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Who Can You Trust When You’re Buying Hydroponics Fertilizers and Supplies?

When you’re growing high value hydroponics crops you’ve invested a lot of time and money in, you rely on your plants and gardening skills…but you also rely on trusting the folks who make hydroponics nutrients and supplies. You’re trusting they’ve tested their products on the crops you grow, and that they insist on professional quality control and manufacturing standards.

We trust fertilizer companies to test their products, so our crops will grow strong and fast. What happens if our trust is broken?We trust fertilizer companies to test their products, so our crops will grow strong and fast. What happens if our trust is broken?

 That’s why you’re invited to take a few moments to look at this article, and its accompanying investigative journalism video, because it shows the harsh things that happened to hydroponics growers and farmers who trusted Sun Gro, a major North American agribusiness corporation that supplies products to the hydroponics market and growers like you.

Many hydroponics growers, perhaps you’re one of them, have trusted Sun Gro peat-based soil mix such as Sunshine Mix #4. Soil mixes are a substitute for “real soil,” and can function almost as a soilless base.

They usually consist of a large percentage of sphagnum peat moss, combined with an aerator material like perlite, and dolomitic limestone to balance pH.

Depending on which brand and version of peat-based mix you buy, the mix might include an on-board dose of beneficial microbes, a “biofungicide,” and/or a “starter dose” of nutrients intended to give your plants about a week’s worth of nutrition.
When it comes to root zone media, growers like to trust that a product with the same name on it will always contain the same materials, and give us the same hydroponics grow room performance, crop after crop.

But over the years many of my high-value plant grower friends and I have switched back and forth between Sun Gro Sunshine Mix #4, Pro-Mix (made by Premier Tech Horticulture), and coco coir.

We switched because we noticed problems with pH, root growth, and crop health, even though we were using the same water, hydroponics system, nutrients, and crop genetics. By process of elimination, growers realized it was the root zone media itself that was causing the problems.

Some growers abandoned solid root zone media and went for aeroponics, deep water culture or NFT.
Others switched to Fox Farm Ocean Forest, Empire Builder, Roots Organic, and similar mixes that are richer in nutrients when compared to Sunshine Mix and other peat-heavy mixes. Unfortunately, we’ve found that most commercial soils sold in hydroponics stores aren’t very good either.

Many of us stayed with Sunshine Mix, Pro-Mix or some other solid media, trying to work through problems, until we gave up and switched to something else.

Root zone media problems most often arise because of changes in the manufacturing processes and materials used in these mixes, so you’re not sure if you can trust your Sunshine Mix, and the uncertainty can cost you time and money, and also decrease the weight and value of your harvests..

What Happens When Roots Grow
in a Defective Environment?

Based on the experience of myself and other professional growers, we decided that it’s best to use homemade soils or sterile root zone systems so we could totally control plant nutrition, root zone pH, and other factors.

I had to change my growing system after having severe problems with Sunshine Mix #4, which is made by Sun Gro.

One problem is that Sun Gro adds a “starter charge” and gypsum to their peat mix.

In the experience of myself and other growers, this starter charge does not contain the right ratios or ingredients for the crops we grow, and the potency of the starter charge varied from bale to bale.

In the worst situation I experienced, Sunshine Mix burned my seedlings, so I had to start over.

Other growers report problems with Sunshine Mix drainage, material consistency, and pH stability. My grower group has seen lots of Sunshine Mix performance variations from one bale to the next.

In some cases, you compare different bales of Sunshine Mix #4, and you’d see, smell and feel the differences. It was obvious the manufacturer was using different materials and manufacturing methods batch to batch.

Problems with Sun Gro and Sunshine Mix
That Affect Your Hydroponics Crops

We heard through the hydroponics industry insider grapevine that there’d been changes in the sourcing of Sun Gro’s peat, in Sun Gro quality control, and in other Sun Gro manufacturing protocols-- that resulted in bad batches of Sunshine Mix.

Sun Gro would not admit that to growers or hydro store owners, nor would it provide refunds or replacement bales of Sunshine Mix.

During one grow period when I was trying to get help from Sun Gro (I was in the middle of a crop cycle and couldn’t afford to tear down the garden and replant in another mix), I was getting bounced via telephone back and forth across the U.S.-Canada border, with various Sun Gro reps telling me this or that about what to do to get my Sunshine Mix to work right.

