As a young man in 1970s South Australia with a small earthmoving business, Hans Van Schaik was fascinated by soil. Suspecting that the material he moved — sawdust, pine bark, peat — could be used to do more than just decompose in landfill, he and his wife, Marjan, set out find those uses and create recycled products for gardening and landscaping.
Today the company they founded, Bio Gro, works with councils and companies across the nation to recover organic material for reuse in agriculture, horticulture, and viticulture. The Mt Gambier-based firm specialises in processing and converting organic material into high quality, organic growing substrates, soil conditioners, mulching mediums, and biological growth stimulants for a range of applications.
In addition to developing and perfecting products for the nursery, cut flower, fruit and orchard, turf growing, viticulture, and broad acre industries, the company also packages private label soil products for many of Australia’s gardening and landscaping retailers.
While Hans is no longer active in the daily management of the business, three generations of Van Schaiks have followed in his dirt-caked footsteps, and there’s a fourth gen on the way. We spoke with son Stephen, who holds the reins of this enduring, innovative enterprise.
“I don't know that he thought of it as being innovative,” the younger Van Schaik says of his father, “but he was the first person in Australia to look at material outside of soil to put into pots to grow plants. Certainly, he was very innovative, and in that process, he was also building his own equipment, as in screens and operational processing equipment. Back then there wasn't any equipment to process this kind of material, so he came up with the idea of utilising what was regarded as waste and also came up with ideas on how to build equipment to manage the product.”
He was interested in anything soil related, Stephen said. “He always had a passion to explore what material could be used to support the nursery and gardening industry. He was excavating peat, which is used in the nursery, whiskey distilling, and mushroom growing industries, and that was where he got his hands dirty and got the idea of growing media.
“Dad taught me how to operate front end loaders and excavators from a very young age. I used to help him out on the weekends and school holidays, tinkering around on developing products. To me it was a bit of fun, but I didn't really have any ambition to join him,” Van Schaik revealed. “I wanted to play Australian Rules Football and got my capability mixed up with my ambition, so I had to go to work. I became the first employee at Bio Gro, and I've been there ever since. I quickly gained a passion similar to my dad's, and I've not had any other job.”
One of the most exciting parts of the firm’s development is seeing how automation has changed the business, and the industry. “When we first started it was very labour-intensive. Shovelling the material into the bag and stapling or sewing the bag and then stacking it on the back of a truck. It was all manual. Now we’ve got two packaging plants producing approximately 3.5 million bags per annum collectively, with the capacity to produce up to 8 million bags per annum. On average we can package 35 bags per minute. To the guy who was on the end of a shovel many years ago, for him to stand back and watch this piece of equipment produce 35 bags in a minute is quite amazing.
“People build purpose-built equipment for our industry now, but when we first started, we built our own equipment. The industry has evolved, and as demand has increased so has the demand for increased efficiencies and precision,” he noted.
“In the past four or five years we've taken a lot more of that analytical data, and we are very specific in how we measure productivity, and, more importantly, measure the life cycle of producing compost.”
Consumers have become more demanding about the uses for horticultural and agricultural products.
“The expectation is that the product works in every environment, and through that you have to be very proficient in how you produce the product and to what standards. We produce in excess of 700,000 cubic metres each year of product, and it's somewhat seasonal so you're producing different bark for different seasons. The growing media is different for different nurseries, so everything's very specific now. If you haven't got that analytical data behind you, it's fraught with danger because you will effectively let your customer down by not producing product that fits the purpose.”
The company recently invested in a manufacturing software system as part of their automation journey. “As you bring new equipment to your business it gets more and more difficult to verbalise your experience, so if you can map that out (visually) and have people be able to read it and understand it, it's great.”
The firm’s technical expertise helps growers to better understand how to nourish their soil for whatever purpose they have in mind. Bio Gro laboratories test growing media, plant tissue, water, fertiliser, and plant pathology, and offer on-site consulting services.
Bio Gro’s subject expertise is wide and deep in scope: From the most basic needs of kitchen window gardeners to those of sophisticated viticulturists, Bio Gro’s 40-plus years of accumulated expertise serve every type of customer.
The company’s entry into the horticultural market is quickly becoming well established. Products for the sector include mulches for water retention, frost protection for vines, and specific organic soil nutrition. “We provide the option for our customers to custom blend potting media, soil conditioners, and mulches, and we have the ability to apply all different types of ingredients to accommodate the customer. … We're a very diverse organisation in the horticultural and agricultural markets, and we’re now looking at the broad acres market, supporting agriculture with high nutrient forms of compost that can be spread across the pasture or dug into the soil to support that agricultural market.”
As farmers look to optimise their land, soil conditioning is crucial. “From that perspective, fertilizer is a traditional product that they put into the soil, and we now complement that with high nutrient compost that supports soil health,” he stressed. “Case studies clearly show that adding an amount of compost to your soil over a two- to three-year period improves your soil significantly. That's something that is quite exciting for us because in order to do that you have to supply quite an amount of product, and we have the ability to do that.”
Bio Gro operates three main facilities: the Mt Gambier site features the company’s headquarters, a factory complex, and packaging plants. A few kilometres north, a fully licensed processing facility that Van Schaik refers to as the “engine room of the business” moves a million metres of product daily. A 30,000 square-metre facility in Dandenong dispatches products to commercial nurseries, and also processes organic matter such as tree trimmings and construction timber and readies it for reuse.
Take, for example, the perfect ecological symmetry of pine bark. “We take that and turn it into potting mix, and that potting mix ends up back in the nurseries where they grow the pine trees,” he explained. “The tree grows, it’s harvested, we take the bark and return it back in a potting mix, and it goes back into the seedling nursery for the forest industry and it goes around again. There are a number of circular economies that we achieve in our business.
Other than minute amounts of non-organic matter that may be picked up in the harvesting process, “None of what we take into our operation goes to waste. Everything finds a home. So, as much as it is about landfill diversion and waste recovery, it’s also about being a key contributor to the health of our environment and its conservation.
“And with the growth that we have experienced as a company in recent years, we have had to go through a significant paradigm shift toward the way in which we operate as a company with an absolute focus on quality and the capabilities built not just on a production front but also succession with our staff that will enable us to continue to grow Bio Gro into the future.”