Gardening problem grows into something special

Every now and then, a product comes along that makes you wonder, "Why didn't I think of that?" It's common knowledge that traditional wire tomato cages are flimsy. They bend and stop at a certain point while plants keep growing, but a local product called Gro-Hoop is changing the standard.

What started as a home gardening problem has blossomed into a growing business for Kevin Daniel and his wife, Cathy. They changed the world of wire cages, creating a more modular design to work with growing plants.

Basic Gro-Hoops have a similar stick and ring design, but are modular and made of UV inhibited plastic, allowing them to be stacked, build off of one another, and keep their shape.

"I'm not the type of individual to look at something and enhance or reinvent it. My ideas typically come out of some kind of necessity, something very cumbersome that I currently have to work with and want to make easier," he says.

Daniel already had tools to make a better design than wired cages. He owns Michigan Manufactured Products, a manufacturing facility capable of CNC machining and plastic injection molding. MMP also creates tooling for injection molding.

The Gro-Hoop was sketched in late summer of 2015, followed by a tool of the hoop in the fall. Daniel intended to pass the invention out to family and friends, or maybe use them as unique stocking stuffers. As friends of friends passed word along and more people become aware of it, Daniel decided to apply for patents. What began as a simple solution for the Daniel home is now a popular Port Huron-made product winning grant funds and selling wildly at farmers markets.

Gro-Hoop's modular format is one of its strongest selling points, but it also has add-ons that make it adjustable to many needs. They form an inclusive system, guiding plants from their earliest stages. Bowls, extensions, deck pads, and polybags, which Daniel calls "mini greenhouses" can be purchased. He has designed a part that acts as a dolly to easily bring plants inside during cold months and is working on developing a net pot. If aesthetics are more important to you than function, Gro-Hoops come in many colors, including red, white, and blue for holidays.

Consumers use the hoops for everything from beans and cucumbers to fairy gardens and medical marijuana.

Gro-Hoop is one of five recipients of the Emerge Fund, a $20,000 grant made possible by donations from the Community Capital Club and the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County. All recipients are now a virtual part of The Underground business incubator, a newly-formed space where entrepreneurs meet, learn from community members, and grow their businesses.

Although Gro-Hoop has already seen early successes, the funding will help it grow even more now. Being a part of The Underground will help its marketing and branding. Daniel's background at MMP has been designing and making products for clients, but the business doesn't advertise at all, instead relying on growth through word of mouth.

The Blue Water region is one of companionship and pride in the area. While Daniel's business will be made better by the Emerge Fund, he is determined to help other small businesses grow, too. He says the Emerge Fund recipients have encouraged each other.

"It is truly about helping out. I have the advantage because of what my core business is. Anything I can do to help those guys, it helps everybody," he says.

Daniel advises other entrepreneurs to ask questions instead of worrying too much about their being ideas stolen. Listen to feedback, be open to suggestions, and think about whether or not the product will sell. Sometimes, he says, this means taking the advice of others and tweaking an idea.

"We (at MMP)have resources we've developed over time, so that we can help individuals out and maybe direct them in a good way to honest people," Daniel says. He is open to talking about everything from ideas for tooling to referrals to patent attorneys.

His advice speaks to Port Huron's entrepreneurial spirit, going hand-in-hand with The Underground. It is about people guiding others, and businesses working together so everyone can succeed.

Daniel has talked with big box stores and larger distributors, but no matter what, Gro-Hoop will be manufactured locally.

"There's really excitement here from individuals that it's been made right here. It's been conceived, designed, tooled, and molded in Port Huron," Daniel says.

Not only does this help local economy, it also allows consumers in Port Huron to get a sneak peek at what could eventually be a national product.

Interested in a Gro-Hoop? Daniel sells them at Port Huron's Vantage Point Farmers Market on Saturdays, as well as at the Marine City Farmers Market. A traditional tomato plant style cage, or less hoops but three bowls for herb gardens costs $15. Customers sometimes meet at MMP directly.

The next step is to set up purchasing online, where prices will likely be $18 to $20 plus shipping and handling. Daniel hopes to keep farmers market prices at $15 in an effort to support them.

Time spent at markets, elaborating on the product, and pitching it to the community has, ironically, left Daniel, and his wife, no time for their own garden this year.

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