Founded: 1960 by Ed, Fred, Robert and Kay Yoshitomi
OWNERS: Don and Mariah Kondo
KNOWN FOR: Growing a wide variety of perennials (40%), annuals (40%) and vegetable starts (20%) wholesale, for delivery to retail garden centers.
PEOPLE: Randy Gettel, production, logistics and maintenance manager; Gilbert Baltazar, head grower; Dan Bamberger, landscaper sales and production manager; Josh Stenson, pest manager and organic vegetable production manager; Monica Fossi, garden center sales and office manager.
CONTACT: 31919 S.W. Peach Cove Road, West Linn, Oregon 97068
Don Kondo may grow his annuals, perennials and veggie starts on a short cycle, but he operates his greenhouse growing operation based on a long-term vision.
“The nursery business is a long-term deal,” he said. “You either want to be in it, or you don’t. It’s a lifestyle choice and a business choice.”
Kondo made the choice consciously in 1986, when he traded a 10-year career as a general contractor in homebuilding for the opportunity to take over Yoshitomi Brothers Inc. from his four uncles who founded
None of their children wanted to carry it on, but seeing the potential the business had, he went for it. And today, has no regrets.
“I think that it’s not for everybody, but I enjoy the business,” he said. “I enjoy the people, and my employees are great. It’s like any business. You always have situations that happen, but you just try to mitigate those and hopefully try to make everything work out better down the road.”
Yoshitomi Brothers Inc. grows a broad selection of greenhouse material, with close to 1,000 different plant varieties offered. Perennials make up 40% of the plants shipped, and include not just the traditional perennials, but grasses, ferns and herbs. These are sold mostly in 1-gallon containers, with some 4-inch containers also offered.
Seed-grown annuals make up another 40% of the nursery’s output, with the remaining 20% consisting of vegetable starts. The starts are sold in 4-inch containers and jumbo 6-packs, and they include onion, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, squash, cucumber, peppers, and strawberries.
Product is delivered on weekly routes radiating out from the Portland area — north to the Puget Sound area, south down the Willamette Valley to Eugene, west to the Oregon Coast, and eastward into Central Oregon. “We deliver 100% of our product for the retail garden center,” Kondo said.
The nursery ships year-round these days, but as one might expect, it is busiest from April 1 through the end of May. “The hectic time is basically only five or six weeks, which is enough,” Don said.
Edible roots in the nursery business
Many nurseries have interesting roots, but in the case of Yoshitomi Brothers, the roots are edible. That’s because the company started out in vegetable farming in 1960.
The story goes back further than that, however — all the way back to 1918, when a young Keijiro Yoshitomi boarded a slow boat for the long journey from Japan to the United States, hoping to find opportunity.
“He came over because in Japan, if you’re not the first–born, you’re not entitled to anything,” Don said, alluding to primogeniture — the cultural practice of giving the family inheritance to the eldest child. “Basically, you have nothing. So, the oldest brother stayed in Japan, and my grandfather and his brother and his sister all came to the United States.”
They landed in Seattle along with other Japanese immigrants to the West Coast. Keijiro soon went back to Japan to bring over his wife, Shimo. They became part of the Issei — the generation of Japanese Americans who immigrated prior to 1924, when the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, placed a severe crimp on immigration.
Like many Asian immigrants, Keijiro became a farmer, which was a respected profession in the old country. He and other family members settled on land near Milwaukie, Oregon, where they grew vegetables.
“My grandfather would deliver vegetables to the Early Morning Market in Portland five days a week,” Don said. “That’s a long trip by horse and buggy. He didn’t go every day, but it was still quite a chore.”
The business prospered, with Keijiro’s four sons — Ed, Fred, Robert and Kay — joining in as they came of age. They all worked in partnership with other relatives until their shared farm was condemned in 1960 for highway development. The state wanted the land for the Milwaukie Expressway, now known as Highway 224.
Keijiro retired, and his four sons broke off from the other family members to form their own business, Yoshitomi Brothers. They purchased land at Peach Cove, a flat patch of land south of West Linn on the northern banks of the Willamette River. There, they started growing greenhouse annuals as well as vegetables, including cauliflower, cabbage, celery, zucchini and peppers.
Growing up, Don spent a fair amount of time on the nursery his uncles owned. “I worked during the summers while I was in high school, and I worked occasionally on certain weekends when I wasn’t playing sports,” he said.
