Broadleaf evergreens, conifers and grafted maples, including a large production of arborvitae
Dean, Kelly, Sarah and Daniel McKay, owners. Tami Miller, manager.
P.O. Box 519, St. Paul, OR 97137
19172 French Prairie Road, St. Paul, OR 97137
503-633-2833 or 877-633-2727
160 Nursery Guide listings
Advanced Ornamentals Inc. is a relatively young nursery with seven generations of Oregon history behind it, and a bright future that’s still being made as we speak.
Principal owner Dean McKay founded the nursery in 1998, on a sesquicentennial farm that’s been in his family since 1856. He’s part of the seventh generation to work the same land.
“We’re definitely Oregon Trail people, wagon trainers,” he said.
Four years ago, he started the process of training his daughters, Kelly and Sarah, to take over the nursery. Starting a transition this early is part of the long-term view that Dean takes.
“It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’s the most necessary thing that has to be done,” he said. “If you start them young, that knowledge is pretty powerful.”
The nursery offers a deep selection of quality conifers, broadleaf evergreens and grafted maples, many of which are propagated on site. Roughly 80% of their crop is field-grown; the remaining 20% is containerized.
According to Kelly, customers prefer the field grown plants — “They’re thicker, more rounded, fuller” — but the containerized material allows Advanced to meet customer demand during the hot summer, when field digging isn’t feasible because it would shock the plants.
The nursery sells to garden centers, re-wholesalers and landscapers all over the United States. “We go pretty much all over the country,” Kelly said. “We go southeast, northeast, Midwest, and we’ve expanded into the Pacific Northwest market as well.”
Advanced produces a number of nursery mainstays in bulk, including arborvitaes, Otto Luyken laurels and skip laurels. However, the grower stresses variety and quality in order to best serve customers.
“When a truck rolls into our dock, we want to be able to fill it,” Dean said. “We don’t want to put a partial on the back of it. We want to be able to give a customer what they need coming out of Advanced.”
In the beginning
Before Oregon became a state, the McKay family traveled the Oregon Trail to settle in the lush Willamette Valley, landing at the village of Champoeg. It was there that settlers voted 52–50 to establish an independent provisional government for the Oregon territory in 1843.
At the time, both the United States and the United Kingdom claimed ownership of Oregon. The question was settled in 1846 with the signing of the Oregon Treaty, where the British relinquished their claim. Oregon become a U.S. territory in 1848 and achieved statehood in 1859.
In 1856, James McKay moved the family from Champoeg to the land the family still occupies, near the rural community of St. Paul, Oregon. There, generations of McKays farmed the land, including Art and Charlotte McKay, who owned McKay Farms Inc. and were Dean’s parents. They raised him on the farm (both are since deceased).
“We did a lot of fruits and vegetables and grains,” Dean said. “It was a great life. I loved it. I knew all along that’s what I wanted to be, a farmer of some sort.”
He found inspiration and learning opportunities all around.
“My father always employed really good people,” Dean said. “I learned a lot from his employees. That’s where I learned a lot of production skills. He taught me more the life lessons.”
As a young adult on the farm, Dean took on more responsibility. As many Oregon farmers have, he felt the pull of the nursery industry. Several of his relatives already grew nursery material, including the Spadas (A & R Spada Farms LLC), Zielinskis (Alpha Nursery Inc.) and Fesslers (Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas Inc. and Fessler Nursery Co.).
The slow season for the fruits and vegetables that McKay Farms grew lined up well with the busy season for these nurseries. Dean soon realized it would make sense for him to start a nursery of his own, while retaining his orchards and row crops. The diversification would help the family farm ride out the rough, ever-shifting economic tides of agriculture, while also making better use of the workforce and other resources all 12 months.
“I always had interest in the nursery — it was just trying to break into the marketplace,” he said.
Dean began to attend OAN meetings, so he could build his knowledge as well as his connections.
“The more I got involved in the OAN and going to the meetings and talking to the other growers, it gave me the confidence to start this,” he said. “I wanted to absorb as much as I could.”
Once the nursery was established, Dean quickly found ways to incorporate the farming machinery the family already owned. He also made sure his kids experienced the farming life.
“We always had to get up early and help hoe in the nursery, like every day,” Kelly said. “When we were first getting started, I remember being in the greenhouse and doing the cuttings and helping with the rooted propagation.”
Sarah remembers working on the farm, visiting other nurseries, going to trade shows, and visiting all the booths on the last day of the Farwest Show each year. His son Daniel remembers riding on the transplanter with the crew and helping them get plants in the ground.
The nursery has grown progressively over its 22 years of existence, but hit a major snag with the Great Recession starting in 2007. The collapse of the housing bubble hit the construction-driven nursery industry hard, resulting in the loss of perhaps one-third of the growers in Oregon and elsewhere. Advanced Ornamentals survived by adapting.
“We had to quickly pivot and recreate how to run our business,” Dean said.
The nursery transitioned from selling to big box stores, to a greater emphasis on garden centers. It also shifted its production to more plants that require a shorter cycle.
“We focus more on plant material that we can farm, without waiting 10 years for it to be ready,” Kelly said. “We were big on grafted conifers then, and the waiting game you have to play with them.”
Moving into the future
Some two decades after founding the nursery, Dean has begun the transition process to the next generation of McKays.
“That transition is difficult, but it’s something that has to happen,” Dean said. “I was given the opportunity when I became a grower at an early age to transition into management, and I wanted to give that opportunity to my daughters here as well.”
His daughter, Kelly, serves as chief financial officer for the nursery as well as the family farm, while his other daughter, Sarah, is in charge of the growing operations for both. Meanwhile, his son, Daniel, heads up a hop-growing operation for the family in Idaho. All three are still in their 20s.
“All three have got different roles, but we all work together,” Dean said. “We all have our own paths that we’re taking. It’s pretty unique to have all of us together in one spot, but we talk daily. We bounce a lot of ideas around, trying to make sure that we’re doing the right thing.”
Working closely with them is Tami Miller, who was hired to serve as a manager five years ago.
“She is the heart and soul of the sales and marketing side of the office, and customer relations,” Dean said. “She’s been an integral part of growing the business the last five years.”
Customers who call the nursery will likely talk to Tami or Kelly.
“We don’t have a huge office staff, it’s just Tami and I in the office,” Kelly said. “People can reach someone and get an answer and a result.”
Sarah heads up operations in the field.
“I work really closely with our agronomist on keeping our fields clean, and addressing any pests and diseases, to make sure we have good quality plants,” she said. “These days it’s harder for the customers to come out and see the plants, and this assures them they get a good, quality plant.”
The nursery backs everything it sells.
“With our customer base, we’re all about growing our relationships,” Kelly said. “With a lot of them, we’ve done business quite some time, and we’re just keeping that alive and keeping that respect, whether they’re a small landscaper or a big wholesaler.”
Together, the McKay family will steer Advanced Ornamentals into the future.
“There’s a lot of opportunity, but the biggest challenge that I see is labor, which we’ve tried to deal with early on, and transportation (costs),” Dean said. “Those are the biggest two challenges we are working on.”
Dean’s overriding purpose is caring for a legacy and keeping it intact and thriving for the next generation. That goes for his family as well as the land they’ve occupied for seven generations and counting.
“I was given opportunities at a young age to help grow our business, and I could have taken that many different ways, but we’re a legacy farm,” he said. “We want to continue that. That means that it’s not my farm, it’s our future of our people after myself. And so you take on a whole different light on how you take care of things. It’s not just about me. It’s about our future.”