A tour of Ball Horticultural in West Chicago
Ball Horticultural Company’s founder, George J. Ball’s motto was “All the Best and Nothing Else,” and it was evident that Ball puts these values to practice during our recent tour of Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, which was seamlessly coordinated by Ball’s Director of Research Operations and AFE Board of Trustees member, Dr. Megan Bowman. Even though Ball is an international company that advances the industry on a global scale, it was apparent that they still keep the individual grower in mind in everything they do.
Upon arriving at Ball, we were greeted by a riot of color from their display gardens – 10.5 acres of beautifully landscaped annuals, perennials, cut flowers, mixed containers, vegetables, and more. These gardens are a chance to see Ball genetics on display without the use of any treatments, so you can really get a feel for how these plants naturally perform in the landscape. They even grow their competitor’s releases next to their own in the Comparison Garden, which gave us an unbiased look at a variety of different cultivars on the market.
Once inside, we received a tour of Ball’s seed processing, testing, and distribution facilities. Ball offers a number of seed coating, treating, and pelleting options to improve efficiency and yield for growers. Their specially formulated seed coatings are designed to improve seed flow through seeder machines, control growth, and reduce disease. Pelleting is used to improve the visibility of small seeds in the plug tray, eliminate the need for multiple seeder runs, as well as combine multiple species or cultivars in one pellet. Ball’s coating machines can treat 25,000 – 1,000,000 seeds at once, which was an impressive sight to see in person. Ball also offers chemical-free organic seed.
Seeds, even those of competitors, go through testing at Ball’s facilities to determine their comprehensive Ball Vigor Index (BVI), which is a number that appears on Ball Seed packets to indicate how uniform a seed lot is. Seeds are sown in plug trays and germinated in controlled growth chambers, and the trays are put on a conveyer belt through a laser scanner to quickly (about 30 seconds per tray) and accurately measure growth parameters such as height, leaf area, and chlorophyll action.
After the seed has been prepared and tested, it’s stored in cold, dry conditions to maximize its shelf life until it’s time to be packaged and shipped. Ball uses SAP and other forecasting systems to determine the expected date and demand of the final product, which guides their team to know how much to pack and when. This ensures that growers have all the seed they need when they need it. Weight-to-count conversion is still common practice in many seed packaging operations, but Ball has improved packaging accuracy by using specialized seed counters that can count individual seeds at a rate of up to 2,000 per second using a camera and multiple mirrors placed at different angles. Having multiple mirrors in the scanner allows accurate counting in real-time as the seeds fall through the machine, no matter where they are in relation to each other. Ball typically packages seed in 3-month increments. Their system sends a signal when it’s time to replenish their stock. Ball is proud to offer rapid turnaround times and same-day shipping.
Next, we were treated to a tour of the beautifully designed Ball Helix Innovations Center, where their team of advanced scientists comes together to develop the latest breeding, genetic, plant pathology, and technical solutions to ensure grower success and profits. Ball’s scientists gave exciting presentations about their work that highlighted their passion, outreach, breadth of knowledge, and quality of research. The tours of the labs themselves were truly a sight to see, and as a former lab worker, I was a little envious! We were left with the impression that Ball’s motto, “All the Best and Nothing Else,” also pertains to the recruitment and retention of their employees.
Perhaps the most profound takeaway was that despite their international impact and cutting-edge scientific advancements, Ball Horticultural Co. still managed to feel like a family-owned business due to the accessibility and graciousness of third-generation CEO and Chairman Anna Ball and her daughter Susannah Ball (Sustainability Co-Lead), who joined us for a lovely dinner in the gardens. For many years, Ball has continued to support the industry through contributions to AFE. We are grateful to Ball Horticulture Company for opening their doors and gardens to us during our Annual Board Meeting and inspiring us with their hospitality and commitment to industry advancements and grower needs.
Written by Laura Barth, AFE’s Research Coordinator