History of Transplant Systems

History of Transplant Systems

“The class of those who have the ability to think their own thoughts is separated by an unbridgeable gulf

from the class of those who cannot”    Ludwig Van Mises

 

Transplant Systems began in 1982 with its endeavor to develop its Precision Plant Bed System. The Precision Plant Bed Technology would be the precursor to Transplant Systems greenhouse technology that it would later introduce in 1984.

Ray DeBruhl, the owner of Transplant Systems was raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina and received his Agronomic degree from North Carolina State University in 1974. That background would later provide the foundation for the development of the first scientific agronomic program for growing greenhouse tobacco plants. An agronomic program that would eventually become the  industry standard.

While growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, Ray DeBruhl would witness first hand, the mechanization of tobacco. His father would be the first farmer in the county to install bulk tobacco barns on his farm in the early sixties. His dad would take him to witness the first automatic tobacco primer developed by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and Harrington Manufacturing Company (Roanoke). And subsequently, his dad bought the first tobacco primer in the county the next year after its introduction. It is interesting to note that his dad would develop and patented the first de-racker for  removing the cured leaf from the tobacco racks.

So after witnessing the mechanization of tobacco from the very beginning, it became clear that the plant production needed to be mechanized. After all the plant beds were being done the same way for the last 100 years, mostly on 5 yards wide outdoor beds.

After graduating from NCSU in 1974, Ray DeBruhl began farming. He experimented with growing produce on black plastic culture, while producing his transplants in a homemade greenhouse. In 1976 he began to experiment with growing greenhouse tobacco plants and also purchased a couple thousand tobacco plants from a Speedling dealer in Clinton, BJ Williamson, which Speedling had grown in its greenhouses in Florida. Burl Williamson of Clinton NC, has to be credited with placing the first greenhouse tobacco plant in the field. Those plants from Speedling Inc. however would have no resemblance to the greenhouse tobacco plant of today.

Growing enough plants to set a few short rows of those tiny plants in the field in 1976, convinced him early on that the greenhouse plants had merit. But he also knew there was a lot of work to do before growers would ever adapt to greenhouse plants, much less, be endorsed by NCSU.  It was in 1982 that he had the idea to develop an outdoor system that he would label, Precision Plant Bed System. This was a narrow precision formed plant bed , 4 inches tall and 30 inches wide. He built a bed shaper similar to the one that was used in forming his beds for his black plastic culture. The idea was to allow the grower to row crop his tobacco beds and produce uniform tobacco plants in a mechanized manner.

The bed shaper was modified in such a way that 12 V-grooves 2 inches apart were formed on the surface of the 30 inch wide bed. The bottom of the V-groove served as the seed bed for the seed. Then the same high speed plastic layer used in laying his black plastic in his produce was used to lay clear plastic over the precision formed beds once they were seeded.

There were a couple of reasons for the precision formed beds. The shoulder of the bed would provide a level place for the wheels of the under cutter bar to run at plant harvest. The level shoulder also provided for a consistent level surface for the mower to run for precision clipping of the plants. Because the beds were precision formed, the bed surface was consistently 6 inches higher than the flat shoulder on each side of the bed. Therefore the clipping would be very precise. Clipping the outdoor conventional plant beds had just begun as an accepted practice.

Pelletized tobacco seed had not yet been introduced, so DeBruhl came up with a very innovative approach to seed his narrow row tobacco beds. DeBruhl was aware that the Union Carbide Company had developed a product for the lettuce industry called soluble seed tape. However, the company had abandoned the technology because of the introduction of pelletized lettuce seed. They sold the patents and all the technology to a small seed company in California for pennies on the dollar. After learning this, DeBruhl sought out the company and inquired if they would place his tobacco seed on the soluble seed tape for him. He sent the company raw tobacco seed and received back from them 12 spools of tobacco seed on soluble seed tape spaced 2 inches apart.