Then a rep told me something that surprised me. She suggested I get “Sunshine Advanced” Mix instead of Sunshine Mix, and recommended I look at a “new Sunshine Mix website.”

According to the lady, “Sunshine Advanced” was “kind of a separate company,” but was also somehow Sun Gro.

I found the website for “Sunshine Advanced.” It had a little information about several soil mix products made by Sunshine Advanced.

The information was confusing, because it indicated differences between Sun Gro Sunshine Mix #4 and Sunshine Advanced Mix 4.

For example, the Sunshine Advanced contained coco coir, which in my experience is a tricky material to work with. It also mentioned that Sunshine Advanced 4 was designed “for maximum foliar growth...”

I was puzzled, because although “foliar growth” means “leaf growth,” and leaves are important for my crops, my main interest is “floral growth.”

I called Sun Gro several times trying to get to an actual Sunshine Advanced employee, but could never find anyone who could explain to me the functional differences between Sunshine Mix #4 and Sunshine Advanced 4.

Sunshine Advanced soil-mixSunshine Advanced soil-mixI also noticed that the Sunshine Advanced website had information about one-part hydroponics nutrients called “Sunshine Advanced Plant Fuel” Max Grow, and Max Flowers.

Intrigued, I called Sun Gro to ask about Plant Fuel. My call was transferred several times. I spoke to three people. Two of the Sun Gro employees said they didn’t know what Plant Fuel was. The third person I talked to said Plant Fuel was a “product that Sun Gro carries, but it’s probably going to be discontinued.”

When I asked why it was possibly being discontinued, she said the formula hadn’t worked very well in people’s hydroponics grow rooms.

Sun Gro, Sunshine Advanced, Monsanto
& the Harms of Peat Mining

This was during a time when Sunshine Advanced was showing up at Maximum Yield Indoor Gardening Expo events, promoting Plant Fuel and four Sunshine Advanced soil mixes: Rainforest Blend, Mix #4, Super Hydro, and Ultra Coir.

I was ever more curious about Sunshine Advanced, so I clicked on the Sunshine Advanced “About Us” button, and was surprised to se that the information was all about Sun Gro.

And as the Sunshine Advanced website’s Sun Gro story unfolded, I saw an ever-changing set of corporate ownerships, management changes, conglomerations, mergers, and private equity firms that led Sun Gro to acquire different sources of peat across North America.

In that information I saw confirmation of what I had heard from insiders- that Sun Gro had gone through constant, major changes in its corporate structure and its sources of peat.

This led me to look into how companies like Sun Gro get their peat, and what I saw was not a pretty picture…as with all mining, and similar to the Canadian tar sands oil project, peat mining is inherently destructive of the environment.

I discovered that Sun Gro is even pushing to mine peat in the protected Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park in the province of Manitoba, Canada.

Sun Gro wants to bulldoze part of the pristine, cherished park to mine peat, but its efforts are opposed by scientists, residents and native Canadians (First Nations).

They note that along with destroying a unique and beautiful natural area, endangering wildlife and ruining the enjoyment of a provincial park, Sun Gro peat mining would release millions of tons of greenhouse gases that are stored in the peat, and that bulldozing and mining the peat bog would remove the bog’s ability to act as a nutrients sponge that absorbs nutrients that would otherwise cause harmful algae blooms in nearby lake Winnipeg.

Of course, almost all industries that make money damaging the environment have public relations agents who claim the industry doesn’t damage the environment. The Canadian peat industry is no exception.

Paul Short, a spokesperson for the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association, told the media: "Our policy is to restore peat lands after we finish harvesting them. We can bring these ecosystems back within human lifetimes. The science is there.”

Scientists who understand conservation biology and ecosystems integrity say Short is short on facts, and that his “science” is just marketing spin designed to put a happy face on earth-destroying activities.

They point out the obvious fact that “reclamation” does not mean you can actually replace what you destroyed.

A unique ecosystem bulldozed for Sun Gro profits will perhaps be replaced by a human-engineered marsh or faux wetland, not a centuries-old peat bog. It’s a lose-lose for everyone except Sun Gro.

As one Canadian resident put it: “Sun Gro cares only about profits. They don’t care about those of us who live here, about the lake, or about the park. It’s all about money for them.”

