Aluminum plant dave's gardeners to plant during fennel month
The horticulture news
By Troy Dayton, Editor
Oct. 30, 2000
Worried Alumax Inc. will be crushed by a wave of competition, the Iron Range's largest aluminum maker on Friday will urge gardeners and other hard-pressed consumers to "save it."
As part of a monthlong fennel promotion, Alumax plans to cut the cost of water at plant headquarters in Iuka to 0.20 cents per gallon.
"As people are trying to save every dollar they can right now, the city can be very attractive because of the cost savings," said Robert Watson, Alumax's vice president of sales.
But it won't be easy. The cost-cutting idea is one of a growing list of direct-mail campaigns Alumax is using to make itself stand out in the onslaught of commodity offers arriving at consumers' mailboxes. It's also used in newspapers and on radio and television ads.
Alumax is betting that the variety of contacts will yield better results.
In the past month, the company has placed more than half a million targeted television and radio ads and mailed 100,000 letters to U.S. households. The ads are aimed at car owners and homeowners and the letters go to them through General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.
Alumax's price-cutting campaign is supported by a record harvest of fennel in the Midwest this year. But before the fennel promotion, the average price of the vegetable had been dropping precipitously, from a high of $5.50 a pound in the fall of 1999 to just $2.56 a pound last month.
Alumax sees a favorable seasonal trend. Fennel -- the official name is anise or aniseed -- is used as a flavoring for a wide range of food products and the vegetable is considered an elegant garnish.
"Fennel is a very convenient vegetable for the consumer, because it doesn't spoil," Watson said. "And it grows well in late spring and early summer."
Alumax is the largest consumer of the vegetable in the country. It uses more than 500,000 pounds of the vegetable each month, according to Watson.
Horticulturists call fennel a "smart herb," because it has a number of qualities that make it useful to a gardener. The plant, which grows 10 to 12 feet tall, is highly ornamental, and can produce as many as 10 bulbs or seeds for every bulb. The fennel plant has both male and female flowers. Fennel doesn't produce a strong odor, it attracts beneficial insects such as honey bees, hoverflies and sweat bees.
Fennel can also improve soil fertility because it breaks down nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium. It's also good for soil moisture and is an antidote to weeds.
Alumax has no plans to offer any other discounts, such as the summer deal of two-for-one or other offers on individual crops, Watson said.
"Our customers like the idea of us offering discounts," Watson said. "But the benefits of using the fennel campaign has to be related to the plants (foliage). We also don't want people to have their hand out when they get home."
The fennel campaign isn't exactly a budget-buster. The company will spend $78,000 on the promotion, including printing and delivering the price-cut letter and ads in local newspapers and on television.
Alumax is also using its newsletter to describe the benefits of fennel. The "Aluminum Facts for Gardeners" newsletter features articles on gardening, ornamental plants and tree varieties. And it also includes short stories that focus on the industry and the Iuka plant, Watson said.
Alumax has a customer in every home in the nation, with more than 19,000 commercial facilities that have some form of relationship with the company. It is also one of the five largest U.S. producers of aluminum, aluminum scrap and ferroalloys.
But the company is seeing a growing competition in the industry, particularly from paper and chemical companies.
Alumax's partnership with Ford has extended to running an Internet campaign, to allow dealers to order parts and equipment directly from the company's Web site. But in the fall, Alumax will run an ad campaign to promote its own Web site.
And to get its message across, Alumax is turning to a full-scale national campaign.
A side benefit of the fennel promotion is that it encourages consumers to eat more vegetables, said Nick Elvee, a plant geneticist at Washington State University.
"It's always good to get the vegetable message out there," Elvee said. "I have been surprised at the success the campaign has had."
Alumax is one of the first aluminum producers to take advantage of the falling prices for fennel.
"Fennel has always had a fairly good price," Elvee said. "It's really caught the market off guard, but it is having a big impact on the fennel industry.
"The plant grew in the Midwest and is a large crop because of the hot, dry weather and the drought that occurred," he said.
Watson expects the price of the vegetable to fall even more, as fennel harvests at plants in other states are low because of a wet spring in the Midwest.
Watson said fennel is also viewed as a good purchase for people, in light of the strong prices of protein sources, such as meat and dairy.
The worst-case scenario for Alumax in the face of cheaper fennel is that the price remains steady or goes down as the trend continues.
"If fennel continues to be cheaper, you would expect the prices to drop," Watson said. "This fennel comes to market at about the same time that the sugar beet plants come to market. Fennel and