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FLOWER FOOD. How Bob Peters made it big with his popular fertilizer. GARDENING

By Peter TongeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1988

Vogelsville, Pa.

IT was in the waning months of World War II, and Bob Peters was bored. The technical sergeant from Pennsylvania had spent much of the war entertaining his fellow GIs in Italy with some talented strumming on a guitar. Once he had even accompanied the glamorous Marlene Dietrich when she appeared in Naples. But now Sergeant Peters was recuperating in a military hospital. He suddenly found himself with little to interest him ... until he stumbled across a ``very special'' book in the hospital library. It listed 20,000 careers in alphabetical order.

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At the time Peters had little idea what profession to pursue once the war was over, so he began with the letter `A.' When he reached `F,' he stopped.

Nothing had captured his imagination until he came across the term ``floraculture.'' Its effect on him was instantaneous and surprising, because as a youngster he had done no gardening beyond helping his mother plant some of her spring-flowering bulbs.

Even so, he felt instinctively that he had found the career he would follow.

If there were a more appropriate one farther on in the book, Peters would never know. In any event he's had reason to be very satisfied with the direction floraculture has taken him in the intervening years.

Peters' Professional Plant Food company, which he founded in 1952, has led the way in dry soluble fertilizer development for the greenhouse industry in the United States. Currently it supplies more product to the greenhouse trade than all others combined. Exports, long a significant earner for the company, have increased in recent years with the decline of the dollar.

But what is an established success story today had some rather wobbly beginnings in the early post war years.

After graduating from the Long Island Institute of Agriculture in Farmingdale, N.Y., where plant nutrition was his major interest, Peters set up a soil testing service.

This was the way of the future, he could see, and his newly aquired skills would surely prove invaluable. It was a flawed assumption. A $3,000 investment in direct mailing to 16,000 commercial growers brought back exactly two inquiries!

So Peters took his message on the road in a surplus Army jeep bought with $350 of borrowed money. He would be an on-site consultant, but the first grower's response was a blunt: ``We don't need that.'' The next five said very much the same thing.

At the end of the year he had earned exactly $258 for his services. If it hadn't been for understanding parents-in-law, with whom he and his wife stayed, he would have been out of business almost as fast as he went in.

Then something fortunate happened.

Growers, particularly carnation producers, who were plentiful at the time, suddenly adopted soil sterilization, using steam. This saved them the effort of changing bench soils in the greenhouses every year. But it also threw soil fertility way out of whack. Suddenly Peters's skills were in demand, and the days of $2-a-night motel stops were soon a thing of the past.

Spurred on by the fact that the most suitable fertilizer formulations for his various clients were seldom available, Peters began manufacturing - or rather blending - the various ingredients himself.

For the next eight years he was lab technician, blender, salesman, consultant, chief executive officer, and janitor all rolled in one. But he found the work to his liking and the company grew.

Again it was the carnation that helped Peters get established. His 20-5-30 (nitrogen, phospherous, potassium ratio) blend suited the needs of the once dominant flower to a tee. For this reason, Peters finds it regretful that carnation production has all but vanished from US shores.