He remembers his uncles getting together often with other growers, especially in the early days. “They had a lot of other greenhouse growers that were either friends from generations before, or current friends that were in the business,” Don said.
They shared information and product and would problem-solve together, sharing solutions to problems they encountered.
“I thought that was really cool,” he said. “We don’t see as much of that anymore.”
Putting in the time
After high school, Don attended Oregon State University and then Portland State University, graduating with a degree in business administration. He didn’t immediately go to work at the nursery afterwards. Instead, he learned the construction trade and built homes, ultimately serving in the role of general contractor.
“I had a friend that had a good opportunity for me, and we did that for several years,” Don said. “I ran my own jobs, hired subcontractors and so on and so forth. I learned how to do a lot of it myself — framing, finishing, concrete work — a little bit of everything. I dabbled in a little bit of land development and helped a bit with that, putting in underground utilities and street curbs.”
But in 1986, he had an offer from his uncles to work at the Yoshitomi family nursery and ultimately take over. That’s also the time Yoshitomi Brothers shifted its focus to the nursery side of the business.
“1986 was the last year of vegetable farming,” Don said. “They were getting older, and the greenhouse was becoming a lot more profitable than the vegetables. They decided to head in that direction.”
Don accepted his uncles’ offer to take over the family farm.
“I saw a great opportunity and I was willing to put in the time and effort that it takes to be in this business and to run a greenhouse and nursery,” he said. “I was willing to sacrifice the time. That was a point in my life where I was ready to roll with it.”
The decade he spent in home construction allowed him to fully appreciate the opportunity for both the challenge and the reward that it represented.
“When you’re younger, you don’t appreciate things sometimes, and it takes a while to grow up, hopefully before it’s too late and the right opportunity comes around,” he said. “It’s all about investing in that opportunity and taking advantage of it.”
Meeting challenges, finding success
Don’s goal was to take the business further and make it more successful than it had been thus far. By that measure, he has been successful. The 75,000 square feet of greenhouses present when he started have been expanded to 375,000 square feet, or four times more. The company offered 100 different products when he took over. It offers 1,000 or so now.
Over this time, the company’s workforce also expanded. It started with mostly family members and temporary helpers, but is now comprised of 28 workers year round, and more than that during peak season. Don credits the success and growth of his customers, and of gardening in general, for the growth in his business.
“It’s the only way you can grow,” he said. “To see our customers successful helps us be successful also.”
One of the changes Don has seen is a lengthening of the gardening season, which he attributes to global warming as well as greater consumer interest in gardening. Even recessions and downturns tend to drive interest in gardening, he noted.
“People tend to plant a little more,” he said. “It gets them started and gives them something to fall back on. I even find myself going out [in my garden] and working on the vegetable garden a little bit. It’s fun, and you feel good about it because you bring in something and put it on the table.”
Despite the heightened interest in gardening and plants, several factors make doing business a challenge.
“I think labor is always going to be an issue,” Don said. “Years ago, we used to get 15, 20, 30 people looking for employment. Now, we don’t see any, and the last several years, we’ve resorted to contract labor. Last year was different, because the labor contractors couldn’t even get people to come work for them.”
The rising cost of raw materials — soil, containers, labels, seeds, starts — hasn’t helped, and the continued availability of water is also something to monitor.
Finally, there’s weather. The nursery endured it through three catastrophic events in the last 18 months — the Oregon wildfires, the ice storm in February 2021, and the heat waves in June and August 2021.
The nursery managed to protect its material through all three, but was without power for 10 days during the ice storm. They used generators to heat growing spaces. When these failed, they put backups into service.
“A couple of times, we were on the backups to our backups,” Don said.
The heat wave events had their workers starting early, finishing early, and taking frequent breaks.
“Guys would come into the air conditioning and then go back out,” Don said. “We kept plenty of fluids around — ice cubes and popsicles and hydration, hydration, hydration.”
Don credits the loyalty and versatility of his core workers for the nursery’s success. About 20 have remained for more than a decade.
“We have employees that are dedicated and, I hope, happy working for us, which has kept our business going,” Don said. “We wear a lot of hats around here.”
Don trusts his team with day-to-day decision making, knowing they have the proven experience, problem-solving ability and teamwork to face the challenges that arise and meet the needs of customers. They have full latitude to do so.
“They always seem to make the right decisions,” he said.