By Gregory Daurer | May 17, 2020
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
"We're the leading manufacturer of specialty aeration containers," says Reiger.
His company's chief product is known as the Smart Pot, and Reiger says it offers several benefits over ceramic, clay, or plastic pots.
Made from a "porous geotextile," the fabric container offers a lighter receptacle in which to place soil or other growing mediums. That makes plants easier to move. Furthermore, instead of storing heat on hot, sunny days -- which can potentially damage or kill plants -- the Smart Pot's fabric releases the heat, keeping plants cooler as a result of evaporation.
In other types of pots, gravity causes water to sink straight down. But Reiger likens the Smart Pot's effect to that of a sponge. He says, "In a Smart Pot, moisture moves by capillarity -- meaning it's going to be pulled from the wet area to the dry areas. So moisture distribution is much, much more even throughout the container -- which is a big deal." A Smart Pot also offers better drainage than other pots, since, "It literally has a million holes in it."
And instead of the roots hitting the sides of, say, a plastic pot, and then circling around the sides, a Smart Pot will cause root pruning to take place in the plant. That means when roots touch the side of the Smart Pot, they become entangled in the fabric, causing new shoots to branch off. As a result, Reiger says, "You are literally forcing the root structure to double and triple." That leads to a greater uptake of nutrients in the plant, Reiger adds, leading to "hardier and fuller plants."
The Smart Pot wasn't always dubbed a "pot." When Reiger's late father, who ran a tree farm, devised the product in the early 1980s, he called it a "root control bag." It served as a container for growing oaks and maples, before they could be transported to growing sites and transplanted into the ground. The name change came as a result of the company realizing that it could reach a broader base of customers if they marketed the product towards, for instance, home vegetable growers, as well, and produced different sizes of the bags -- now available from "one-gallon to a thousand-gallon."
Today, more than 1,000 retail stores sell Smart Pots, including nurseries, hydroponic shops, and big box outlets. The product can often be found at True Value, Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and Bi-Mart. Reiger estimates that the company has sold about 40 million of them.
Manufacturing takes place in Oklahoma City. Workers on production lines run cutters, stitchers, and folders. Reiger says, "Essentially every component of our bag is made in the USA -- and that contrasts with essentially every other competitor that we have." And, according to Reiger, some of his newfound competition isn't as stringent about the material they use; Reiger says that Smart Pots are BPA-free and contain only trace elements of heavy metals. That's important since the majority of his customers are growing what he refers to as "ingestibles" -- e.g., cucumbers, tomatoes, or peppers.
Or cannabis. Reiger says his company began making inroads into the cannabis market around 2006 in Northern California's legendary Emerald Triangle, places like Mendocino and Humboldt counties. "We came along right at the time [cannabis] became a legal medical product," says Reiger. "It was fascinating to see that our technology could be applied to the cannabis plant, and what a difference it made in the growth of the plant. It was just eye-opening."
Reiger says he has loyal cannabis-growing customers -- "real horticulturalists," he calls them -- in Colorado, Washington, California, and Oregon (e.g., Portland's Yerba Buena), who grow cannabis in Smart Pots either outdoors or indoors under lights.
And now there are legal cannabis cultivators in Reiger's home state, too, thanks to the passage of a 2018 medical marijuana ballot initiative in Oklahoma, which won "in a pretty dramatic fashion" with nearly 57 percent of the vote. "The people who put it on the ballot, they frankly didn't expect it to pass," he says. Now, Reiger finds himself marketing Smart Pots for the first time in Oklahoma. He laughs as he recalls thinking, "Oh, people here in Oklahoma [might] actually figure out what we do for a living!"
Reiger notes how "the needle has moved tremendously" in terms of cannabis legalization -- a change which his business welcomes. "It's been fascinating to see that happen, as well and to be a part of it," he says.
Challenges: Recently it's been the COVID-19 pandemic: figuring out how to keep workers socially distanced and safe at the job site. "You can't phone it in from home," he says of the work. "We're not a law firm or accounting firm. You actually have to show up to the shop."
Additionally, there are marketing challenges: "We're selling a plant container that most of the world doesn't really understand: they don't know what a fabric aeration container is, they don't know why they should use it. Marketing to those people is our challenge. Why would anyone grow in this fabric bag? You have to explain that to people and you have to explain that to stores."
Opportunities: "The farm-to-table movement," says Reiger. "The expansion of people wanting to grow what they eat."
Reiger's company also markets a compost bag, as well as other gardening products.
Needs: Reiger says it's educating "the general public to get them to understand the difference between growing in containers versus plastic pots or in the ground. They don't understand what this [technology] is until they start to use it."