The History of Osmocote
Osmocote originated at the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation in the mid-1960’s. It was initially intended for cereal crops but the technology was too expensive for widespread agricultural application. Just a few years earlier another unique form of fertilizer was developed at the Crown Zellerbach Corporation. Crown’s contribution to fertilizer technology was in the form of tablets that were designed to feed tree seedlings. Crown Zellerbach licensed the technology to Agriform Company. Both fertilizers struggled financially and their owners decided to sell their know-how. By pooling them together, they attracted a California venture capital company, Sutter Hill.
Sierra Chemical Company was formed with these two complimentary technologies in 1966 by Sutter Hill and was based at Union City, CA. Sierra eventually moved to Milpitas, CA, which happens to be in the heart of what’s now known as Silicon Valley. In 1971, a Canadian investor, Genstar, acquired Sutter Hill. As part of that arrangement, Sierra was hived off and placed with 50+ private investors who lived mainly in San Jose and Monterey, CA.
Robert Severns had been in charge of Operations at Sierra when Sutter Hill owned the company. He became president of the now-privatized company. Mr. Severns recognized the value of the Osmocote technology, but perhaps more importantly, he understood the horticultural industry. Because consistency and reliability are essential to high valued-added growers, Mr. Severns organized the company to ensure that Osmocote delivered on its promises. This focus on excellence continues as a core value of the brand.
Better manufacturing processes resulted in improved product performance. When safety and quality were consistent and predictable, Sierra submitted the Osmocote product to agricultural colleges for testing. Field tests take many years so the reputation of Osmocote developed slowly, one university at a time and one grower at a time. Sierra’s financial performance gradually improved as well. Still, in 1974 following the oil shock, inflation ravaged the industry and the country. Sierra’s growth was arrested so its management decided to go into the field and ‘talk to the growers’. This experience resulted in a second sustaining and core value, going to the growers for information, feedback and collaboration.
Around this time, Jay Rossi, a marketing executive, joined Sierra. Under his influence, and with the support of Robert Severns, the company morphed from a mainly technical and operational entity into one where fulfilling customer need also became important. Of course its private owners expected to profit from their investment, but management believed that Sierra’s financial success would ultimately reflect the extent to which it helped nursery growers to achieve their goals. Osmocote, because it saves user labor and produces consistent growth, became a pillar of this strategy.
High value-added growers use Osmocote extensively. These include producers of fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, woody ornamentals and trees. Greenhouse Product News, a nursery trade publication, reports that when purchasing a controlled release product, 73% of growers choose Osmocote as their primary brand. In Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Osmocote is used at rubber, palm and coffee plantations. Osmocote is produced in a variety of longevities – even as much as 16 months for macadamia nut trees. In many locations, the Osmocote product is combined with growing media to form a grower specified pre-mix.
Osmocote in the 80’s & 90’s
Sierra Chemical was sold to W.R. Grace Chemical Company in 1989 and the business was re-named, Grace-Sierra Horticultural Products Company. At the time, Sierra employed 400 people, mostly in the U.S. It had sales of $115 million. In addition to manufacturing facilities in California, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and South Carolina, Grace-Sierra established an international presence with a manufacturing base in the Netherlands, the European center for value-added agriculture.
On the strength of the Osmocote technology, Grace-Sierra became the leading global provider of specialty fertilizers and related products. The customer focus remained with the professional community where the technical benefits of the product could be communicated on a one-to-one basis. The primary users continued to be nurseries, PGA golf courses, greenhouses and high value-added field crop farmers. In addition to its fertilizers, the business included premium potting soils and a line of conventional and bio-rational pesticides.
Providing Consumers with the Benefits of Osmocote
Strangely, the details about how Osmocote became available to consumers are undocumented. Sometime in the early 1980’s, Grace-Sierra noticed that nurseries with retail operations occasionally resold small paper bags of Osmocote to avid but amateur gardeners. Perhaps such customers noticed 50 lb. bags of Osmocote on the floor of the greenhouse and asked about it. Or, perhaps retail nurseries offered dip-out sales to their better customers because it wanted to be sure consumers had a successful experience with the plants that they purchased. Whatever ignited their interest, consumers sought smaller packages of Osmocote and Sierra began to support them.
In 1994, W.R. Grace reorganized its total business and sold Sierra to The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. The transferred business was christened, Scotts-Sierra Horticultural Products Company with manufacturing plants in Charleston, SC, and Heerlen, The Netherlands. In early 2011, Israel Chemicals Ltd (ICL) acquired the Scotts Global Professional Business including the Osmocote brand and its production facilities. As part of that transaction, Scotts retained a license to market Osmcote-branded products to consumers.
There were two consumer Osmocote formulas when Scotts acquired the business. The first, Outdoor and Indoor Plant Food, is formulated for general use but it’s especially well suited for containerized plants in boxes, pots and hanging baskets. It’s also appropriate for indoor and tropical plants. The second formula is called Flower & Vegetable Plant Food. It’s intended for in-ground perennials and woody ornamentals in beds and borders. It’s also ideal for vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, root vegetables, melons and berries that need both vigorous above-ground growth as well as strong root development. A third formula, Osmocote Plus Multi-Purpose Plant Food, was introduced in 2008. It contains 11 mineral nutrients and has a six-month longevity. It is the best formula Osmocote has ever made available for amateur use. Since moving to Scotts, consumer Osmocote tripled its business.
Osmocote Plant Food for consumers is distributed by The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, but the American consumer part of the brand is marketed at Bloomington Brands LLC. Bloomington Brands provides one-year internships for MBA students at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. The students bring energy and fresh ideas to the Osmocote brand. This arrangement began in 2003 and is supervised by Bob Stohler, a retired executive vice president of Scotts. Today, consumer packages of Osmocote may be found at Wal*Mart, Target, Kmart, The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menard’s, Ace, TruServ, Do-It-Best, and at many of the leading independent nurseries and hardware stores across America.
Acknowledgement. In the preparation of this article, we are grateful for the support of IGC Magazine (formerly Nursery Retailer Magazine and before that, Nursery Business Magazine), www.igcmagazine.com.
To view the detailed article about the early years of Osmocote and the Sierra Horticultural Products Company available from that publisher in PDF format, click here.