DeBruhl developed a planter that held 12 spools of seed tape and would place the tape in the 12 V-grooves on the top of his precision formed beds. Once the beds were planted , they were covered with clear plastic using a high speed plastic layer obtained from Ruskin Florida.

The seeds were in a mini greenhouse in the V-grooves under the plastic. The environment was perfect as the seeds germinated uniformly. The plants grew and were clipped in a most uniform and precision manner. The plants were the most uniform ever witness in an outdoor environment. At harvest the plants were undercut and 100% harvest at one time. Plans called for the plants to be harvested with a Johnson sweet potato digger.

DeBruhl had already begun negotiations with the seed tape company to secure marketing rights to any seed tape with tobacco on it. The company was very happy to extend any rights that DeBruhl wanted, given as they said, any sales with tobacco would be a plus for them and they welcomed the business.

Transplant Systems was started in 1982 with the concept of manufacturing the necessary equipment and have marketing rights to tobacco seed on soluble seed tape.

Armed with data and pictures DeBruhl secured a meeting with the tobacco specialist at NCSU to present his Precision Plant Bed System. DeBruhl knew that he needed their endorsement if he had any chance of successfully marketing this system to tobacco growers.

DeBruhl met with the tobacco specialist  at NCSUand a couple of grad students upstairs in Williams Hall on the campus at NC State University. After presenting his material,  the specialist asked, Ray what do you want from me? DeBruhl stated, your endorsement. The specialist replied, you got it, this is good stuff, this is what we need to do. DeBruhl had taken courses under him when a student at NCSU and knew him well.

DeBruhl left NCSU knowing there was one last piece to the puzzle that he must secure, the licensing agreement that he sent to the seed company in California two weeks earlier. The next day DeBruhl placed a call to the seed tape company, who had already agreed to everything. He just needed the signed license agreement. When he made the call, the president of the company stated that under the advice of their lawyer, they were advised not to sign the agreement. That was the worse decision that they could make, because their soluble seed tape and Transplant Systems’ Precision Seed Bed System would have delayed the tobacco greenhouse industry decades.

Disappointed in their decision, DeBruhl immediatedly stopped all work on his Precision Plant Bed and immediately pursued his greenhouse production system. However, DeBruhl knew the consequences, he had graduated from NCSU with a degree in Agronomy and knew that the crop science tobacco specialists there, would never endorse greenhouse production of tobacco plants. In fact when DeBruhl informed the tobacco specialist that he had met with concerning his Precision Plant Bed system that he was going to pursue the greenhouse technology, he was told that it would never work and they would not endorse it. Kilgore Hall, the horticulture department at NCSU was just across the Brickyard from Williams Hall, the crop science department and DeBruhl knew well the great divide that existed between the two departments.

As an undergraduate in Agronomy in his last year at NCSU, DeBruhl did a graduate level individualized research study in horticulture against the advice of his adviser. DeBruhl’s father was also a grape grower and the industry was experiencing nutritional issues with a newly released variety. DeBruhl’s greenhouse research studies would locate and identify the nutritional problem with this variety.

DeBruhl knew from earlier work in the 70’s that the greenhouse tobacco plants would work, however a lot of work would be needed before the practice could be commercially viable. DeBruhl actually began experimenting with growing greenhouse tobacco plants in 1975.  He launched his first commercial system in 1984. This system was an overhead irrigation system with plants being grown in 162 plastic cell 1020 flats. At this time the float system was non-existent. The direct seed float system did not exist until Transplant Systems introduced its 288 cell EPS tray in 1989.

Transplant Systems, the company DeBruhl started in 1982 to pursue his Precision Plant Bed System, began in 1984 to manufacture all the components to make up a total system concept for producing greenhouse grown tobacco plants. However there was a problem. The concept was not endorsed by the crop science extension at NCSU, so sales to tobacco growers was an uphill battle. In fact growers were advised against growing in the greenhouse. They were told that it was impossible to grow direct seed tobacco plants in a greenhouse.