Poisoned Birds, Poisoned Land, Poisoned Plants, Poisoned People

As I looked into peat mining, Sun Gro and damage to the environment, I stumbled on another environmental bombshell. According to the Sun Gro website, Sun Gro is affiliated with The Scotts Company, having acquired “the professional growing media business of The Scotts Company and their respected Metro Mix brand [which] significantly enhanced Sun Gro’s ability to service growers in the Eastern part of North America with premium bark-based products.”

This connection between Sun Gro and Scotts rang alarm bells for me, because “ScottsMiracle-Gro [sic]is Monsanto's exclusive agent for the marketing and distribution of consumer Roundup® non-selective herbicide within the U.S. and most of Europe,” according to The Scotts Company’s official website.

Roundup is the controversial Monsanto herbicide associated with GMOs, environmental damage and human health problems, including mutations and cancers.

Monsanto itself is the subject of many criminal and civil investigations and penalties, some of which center on Roundup’s proven tendency to harm humans and the planet. Others center on a culture of corporate recklessness…putting profits before what’s right.

The Sun Gro, Scotts, Monsanto connection is not just guilt by corporate association. It is indicative of risky tactics inherently used by big agribusiness corporations.

For example, Scotts just pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that it was selling bird seed coated with poisons that may well have poisoned the birds it was fed to.

According to a government lawsuit, Scotts continued to coat the birdseed with  insecticides poisonous to birds, even after two employees warned the company that the insecticides-laden bird food could kill birds.

According to the lawsuit, a Scotts manager then fabricated documents to mislead people into believing that the bird food insecticide use had been reviewed by the EPA—when in fact it had not been reviewed by the EPA.

As part of a plea deal brokered between ScottsMiracle-Gro and prosecutors, the multi-billion dollar corporation will likely pay millions in fines for selling 73 million packages of poisoned bird food.

But Sun Gro’s affiliation with Scotts may well have had a direct impact on British Columbia, Canada farmers who relied on Sun Gro to provide fertilizers for millions of dollars worth of agricultural crops. Here’s how it happened…

Millions of Dead Plants…Who’s At Fault?

According to court documents from a recently-concluded product liability lawsuit trial filed against Sun Gro and carried out in a Portland, Oregon courtroom, a former Scotts employee who started working for Sun Gro decided he could help Sun Gro steal fertilizer market share away from Scotts’ lucrative controlled-release, coated fertilizer niche.

The former Scotts employee, “Jake Socherman,” allegedly brought insider fertilizer secrets to Sun Gro, and helped convince Sun Gro to market a fertilizer called Multicote 15-9-12, blended for Sun Gro by a different company controlled by a multi-billion dollar Big Ag corporation, Wilbur-Ellis.

According to the lawsuit, Sun Gro desperately wanted to enter the controlled-release fertilizer market, but did not want to do the costly research, development and testing required to ensure that the proposed new fertilizer was safe and effective for crops.

Sun Gro claimed its Multicote product was safe and effective for ag crops, including those grown in containers.

Little did farmers know, according to court documents and expert testimony, that Sun Gro Multicote was made with cheap ingredients and manufacturing processes, without the necessary field testing and quality control.

Sun Gro’s apparent motivation for using inferior ingredients and processes was to increase its profit margin, the lawsuit alleged.

JRT Nurseries, a family farm long-respected for growing millions of dollars worth of blueberries in British Columbia and Washington, trusted a fertilizer distributor who recommended they switch to Multicote, and stop using Scotts’ Osmocote.

Another British Columbia grower, DeZwaan Nurseries, also bought the Multicote sales pitch. DeZwaan Nurseries is an ornamental tree grower.

Problem is, when JRT Nurseries applied Sun Gro Multicote for the first time, in 2007, their crops withered, yellowed and died.

In 2008, when Eelco de Zwaan’s DeZwaan Nurseries used Multicote, his trees similarly died.

JRT’s owners, Jagjit and Jaspal Aujla, and Eelco de Zwaan, tried desperately to figure out what had happened.

After consulting experts and doing side by side comparisons in which they looked at what happened to crops fertilized with the Sun Gro fertilizer as compared to other company’s fertilizers, they concluded that Sun Gro’s Multicote was the culprit.

