Startup nurseries draw on inspiration, entrepreneurial desire and the mentorship of others
Every nursery has a different story, and every story has a beginning.
Although one of every five small businesses is family run, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, the percentage of nurseries that are family run is undoubtedly much higher.
The ownership of these businesses is aging. According to a Guidant Financial and Lending Club report, 57 percent of small-business owners are also over the age of 50, compared with 20 percent nearly 25 years ago. But as some businesses are preparing to hand things over, others are bucking the trend by just getting started.
We visited with a number of Oregon nurseries that had fairly recent beginnings. Starting a nursery requires the right resources, the right experience and the right assistance, plus a safety net to consult when something goes wrong.
The experiences of these newer nursery owners are instructive for those considering starting a new nursery.
Ekstrom & Schmidt Nursery LLC
Brandon Schmidt got his entry into the nursery industry when he
into the Ekstrom family, which owns Ekstrom Nursery.
At first, he lived in Hood River, where he and his wife, Heidi, were funeral directors. However, he visited the Ekstrom farm regularly, and in 2006, at age 26, he joined the nursery after a foreman gave his notice.
Three years later, while still working for Ekstrom, Brandon started his own small nursery, which would eventually become Ekstrom & Schmidt Nursery LLC.
Schmidt started his nursery under the auspices of Carl Ekstrom (known as Grandpa Carl), who believed in supporting the next generation of nursery owners and managers within the ranks of employees. Carl set up a structure allowing the new nursery to rent tractors and equipment and buy extra fertilizer at specific rates.
For Schmidt, the arrangement gave him his grounding. He had the customer service skills from his funeral director job, but it was the rest of the business he admitted he needed to learn, and he did so on the job.
He worked nights and weekends at the startup, in addition to his regular duties at Ekstrom. “[The arrangement allowed us] to learn how to run a business on a small scale, learn from our mistakes on our own,” he said.
Schmidt was able to run his own crew, learn how to do his own books, decide which plants to grow and put some skin in the game without getting in too deep.
Ekstrom Nursery received benefits in exchange. Schmidt was able to fill the holes in the Ekstrom inventory, growing plants that it didn’t sell or needed to be grown in different sizes to provide for Ekstrom customers and its catalog. Ekstrom Nursery, in a way, served as a broker for the plants Schmidt grew.
But if Ekstrom was undersold on a plant, it would not buy Schmidt’s. The responsibility for management of inventory and sales lay still squarely with Schmidt.
That kind of mentoring and support gave him an opportunity to succeed and build confidence. He learned fertilizers, sprays, fungicides, plant problems, when to trim and more as hands-on activities. “Without that opportunity, it would have been a way slower start to getting established as a nursery,” Schmidt said.
As Ekstrom had no plans at the time to transition the business to the third generation, Schmidt’s brother-in-law, Steve Ekstrom joined him in 2013 to form Ekstrom & Schmidt Nursery LLC. In 2015, they were joined by Steve’s father, Jim.
The younger partners had 20 acres they had cleared and groomed for production. Jim brought in another 100 acres. They made do with the equipment they had and borrowed machinery as needed, until they could buy their own.
“One thing we are proud of is taking the land that was run down and making it into something,” Schmidt said.
Taking a different business approach to maximize efficiency, the partners made a decision to move away from the Ekstrom model of ball and burlap to containers.
“‘An overnight success takes about ten years,’ Grandpa Carl used to say,” Schmidt said. Although it hasn’t quite taken that long, with Grandpa Carl’s mentorship and the support of Jim Ekstrom as the second generation, Steve and Brandon are finding their successes.
“[We are] seeing the fruits of our labor and vision of our business coming to fruition,” Steve said.
Robb Sloan of Noname Nursery (Forest Grove, Oregon) started as a hobby grower in Sacramento, California in the mid-1990s, when he was working as propagation manager of Village Nurseries Wholesale LLC.