In order to sustain the company, DeBruhl pursued the horticultural market in addition to the tobacco market. Sales in the horticultural market were brisk and enabled DeBruhl to grow the company, all the while promoting greenhouse tobacco plants. Being forced to pursue the horticulture market turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The largest greenhouse operation in the United States, Metrolina Greenhouses, gave DeBruhl and his company, Transplant Systems, the opportunity to develop a unique traveling boom irrigator for their operation. The current boom irrigator that he manufactured would not work in their greenhouse, but Metrolina Greenhouses provided Transplant Systems an opportunity to develop a boom irrigator that would work. Over 6 months time a finished product was ready for review. The machine was a success and the orders started flowing in from all over the US. That first customer was Tom Van Wingerden, who had 22 acres under one greenhouse. Today they have over 200 acres under one roof. It is now the largest facility in the world. Transplant Systems boom technology is on full display at this facility and others around the US. Its boom technology has transformed boom irrigation in the largest greenhouse facilities around the world as it has become a standard in irrigation. This boom was also supplied to Tanimura & Antle Farms  in Salinas  California, the largest lettuce growers in the US with over 40,000 acres. Today the company has over 60,000 acres in production.

Two very important events came from that experience in working with the Van Wingerdens. First was the experience gained in their growing technology and second, that traveling  boom irrigator that DeBruhl developed and patented would later become the clipping system now being used in every tobacco greenhouse in the US. After developing the boom and patenting it,(US Patent 4,842,204), DeBruhl continued to develop the clipping unit and patented it as well, (US Patent 4,903,464). Every tobacco greenhouse in existence today is a direct beneficiary of the research and development that DeBruhl patented in his traveling boom and clipping system. Every tobacco greenhouse grower is also a beneficiary of the first scientific agronomic growing program developed by Transplant Systems. The agronomic principles of growing direct seed tobacco plants, researched and developed by DeBruhl are now promoted by every tobacco specialist around the world. In fact his tobacco growing manual printed in 1984 is printed in both English and Spanish.

In 1984 Transplant Systems was the only company manufacturing a total system concept for growing greenhouse tobacco plants in a direct seed manner. Interestingly, that total system concept included a scientific agronomic growing program that DeBruhl had also developed, to teach his customers how to grow tobacco plants in a greenhouse. Remember, there was no research being done at North Carolina State University on growing greenhouse tobacco plants for growers to pull from. In fact they were discouraging growers from even attempting it. DeBruhl often said that Transplants Systems agronomic program was 50% of the system and the hardware the other 50%.

But there was research being done at Purdue University and other leading horticultural schools and DeBruhl knew it. The horticultural industry had just undergone a revolution in how flower seedlings were being grown in containerized cells. His relationships with the largest greenhouse facilities in the world gave him the contacts needed to pursue this research. This research and his own experience in growing greenhouse tobacco plants gave him the knowledge to develop the first agronomic program for the production of greenhouse tobacco plants.

The corner stone of that program would be based on water quality, solid and established research, that the  tobacco specialist at NCSU would refuse to acknowledge for many years. The growing manual that was written by DeBruhl is still being used by growers today, both here and abroad. In fact you will now find the same literature published by DeBruhl in 1984, now being printed verbatim in the Tobacco Growers Manual produced by the crop science extension at NC State University almost 30 years later on how to grow greenhouse tobacco plants.