JRT Aldergrove October 2008 Arcostaphylis comparisonJRT Aldergrove October 2008 Arcostaphylis comparison

Earlier this year, the Sun Gro product liability court trial and jury decision in Portland, Oregon affirmed that Sun Gro and Wilbur-Ellis were at fault for the millions of plants and trees that died, and for the “loss of reputation” and income suffered by the plaintiff farmers.

In what is believed to be the largest jury damages award ever seen in a product liability case of this type, Sun Gro and Wilbur-Ellis were ordered to pay $36 million in penalties to the farmers.

The jury determined that Multicote was defective when it was delivered by Sun Gro for further blending by Wilbur-Ellis, and that it was also defective when it was delivered by Wilbur-Ellis to distributors.

In the compelling video accompanying this article, investigative journalist George Koller interviews scientist, professor, horticulturalist, farmer and expert witness Dr. Tom Baumann, and several farmers, to piece together the tragic story of Sun Gro fertilizer.

This is an in-depth video that really digs into what happened to these farmers, but you’re sure to find it interesting and useful.

Sunlight Supply Continues to Sell Sunshine Advanced

As we’ve seen, the farmers who trusted Sun-Gro saw millions of plants and millions of dollars go up in smoke, along with their reputation in the agricultural community.

They had to fight hard to get compensation for their losses, and to prove that their crop failures weren’t their fault.

But their fight isn’t over yet. Just because a jury awarded damages and affirmed the fact that Sun Grow and Wilbur-Ellis released inferior, untested fertilizer into the marketplace, that doesn’t mean the plaintiffs will get the money.

In many product liability cases, the guilty parties often challenge the initial verdict and financial compensation awarded by the court.

Corporations such as Sun Gro and Wilbur-Ellis have way more attorneys and money to use for court fights than do the farmers harmed by their fertilizer. Sun Gro and Wilbur-Ellis have yet to say whether they’ll challenge the guilty verdict, or the damages the jury awarded the farmers.

A similar situation happened in the hydroponics industry, when California medical growers used a process of elimination to determine that Sunlight Supply and its National Garden Wholesale (NGW) affiliate may have sold defective hydroponics tubing that killed a large number of high-value plants.

Sunlight Supply and NGW didn’t offer to fully compensate the victims, the victims alleged, so the growers sued the companies for product liability.

Not only did Sunlight Supply fight the growers, their lawyer threatened the growers by reminding them of “federal law.”

And sure enough, within a few months after the growers filed their lawsuit, they suffered major legal problems that insiders believe were associated with having filed the lawsuit. For sure, some corporations just don’t fight fair. You can read more about this here.

In the last couple of days, Sun Gro (otherwise known as Sunshine Advanced) has “officially” announced that it pulled Sunshine Advanced hydroponics Plant Fuel off the market, and suddenly removed its Plant Fuel web pages from the Internet.

To make it even more ironic, before they removed their hydroponics Plant Fuel information, I found a Sunshine Advanced Plant Fuel brochure that said:

“Our Sunshine Advanced Plant Fuels are formulated the same way we manufacture nutrient products for the commercial nursery and greenhouse markets. Sunshine fertilizers were originally developed for the professional greenhouse grower and have been used on many flowering crops across North America for over 20 years. Ongoing growth trials in our greenhouses ensure that Sunshine Advanced will continue to provide optimized results.”

Given what we now know about how Sun Gro formulates its nutrients products for the commercial ag market, and what Sun Gro fertilizers did to the crops of the farmers who just won against Sun Gro in court, it’s no wonder Sun Gro removed Plant Fuel from their product list.

Funny thing is, Sunshine Advanced is still selling its four soil mixes, and hydroponics distributor Sunlight Supply is still selling Sunshine Advanced mixes and Plant Fuel.

I called Sunlight Supply, telling their representative of the Sun Gro Multicote scandal, and informing them also that Sun Gro does not back Plant Fuel. I then asked Sunlight Supply why they still sell Plant Fuel, given Sun Gro’s history in the fertilizer business, and the fact that Sunshine Advanced no longer markets Plant Fuel.

Sun Gro Screen Shot 2012-05-15Sun Gro Screen Shot 2012-05-15

The Sunlight Supply lady put me on hold…and never came back on the line. When I called back, she hung up on me. Sometimes sunlight and sunshine aren’t so welcome, I guess.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 28 August 2013 16:27

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