By Echo Martin
When Royal Heins (Ph.D. ’78) was first starting graduate school, he made a decisive promise to himself that he would continue to be an active part of the floriculture industry until the very last day of his career. With that in mind from day one, Heins became a faculty member at Michigan State University. After retiring he established a vegetative stock farm in Guatemala with two partners and today continues to consult for greenhouse growers across the country. This spring he will receive the inaugural Horticultural Science Distinguished Alumnus Award for his accomplishments and present the Kermit Olson Memorial Lecture.
Heins grew up in Colorado and received his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University. “As far back as I have memories, I always had an interest in plants,” says Heins. “In junior high school I started working Saturdays at a local greenhouse, and I’ve been hooked ever since.” At the time Colorado was major producer of cut flowers, and CSU had a highly reputable floriculture program. His work as an undergraduate eventually led him to the University of Minnesota, where he was advised by Harold Wilkins.
Looking back on his career, Heins cites the graduate students he’s mentored as his greatest legacy. Today his students continue to influence the world and hold faculty positions from Alaska to Puerto Rico, including current University of Minnesota professor John Erwin. That passion for mentoring was established in part thanks to his relationship with Dr. Wilkins as a graduate student. “Where I’m at today is greatly affected by the mentoring I received, especially from Harold. I was the first one in my family to even look at college, and Harold took me under his arm in a way many advisors wouldn’t have,” says Heins. “I feel very strongly about how blessed I was in that, and so I try to pass that on through mentoring the students I’ve encountered.”
After graduating in 1978, Heins started as a faculty member at Michigan State University, where he grew a reputation as a leading researcher in environmental and flowering physiology of floricultural crops for the greenhouse industry, and was honored as a Distinguished Faculty member at MSU. While he was a faculty member he also started private consulting with commercial greenhouse growers around the country. Shortly before his retirement from MSU in 2003, one of his consulting partners, grower Brian Gold, approached him with an offer to join in a business. Gold and his partner from Guatemala, Estuardo Arriaga, were contracting vegetative cutting production in Guatemala and were interested in establishing a production farm that was owned by their company, Oro Farms. The company grew to produce over 100 million cuttings a year and employ over 500 workers. In 2011 Oro Farms was purchased by a Dutch company, which ultimately merged to become part of the Dümmen Orange organization, which produces over 1 billion cuttings per year. Since retiring from MSU and selling Oro Farms, Heins has also continued to be a private consultant for greenhouses specializing in bedding plants, flowering potted plants, and herbaceous perennials.