It is interesting to note that at the time that DeBruhl began marketing his systems, Speedling in Florida earnestly began marketing tobacco plants ready to be set in the field. While this did develop interest in greenhouse tobacco plants, it was not a successful venture as it lasted only a couple of years after which Speedling would develop their plug and transfer system. While Transplant System did not endorse the concept of the plug and transfer system, it did manufacture a lot of the greenhouses for that system, for a Speedling dealer, also located in Kinston NC, while a Speedling dealer until 1989. That same dealer after it left Speedling would infringe every patent Transplant Systems owned. And because of the success Transplant Systems was having it, would copy Transplant’s entire system. Abandoning its quonset greenhouse with no clipping system for the more popular Transplant System ProGrower greenhouse with 3″ columns and 2″ bows with its clipping system. (BJ Williamson of Clinton NC at this point was no longer a Speedling dealer but instead was marketing his own direct seed system, based on a chicken house frame with no clipping system and no agronomic program). Speedling had established dealers in all the tobacco producing states.

The plug and transfer system was based on the idea that Speedling would grow mini tobacco plugs in a 595 cell tray, about a ½ inch square cell, ship these to the growers and have them manually transfer these mini plants to a much larger 200 cell tray. This would at least ensure that the grower would get enough live plants to set his crop, without the management required from direct seed systems, provided of course, the grower had enough 200 cell trays of plants. One added benefit was supposed to be that a simple cold frame was sufficient for finishing the plants off.

However there was one major problem. This plug and transfer was very labor intensive and not only did the growers have to buy the mini-plugs, buy they also had to buy expensive Styrofoam trays ($3.50 – $4.00 each), buy a cold frame greenhouse, and they also had to spend more money on labor to transfer the plugs than it took to pull plants from a conventional bed. And then to add insult to injury, they had to pick up every tray and take it out of the greenhouse to clip it, every time they clip. Ironically NCSU tobacco specialists began to advocate this method, while saying that the direct seed system developed by Transplant System would not work.

One selling point that was being promoted by Speedling and NCSU tobacco specialists with the plug and transfer was that it did not require any growing knowledge, because once the plant was at the 4 week stage of growth, very little management was needed. Growers who were sold this system actually were in reality paying a big price for ignorance.

Just as the finished plants only lasted a couple of years, the plug and transfer system would only last a couple of years. The end came in June of 1988 when the Flue Cured Tobacco Farmer magazine, which was every tobacco farmers bible, featured on its front cover a full cover picture of the inside of Danny Kornegy of Princeton NC, 300 foot greenhouse purchased from Transplant System. There on the front cover were the most beautiful tobacco plants one could wish for, and the caption across the bottom read in bold print “DIRECT SEED GREENHOUSE TOBACCO PLANTS”. Inside the magazine was a 4 page article on Danny’s experience with his direct seed greenhouse and the program purchased from Transplant Systems.

The cover picture also featured Transplant Systems automatic clipping system. Remember all those plug and transfer systems sold by Speedling dealers were picking up all their trays and taking them outside the house to clip, every time they clipped.

The plug and transfer system did require less management. It wasn’t that the management was beyond a grower’s ability, it was just that Transplant Systems was the only one teaching it, while NCSU tobacco specialists were continually telling growers that it couldn’t be done. Well, that cover picture in June of 1988 of “The Flue Cured Tobacco Farmer” told the tobacco world that it could be done.

Actually, the plug and transfer did require management in the plug production stage, but that management was performed by Speedling in Florida. However the growers paid a tremendous price for it.

That same year in 1988, Transplant Systems began experimenting with direct seeding plants in a float tray environment. DeBruhl was aware that the float system was merely a hybrid of the European Ebb and Flow system which had been in existence for several years. He had seen these systems being used in the greenhouses of his large horticultural customers around the US.  Speedling had built an Ebb and Flow system in their Bushnell facility. Remember the float tray at this time was only being used in the plug and transfer system.

Transplant Systems original direct seed growing program utilized plastic trays with watering overhead. The plastic trays were 40 cents compared to a Speedling styrofoam (EPS) tray at $3.50 to $4.00. Transplant Systems released its direct seed float system after Speedling patent expired in 1989 and introduced the industry first 288 float tray for $1.69. It’s interesting to note that the former Speedling dealer in Kinston NC was selling its plug & transfer float trays to farmers for $3.50 to $4.00 reduced its price to $1.50. This was positive proof that farmers were being gouged by this former Speedling dealer.

