JR Peters

JR Peters

The idiom “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” aptly describes the Upper Macungie Township plant food maker JR Peters, Inc.  The family-run fertilizer business began in the basement of an Allentown home and now sells to greenhouse growers around the globe.

“We make water-soluble fertilizer for greenhouses and nurseries” from Kutztown to South Korea, said Dr. Cari Peters, a third-generation vice president in charge of research and development and laboratory services. “Our company is known as an innovator of the newest, most technically advanced blend for growing materials.”

It was Cari’s grandfather, chemist Bob Peters, who first began testing soil and tinkering with plant nutrients in the basement of his mother’s house on Pennsylvania Street in Allentown more than 67 years ago.  The fertilizer company he started in 1947 at 9th and Gordon streets was among the first in the country to blend plant life minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Back then, in the 1950s, that was a huge deal because before that growers bought each mineral separately.

“Our company is known as an innovator of the newest, most technically advanced blend for growing materials.” – Dr. Cari Peters

Bob Peters would talk to greenhouse growers about plants and flowers that turned yellow or took a long time to grow. He would test the soil and then bring them the proper mix and ratio of nutrients to help the plants thrive.

So successful was his company that it outgrew its city plant and, in 1979, moved to a larger location off of Snowdrift Road in Upper Macungie. Maryland-based chemical conglomerate W. R. Grace & Co. bought his business in 1980.  Although Bob and his son Jack continued to work there, their signature blue “Peters Professional Plant Food” name ceased to exist under corporate ownership.

Seventeen years later, Jack Peters and his wife, Cheryl, bought the business back to keep it in the Lehigh Valley. They reintroduced and renamed the Peters family blend as “Jack’s” fertilizers. Jack, now CEO and Cheryl, who contributes design and graphic advice, remain active in the family business.

Jack’s is sold to independent garden centers throughout the Lehigh Valley, the United States and internationally. “We don’t sell to chains,” Dr. Peters said of the family business’ core value to support smaller, independent businesses.

Peters sells the same product to home gardeners that it sells to professionals, just in smaller quantities: 8-ounce tubs instead of 50-pound bags. The product is water-soluble, or easily mixed with water, so that when the plants “drink” it, they absorb 100 percent of the nutrients. “It is the only true grade professional fertilizer the homeowner can buy,” said John Raymond, company president, chief operating officer and husband of Carli Peters. “We don’t compromise on quality.”

Becky Short, president of the Allentown Garden Club, vouches for JR Peters’ products, having used them for years on her gardens in Salisbury Township.  She even purchased a professional applicator from the company to spray large areas of plants at one time.

“My husband and I are devoted gardeners as you can imagine and our garden has been featured in print ads, commercials and magazines,” she said, sharing a photo of a tall, red castor bean plant in one of her flower beds. “As you can see, it is healthy and very happy!”

Jeff Segan, founder of Segan’s Bloomin’ Haus, also swears by the fertilizers made in the Lehigh Valley by JR Peters. He appreciates that the company does not dilute its professional strength products.

“We really push the product on customers because we know their plants will do so much better if they use it,” he said. “They will be totally amazed at the difference.”

Segan jokes that offering “Jack’s” at his Bloomin’ Haus is a bit like asking fast food customers, “Do you want fries with that?” The result, however, is that Segan’s is one of JR Peters’ biggest independent marketers.

Even Jack Peters benefitted from his namesake product, using Jack’s in the early 1990s to grow a 600-pound pumpkin, one of the largest in the Northeast at the time.

JR Peters employs 26 people, including a dozen workers who produce the fertilizer – some 20 million pounds a year.

The third generation members of the Peters family have streamlined the operation, reducing waste and energy consumption. Product that falls on the floor is sold in barrels to farmers. And, like the plant life it sustains, JR Peters derives some of its energy from the sun through a solar field.

“We look for ways to operate efficiently and reduce energy consumption to go greener,” Raymond said.

Producing plant food in the Lehigh Valley is also efficient, he added, because JR Peters’ key market is the horticulture industry and many of the largest are located in the Northeast. Although the company exports to countries around the world, including Japan, Italy and Greece, having 30 percent of its greenhouse customers nearby “gives us a good advantage,” Raymond said. “There are not many water soluble manufacturers in the country and we are the only one in this region.”

Another advantage is JR Peters’ laboratory, which Cari Peters runs. This time of year, customers are growing lots of little plant plugs and if they are looking sickly, the lab tests the nutrients in the soil to diagnose and suggest a cure.

“Our competitors don’t have that” service, she said, nor do they have direct access to the scientists.

Cari Peters received her undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware and a master’s and PhD in plant sciences with a concentration in horticulture from the University of Maryland, but says she learned all she knows about fertilizer blending and the chemistry behind it from her father and grandfather.

Her Valley roots run deep. “This is our home,” she said. “There’s nothing negative, only good people to draw from.”

Where to Get Jack’s

Buzas Greenhouses
3927 Newburg Road, Easton

Neighbors Home & Garden
38 S. Main Street, Hellertown

Pharo Garden Center
4505 Easton Avenue, Bethlehem

Ross Plants & Flowers
2704 PA 309, Orefield

Segans Bloomin Haus
339 Grange Road, Allentown

Tall Timbers Nursery
4187 Huckberry Road, Allentown

Tilley’s Nursery
111 E Fairmount St, Coopersburg

Wentz Hardware, Inc.
225 Main Street, Emmaus

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