Several factors explain Oregon’s robust plant sales figures, particularly in woody material
When Rich Bailey of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. in Boring, Oregon, relocated to Oregon from Chicago several years back, he was struck by the wide diversity of plant materials produced by Oregon nurseries.
“This state grows so many different types of plant material,” Bailey said. “You name it, we grow it, anything from trees to shrubs, perennials, annuals, to palm trees. That ginormous selection draws people to buy from Oregon.”
Then there is the quality.
“Oregon is known for producing good nursery stock,” said Barry Gregory of Kraemer’s Nursery in Mount Angel, Oregon. “We have a lot of people, certainly from the northern half of the country come to Oregon and visit nurseries annually, if not more than once, and choose to buy their products here. It is that much better.”
It is no secret that Oregon is a national leader in growing and selling nursery stock. The state ranks third in total sales, according to 2019 figures, behind only California and Florida and well ahead of fourth-place North Carolina. It leads the nation in several categories, including deciduous shade trees, deciduous flowering trees and coniferous evergreens, and is second in fruit and nut plants.
Growers were posed recently with the question of why Oregon excels. Answers ranged from good climatic conditions, good soil, good growing practices, good infrastructure to good institutional support.
Let’s start with climate.
“I think it goes without saying that the climate here is fantastic for growing nursery stock,” Gregory said. “That is a big reason why Oregon is where it is.”
“We’ve got a heavier rain season in the valley, so plants get a lot more water opportunity,” Bailey said.
Another climate feature that helps Oregon tree production are its cool evenings.
“We are lucky to have warmth through the day when the trees grow,” Bailey said. “Then at night it gets cool so they shut down. That cycle produces a heavier branch structure with tighter internode growth between branches.
“In many other nursery locations throughout the country, trees don’t necessarily shut down at night because the evenings don’t get real cool. Because of this, you’ll see elongated growth and less density in branch structure. I think that makes a big difference.”
The temperate nature of Willamette Valley’s climate also is ideal, growers said. “We don’t deal with the real heavy freezes through the winter or extremely high temperatures in the summer,” said Todd Nelson of Bountiful Farms in Woodburn, Oregon. “And, obviously, stress on plant material will cause it to slow down, and we historically haven’t had to deal with a lot of that.”
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with ice storms and fire and other issues that definitely keeps us on our toes,” Nelson said. “But, in general, Mother Nature is very good to us in this valley.”
Seasonal differences in climate also are perfect for the trees and shrubs that Oregon excels in producing, said Mark VanHoef of Oregon Pride Nurseries in McMinnville, Oregon.
“This is a perfect environment for evergreens, because we do have winter and the evergreens do go to sleep,” VanHoef said. “And they just love our cool summers.
“I mean, you can’t grow a lot of the conifers that we grow here in the Southwest, like in Oklahoma or Texas, where there are some big nurseries. This is it: Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, where a lot of Christmas tree guys are and a lot of container and B&B conifer growers are.”
In addition, said VanHoef, who came to Oregon from Minnesota, where he also operated a nursery, it costs more in the Midwest to grow the trees and shrubs that excel here.
“You go back to where I am originally from, and to get a container of evergreen or shrub or tree through the winter, you have to tip it over,” VanHoef said. “You have to mulch it in. You have to put a thermal blanket over it. Then you have to put straw or hay over that and another poly blanket. And most of those growers just don’t have the resources to spend that kind of labor, that kind of effort and that kind of money. And we don’t have to do any of that. We just leave it standing straight up, and if we get a real cold snap, we will run out there and put a poly over it just to protect it if it is deciduous. But conifers, we just let them sit straight up right through the winter.”
Rich, deep topsoil
The Willamette Valley’s rich, deep topsoil and its water supply are other irreplaceable factors in separating Oregon nursery production from other high-profile areas, growers said.
“In the Willamette Valley, we have incredibly well-drained topsoils, and our water sources historically have been very high quality,” Nelson said.
“We have extremely deep and rich topsoil in the valley, which came from the Montana glaciers,” Bailey said. “That really fertile soil is great for planting trees.”
Growers also talked about the benefits of a strong infrastructure and evolving production practices.
“Certainly, the production practices have improved over time,” Gregory said. “There are a lot more container-grown plants today than there used to be, which allows you to ship plants really all year long. And I think the infrastructure at most Oregon nurseries has probably improved. There are more structures, whether it be greenhouses or shade structures, to allow us to do things a little better. And there is more automation. Maybe you don’t have to send a crew of ten people out there with hedge shears to trim a block of plants. You can do a lot of that with machines, pruning machines, mowers. So, all of those little things add up.”
Oregon growers also have embraced technology. At Bountiful Farms, it helps minimize waste and maximize resources.
“We have monitors throughout our nursery that feed information back to our plant health,” Nelson said. “We are able to monitor moisture, temperature and EC so we get a snapshot every day of where we are at in a general balance of the nursery. And so many of the Oregon growers use this technology.”
The fact that growers are willing to share knowledge is another benefit afforded the Oregon nursery industry.
“In the Willamette Valley, there is a pretty strong historical collective of knowledge that a lot of us growers are willing to share with one another,” Nelson said. “And I think there is a lot to be said for that.
“So much of this is an art and a science,” Nelson added. “I have a degree in horticulture, but so much of what I’ve learned has either come from my father or my brother or my neighbors and we are all better because of that. We are stronger as an Oregon growing base because so much of our product is shipped out and so many times, we are sharing trucks. So, the higher the quality that we are known for, the greater the demand that people are going to have in coming to our state.”
Oregon growers also benefit from a strong industry association, Gregory said. “I think the strength of our association is certainly a factor,” he said. “And the support of research and training institutions, like Oregon State University and Chemeketa Community College, also helps growers.”
“You need young people who want to make this a career,” VanHoef said. “Without the programs at OSU and Chemeketa, it would be a lot more difficult to attract these managers.”
The presence of well-trained crop consultants has also been vital over the years. According to Nelson, there is a consistent supply of high-quality soilless media, derived primarily from the fact that much of it — like the bark that comes from sawmills — is produced in state.
The benefit that most frequently came up in interviewing growers seemed to be the wide diversity of plant materials. Bailey of J. Frank Schmidt, characterized the diversity as creating a sort of one-stop-shopping experience for wholesalers.
“Oregon’s plant palette is enormous,” Bailey said. “You can find your tree, shrub and perennial needs all in one place. It is a one-stop shop. For buyers, that opportunity minimizes their cost and allows them to maximum the amount of variety and plant material they purchase. Buyers are looking to take advantage of this as much as they can. With freight these days, getting as much material on a truck as you can is extremely important.”
Mitch Lies is a freelance writer covering agricultural issues based in Salem Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com.