If the seed could be started in the float tray, then less water management would be needed. But only less water management, as management would still be needed. This fact prove to be correct later and manifested itself with lots of growers having growing problems, when they started buying direct seed float systems from a former Speedling dealer, who did not have the knowledge of the agronomic principles necessary for growing plants in a greenhouse environment. Their idea was that if the plug and transfer worked without management then direct seed float would work without management. In reality, Speedling did provide that management those first 4 weeks of growing the plug in their greenhouses in Florida, and the growers paid dearly for it.

However remember the Speedling patent had expired and one of their former dealers was trying to now bypass Speedling by offering their own float tray. However, Speedling was not sharing their growing knowledge with this dealer without their buying trays from Speedling.

The direct seed float system that Transplant Systems tested in 1988 with a local grower worked. However the Speedling patent did not expire until the next year. There was nothing wrong with the Speedling tray other than they did not have a tray with a cell equivalent to the plastic 162 that proved to work so well in Transplant Systems direct seed systems for the last six years. The Speedling 200 cell was too large and their 338 cell was too small at the time.  Not to mention the fact that the trays were very expensive, at 3.50 -$4.00 each from their former dealer.

Transplant Systems planned for the expiration of the Speedling patent. Secretly, they began work on a equivalent cell size of the plastic 162 into a Speedling style EPS tray. The result was a 288 cell expanded polystyrene tray. The 288 cell float developed by Transplant Systems was based on years of experience in learning that a 15/16” cell (plastic 162) performed the best for direct seed purposes. Transplant Systems 288 float tray was carefully planned and developed to produce the best plant density for a greenhouse tobacco plant. Transplant also wanted to keep its 288 styrofoam tray the same outer dimensions as the original Speedling tray. Thus, the 288 cell float tray was born. A former Speedling dealer developed a 253 tray that same year. It was poorly designed and over priced at $4.00 and a complete failure in the market. The 288 cell float tray developed by Transplant Systems remains the most popular float tray among growers to this day. The 288 tray is a testament to Transplant Systems development work in the greenhouse tobacco plant industry, as it is now being offered by every supplier to the market today. In fact it became so popular that Speedling, the orignator of the EPS trays began to offer it.

Transplant System released their new 288 cell float tray as soon as Speedlings’ patent expired, and along with that article in the Flue Cured Tobacco Farmer magazine and being the only company with an automatic clipping system its sales skyrocketed. The 288 cell tray and its automatic clipping system would go on to be the standard until this day.

The hand writing was on the wall for purveyors of the plug and transfer system, change or be finished. Speedlings’ former dealer in Kinston NC began to infringe Transplant Systems patents in order to survive. With no innovations of their own, they had one choice, infringe Transplant Systems’ patents or quit. Rather than pursue its competitors in courts Transplant System chose to keep its money and grow its business, which it did. There was not enough volume in sales of its patented clipping system yet, to justify protracted litigation in the short term. Every tobacco greenhouse in the US would eventually become a direct beneficiary of Transplant Systems patented work as well as its agronomic programs that it developed. The former Speedling dealer in Kinston NC, who infringed Transplant Systems patents would continue to this day to infringe other companies proprietary work as well.

However a problem began to manifest itself all over the tobacco growing regions. Float systems were being sold by a former Speedling dealer with no regard to sound agronomic practices. Transplant Systems growers were all experiencing success because they were all following a sound agronomic program developed by DeBruhl and taught by him in seminars in every state and country, in which he marketed his systems.

