Mid-Atlantic Grower topics
Swanekamps have had Kube-Pak Corp. blossoming since 1973
By RICHARD SKELLY
MILLSTONE TOWNSHIP, N.J. (April 11, 2017) — Set back from Route 526 in Allentown, a decidedly rural area of western Monmouth County, passersby would never guess how much agricultural production is going on at Kube-Pak Corp’s 20 acres of greenhouses.
The company specializes in vegetable seedling plants, and finished annuals and perennials.
Rob Swanekamp Sr. runs the operation with his brother John and a cousin, Bill.
With a team of about 150 employees, they oversee the germination and growth of thousands of plants each spring and summer.
“The business was started by another family, but we took control of Kube-Pak in 1963, and we’ve been running it ever since,” said Rob. “My brother and cousin and I have been running it together since 1988,” Rob said. “Since then, we’ve been joined by my son and nephew and we have high hopes we can continue with this well into the future.”
Rob said they are often asked about the company name. It refers to the way the bedding plants are packaged.
Soil is compressed into a “kube” and four kubes make a “pak.”
“It was a Dutch-Belgian invention and we’ve continued to offer that product but we’ve diversified a lot since then,” Rob said. “We are also a young plant producer, a plug producer, that we sell to greenhouses around the U.S.,” he said, adding their business is wholesale only.
Hundreds of varieties of peppers, tomatoes, summer annuals, fall annuals and mums are produced here and sold to farmers and landscape companies around the Northeast, “and then we finish up the year with a poinsettia crop,” Rob said.
“We supply a lot of farmers in New Jersey, but the majority of our customers are within a four hour truck drive of here, we reach up to Massachusetts and Albany, N.Y., and out to a little bit west of Harrisburg and a little bit into Maryland and northern Virginia and Delaware of course, for our finished crops, but our young plugs can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. now, working with Fed-Ex,” he said.
Rob, whose family was based in Piscataway for many years, has been working full-time at Kube-Pak since 1973, when his father took over the operation.
Swanecamp said he attended Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pa., but never graduated, his cousin Bill has a degree in chemical engineering and his brother John trained to be a commercial pilot.
“We all certainly didn’t do this full-time from the beginning, but we were able to complete the transition from one generation to the next and that transition happened with my father and uncle and by the time 1988 rolled around we were ready and the transition went very well.
“Now we’re working on the next phase of it now, so the next generation can take over,” he said.
“There have been bumps in the road, they come up. Who would have foreseen what happened in 2008, when the economy collapsed? The key in all of this is we’ve been able to diversify and we’ve been able to add product lines and take product lines away,” he said.
Early in the family’s ownership, Rob said they sold to chain stores though now the customer base is mainly farmers, commercial farm operations, garden centers and landscapers.
“So much of what we offer is customer driven,” he said, “if we don’t have it and a customer calls for it we look into adding it to our collection. An example is the new Rutgers 250 tomato that they’re promoting. We added RU Scarlet strawberries to our inventories as well.”
“We try to make sure the plants are growing in a media they’re going to be successful in, as far as PH, fertilizer and drainage is concerned,” Rob said.
As a result, Kube-Pak uses about 60 different soil mixes for its inventory of more than 3,000 varieties of annuals, perennials and vegetables. Swanekamp hands over a glossy 50 page catalog of the company’s offerings, “to give you some sense of the scope of the business. We have the most extensive list of anybody, our reach goes beyond greenhouses, it goes into the cut flower world, we go into vegetable production and strawberry plugs, and strawberries are a big business for us, we sell a lot of them to farmers with pick-your-own operations. Our reach is pretty broad.”
Many of the 20 acres of greenhouses have heated floors and automated irrigation systems for consistent and precise germination.
Kube-Pak also maintains another four acres of growing area outdoors, protected by deer fencing.
Workers get around the massive greenhouse campus by way of bicycles and small electric carts, smaller than golf carts.
Spring is a peak time for employees, some of whom work seasonally and then go on to other farming-related jobs.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a tremendous staff. We all share in the work so that you don’t have to do everything. You hire good people to do the work for you.”
Rob said the main core of the business has always been annuals.
“The perennials and vegetables have come in since. One thing we’ve learned, you’ve got to pay attention to details in this business. There are so many moving parts, so much involved with living product, that you have to be repetitive in what you do, weekly and sometimes daily in how you go about doing it and you’ve got to keep accurate records that show what you did, here’s the mistake that was made but at least it’s written down and because of the numbers we do, you have to have that kind of accuracy in data keeping,” he said.
He quickly added that without the current computer technology and overnight shipping, Kube-Pak wouldn’t be able to offer the variety of seedling plants it offers today.
Using new technology is not new for Kube-Pak, however.
An early innovation at the company was the development of the first automatic drum seeder in the world.
This technology was developed in 1970, 15 years before drum seeders became commercially available in the United States.
The seeders offer superior seed placement on our plug trays.