By 2002, his eclectic collection — which included 175 Japanese maples, ten mondo grasses, ten varieties of Loropetalum and more — had gotten so big, he had to make a choice: Go pro with a nursery, or shut it down.
Because of family commitments, he gave up growing plants. But he stayed close to his passion, working in the green industry through landscape construction and design and wholesale sales.
In 2009, Sloan moved to Oregon and eventually landed a job at McMenamin’s Grand Lodge in Forest Grove as head gardener. His sights were set on working in the nursery industry.
In Sloan’s case, family matters once again influenced his next move. In 2015, while visiting his 22-year-old son in Japan, Sloan joked they should start a nursery. His son said yes, and the business began the following year.
After trying it for a few months, his son opted out, following his true passion to become an auto mechanic. But Sloan had landed again with his passion. He was in for the long haul.
Within 12 months, he had collected enough material that he needed a place to grow.
Within two years, he had three greenhouses, and by the end of 2019, up to 5,000 trees were planted.
Years of working with plants had led to this point, but so has Sloan’s networking in the industry. A good friend leases him acreage, other nurseries let him collect scion wood, and his generous friends are credited with helping him with everything else. From clearing fields, stretching plastic, potting up plants and installing solar powered greenhouse fans, lights and heaters — friends helped design and install everything.
Sloan has learned that the greatest successes come from persistence, having fun, cultivating relationships, and facing the monotony of the job. He also learned from experimenting. He set up a 1,000-square-foot pop-up store in downtown Forest Grove last year, which cost more money than it made.
Operating a business off the grid was more of a challenge than Sloan thought.
“There was no way to heat the greenhouse the first winter, and we lost 70% of the plants,” he said. “The second winter, there was no bottom heat, and we lost 90% of our cuttings because we couldn’t find reliable heat.”
But his experiences helped him know how to economize and keep going. Noname recently hired a part-time person to do inventory and sales, and the third greenhouse went in last month.
“The greatest reward is going somewhere and seeing my plants, and the relationships you build,” Sloan said. He’s made friends, he’s integrated into the nursery community and he’s in Forest Grove — all rewards of doing business.
J Farms LLC
Jenni Burkhead and Jim Lewis are co-owners of J Farms LLC (Amity, Oregon), although it was rather unexpected. “I don’t think we ever felt that was our goal [to be owners],” Burkhead said. But, based on friendship and mentorship with the previous owners, that’s exactly what happened.
After graduating with a horticulture degree from Kansas State University and then working for landscape companies and in sales management for Ralston Purina, Burkhead relocated to Oregon to join Carlton Plants LLC in the early 1980s.
She had various nursery industry-related positions over the next 20 years, and eventually began selling for a select group of growers with a particular focus on deciduous and conifer liners in the Northwest. At that time, she met her partner, Jim Lewis, who worked as a production manager for several nurseries.
In 2002, Burkhead began selling liners for Jeddeloh Farms LLC (Gresham, Oregon), which had an immense conifer palette and cultivars specific to the urban landscaping market. Lewis was instrumental in helping her to understand production needs on a grower level. Horst and Linda Jeddeloh became friends and mentors.
By 2006, they would become different kinds of mentors, as they approached Burkhead and Lewis with the idea of being their business successors. With more than the desire to be their own bosses, Burkhead said the friendship was a big impetus for moving forward, as well as the desire to see the business continue.
Plus, the customer base was well-established and Burkhead had been working it already for four years. Because it was a contract business where customers place their orders 18 months in advance, she knew what the business could yield. “Having customers was the gold mine, along with the great plant material,” Burkhead said.
The only issue was property — Burkhead and Lewis didn’t have any, and they wanted to stay in Yamhill County where they lived.
“With the encouragement and tutelage of the Jeddelohs, we borrowed money from family members and were able to find the Farm Service Agency’s Beginning Farmers program through the USDA,” Burkhead said. “They work with new clients who might not have the collateral but can provide orders and history to support operating loan requirements.”