The agronomic program developed by Transplant Systems addressed every component of growing in a greenhouse environment, germination culture, germination medium, water quality, fertility management, water ph and water alkalinity and greenhouse management. DeBruhl left no stone unturned. Not only did he want Transplant Systems to succeed, but he wanted to make certain that his growers were successful. Philip Morris would take note of the agronomic programs developed by Transplant Systems and begin referring them to their affiliates around the world. The same growing schools being conducted by Transplant Systems in the US, would now be conducted in other countries by Philip Morris’s referrals. DeBruhl was not just interested in his own customers but was eager to help his competitors customers who were experiencing growing problems, often inviting them to his growing seminars. DeBruhl knew it was good for the industry if every grower succeeded.

It was standard operating procedure that when a greenhouse system was sold, the customer would supply Transplant Systems with a water sample. Transplant Systems had to send the water sample out of state to a private lab as the NCDA soil lab did not test for the things that DeBruhl wanted to know was in the water. DeBruhl would then develop the fertility program of each grower around the water analysis results. DeBruhl was constantly hearing the specialists at NCSU say that the water quality, that he was testing for was unnecessary and did not matter. Year after year he listen to such comments from NCSU tobacco specialists.

Even to the point that specialists visiting Transplant Systems customers often advised its growers to remove the battery acid (sulfuric acid) from their greenhouse or risk killing their plants. Transplant Systems customers who were applying battery acid in their greenhouse, actually were following the water quality program established by Transplant Systems for its growers who had high bicarbonate levels. The acid merely neutralized the high levels of bi-carbonates. The tobacco plant during the first 4 weeks of growth cannot tolerate high levels of bi-carbonates.

No one was advocating proper water quality or any sound agronomic principle on growing greenhouse tobacco plants except Transplant Systems. In fact on many occasions growers would contact Transplant Systems and say that the tobacco specialists from NCSU said that the battery acid they were using would harm their plants. Transplant Systems received many calls from its growers who stated that the tobacco specialists from NCSU advised them to stop using the battery acid because it would harm their plants.(for the readers information, battery acid is a low grade form of sulfuric acid and is one of three that may be used to neutralize high levels of bicarbonates in the water. Sulfuric is simply the easiest for the grower to obtain). The use of battery acid to neutralize high levels of bi-carbonates is another Transplant Systems development being utilized today by tobacco growers.

DeBruhl continued, teaching his program to growers every year, even sharing this knowledge with his competitors customers that were experiencing problems. The results were plain to see, all of Transplant Systems growers were successful. Each year, however growers who bought from this previous Speedling dealer were having severe issues, and it was showing up all over the tobacco growing regions. It was not uncommon to have growers who had bought systems from this former Speedling dealer come to Transplant Systems and ask for assistance. This was actually ironic given that they had a retired county agent on staff.

However Virginia Tech and Clemson tobacco specialists early on accepted the principles of growing direct seed greenhouse tobacco plants being espoused by Transplant Systems, in fact asking DeBruhl to speak at their county agents training schools. Philip Morris began to recognize the value that Transplant Systems was delivering to its customers in teaching sound agronomic practices in growing greenhouse tobacco plants and began to refer Transplant Systems to its affiliates around the world. NC State tobacco specialists would not accept it for several more years. You can only deny the truth for so long.

Today every tobacco specialist and vendor of greenhouse systems for growing greenhouse tobacco plants promotes what Transplant Systems established in the early 80’s as the foundation for successful greenhouse tobacco plant production. The growing manual DeBruhl published in 1984 is still as prevalent today as it was when he first published his work. In fact DeBruhl still discovers to this day, growers who continue to rely on that publication.

The technology developed by Transplant Systems has stood the test of time, as all its technology has become the corner stone on which the industry has grown from. Since witnessing the mechanization in its earliest form, beginning with installation of the first Powell Bulk tobacco barns on his dads’ farm in the early sixties, DeBruhl has help complete the mechanization of the plant production phase. However, he still envisions the plants being transplanted with an automatic transplanter. DeBruhl says it can be done.

Transplant Systems – A Proven Leader in Developing & Introducing Technology in the Tobacco Plant Greenhouse Industry – A name you can trust

Timeline of Transplant Systems

Timeline of Transplant Systems