/Keift Seed and Ball FloraPlant, specific people are assigned to visit our production facilities to ensure our standards are being met. These folks visit several times each season and communicate daily. The lead management groups from the offshore facilities also come to the West Chicago home offices to further interact and develop their skill sets.

Ball perennial farm in Colombia

Numerous issues can arise over a season from a missed yield projection and product that freezes during transit to diseases or pests. More than ever, one needs to have good communication skills, be flexible and act quickly to provide the products that your customers expect. In some cases, you may have to make substitutes from alternate sources. Communicating the options quickly to your customer, and then enacting the preferred plan is key to keeping satisfaction levels high.

Being proactive is essential to prevent issues from damaging our bottom line. We will develop a plan of action promptly to try to avoid shorting the marketplace. That may mean we pull from a farm that generally does not ship to the U.S. to help us over the hump, or we may substitute a different variety from a different partner or shift a ship week. In all cases, everyone from the sales reps to supply management and breeding company personnel work to fulfill that order for our customer on a timely basis. 

Developing Protocols & Handling Paperwork

Each breeding company has developed a set of strict protocols with their offshore farms to keep plant product clean and in good shape. There are prescribed procedures for everything, from what an employee is allowed to wear to when and where they eat and how frequently they must sanitize. This topic could be a whole article in and of itself.

If a disease crops up from an offshore facility, we promptly take steps to stop importation and to destroy anything that has made it into the U.S. We will provide protocols for destruction of the material and sanitation practices to prevent spread of the disease and replacements, as we look to make our customers whole and minimize disruption to the U.S. supply chain. 

Ball perennial farm in Colombia

In our seed crops that are vulnerable to carrying disease on the seed coat, we require testing of the lots we sell to prevent unintentional distribution of disease. As part of our importation protocols, all product is stopped and inspected by the USDA at one of several ports of entry, prior to being shipped to our customers. This provides a second set of eyes to prevent importation of pests and disease. If something is suspect, it is destroyed right then and there. At that time, we will communicate the issue with the farm, they will take action to rid themselves of the pest issue if they had not caught it already, and we will reship clean product.

Quite a bit of extra work is involved in meeting government paperwork requirements. As an example, for geraniums, the USDA requires all companies exporting cuttings to the U.S. to have trace-forward and trace-back capabilities. Then, if an issue is spotted on the farm, we know exactly which customers in the U.S. were shipped cuttings from which greenhouses and which plant blocks within those greenhouses. If a problem is spotted in a greenhouse in the U.S., we can also go back to a specific plant block in a specific greenhouse in the offshore facility to find the source of the issue. 

Offshore greenhouses must also comply with a certification program administered by the USDA-APHIS and enforced by their local NPPO (plant protection and quarantine organization). This includes activities like annual and weekly inspections and meeting standards for cleanliness. If the facility does not pass its annual inspection, then it is not recertified and cannot send its product into the U.S.

Pandemic-Related Importing Issues

In general, importing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been fairly smooth for Ball. The flights out of some areas of the world have been more problematic than others, but we have been able to consistently deliver product for most of our plants by developing a plan with the supplier through the supply management group. Our customers have been able to flex and receive product on Saturdays, which is not a normal delivery day. 

In another case, there was a small hiccup in Central America due to a stay-at-home order in one country that prevented shipments for several weeks towards the end of our spring shipping window. Fortunately for us, that breeder was able to move most of these orders to a facility located in another part of the world that generally serves Europe, not the North American market. As a result, they continued to fulfill orders for some items. For the materials that were not available, we were able to substitute from other breeders’ farms.

Ball bedding plant farm in Nicaragua