Looking back, the manner in which they drew up their property lease is the one thing they would have done differently. “Instead of paying an attorney and using someone else’s expertise, we put the lease together ourselves,” she said.
It left them less protected over the long term. Nonetheless, the weak lease became the impetus to find land, and after three years of good sales they were able to purchase acreage in Amity in 2008.
Becoming business owners, Burkhead and Lewis had sales and production skills in abundance, and the Jeddelohs taught them not to put any money into labor or materials until it is was presold. “That has always worked real well,” Burkhead said.
But the challenge was running a business, learning bookkeeping and managing state and federal regulations.
“That part I had to learn,” Burkhead said, “and frankly, I had never even balanced a checkbook before we had our business. It was almost overwhelming.”
The saving grace was the valuable accounting lessons offered by Linda and the Agribusiness Management program at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.
“The biggest thing about being in business is being able to navigate banking, insurance and safety. It’s unending,” Burkhead said. “And they cover all of it.”
The instructors even come out before tax time and spend time in QuickBooks.
“And every year when the regs change, they bring in speakers to let you know about [the changes],” she said.
In addition to loyal customers, Burkhead said the program helped the business survive the economic downturn. And she’s such a fan, she’s in her eighth year of classes and serves on the board.
“Succession is a mind-boggling concept. We were very fortunate to have more help than most from our predecessors,” Burkhead said. “My hope is that we can ‘pay it forward’ and continue to keep the passion alive for the next nursery person, or someone who enjoys a very rewarding lifestyle.”
Backyard Natives LLC
Jonathan Eymann of Backyard Natives (Estacada, Oregon) was raised among trees. His father, David, had a Christmas tree farm of four acres, and Eymann can remember planting about 8,000 trees when he was 16 years old.
Like many other nursery owners, Eymann’s route to starting his own nursery began by working for someone else. When he was 20 years old, in 2007, he went to work at Eagle Creek, a broker of landscape plants.
He started at the bottom, working his way through the various jobs and departments — yard maintenance, propagation, driving, ordering, scheduling and logistics. Working at Eagle Creek was his work-study experience, and the owner, his mentor.
“I learned about just about everything,” he said.
A request by a regular customer of Eagle Creek for natives led Eymann to his business, and its name, when he realized those plants were growing directly in his backyard.
Eymann began selling ornamentals and natives to Eagle Creek under his father’s business name. He dug up plants at first, but then learned how to transition into seed collection in 2014, and finally cuttings two years after later. Both made his operation more cost efficient.
By last year, he was ready to set up his own business on about one acre of land. He maintains about 50 species of plants — half ornamental, half native. 4,000–5,000 of his product are sold in one-gallon containers. His incense cedar is in sold in 5 gallons, and he also offers some bigger trees in 10- and 15-gallon sizes.
The biggest obstacle he has is developing his own customer list separate from Eagle Creek, although he still sells his plants there. He has turned his attention to the Portland metro area, and is a member of the OAN.
He’s not quite at the point of the nursery sustaining him financially, and is working a second job at a gas station, which has its benefits: lots of potential customer traffic and an audience for his business cards that get his name out there.
With no loans and completely self-funded, Eymann is ready to continue to build his empire while working a second job, for the reward of growing plants to potentially earn a living. Plus, there is the added benefit of working with his family — two brothers, three sisters and 10 nieces and nephews. There are always plenty of hands to pitch in at his nursery.
“The nephews and nieces enjoy it, the big pile of dirt,” Eymann said. “And even if they’re not working, they like to see what I’m doing. They’re learning themselves, what these plants are doing, about this job of growing and selling, and perhaps it’s putting a light bulb in their head.”
Perhaps it is — allowing Eymann to mentor and encourage the next generation of Oregon growers.
Tracy Ilene Miller is a freelance writer and editor who covers several topics, including gardening. She can be reached at email@example.com.