From Farm to Farm: My 3,000 Mile Journey Across America's Nurseries

By Zac Tolbert

A successful combination of meticulus consistency across a wide variety of species in moderate to large crop sizes at Waynesboro Nurseries in Virginia. 

A successful combination of meticulus consistency across a wide variety of species in moderate to large crop sizes at Waynesboro Nurseries in Virginia. 

The list of reasons why I love my job is a really long list. I’m proud to be part of an industry that literally makes the world more beautiful. I’m proud to have founded a company that provides innovative and sustainable solutions for the entire supply chain, from Landscape Architects to Seed Suppliers. And I enjoy getting to know the business owners, estimators, purchasers, suppliers and others who use Local Plant Source to improve their business’s bottom line. I love talking shop, learning about the innovations and achievements of our clients and developing relationships that will last long into the future.

But with my background in landscape architecture, I admit that’s normally where my head is. I know the challenges the commercial landscaping supply chain places on landscape architects, and I’m constantly looking for ways to use technology to improve the plant buying process. But what about the plant selling business? If we want our supplier network to be strong and successful, we need to underestand their reality.

I needed to learn more about our suppliers — really delve into their worlds, see their operations, learn about their problems and innovations. That’s why I've been involved with the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association (TNLA) for the past 5 years, and I take every occassion afforded to me to visit farms. So when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance to embark on a 3,000-mile road trip — some might even call it a journey — from Virginia to Oklahoma to tour just a small sample (.7 percent) of the 1,800+ nurseries we do business with.

A photo taken during a visit to Waverly Farm in Maryland. Waverly Farm is known for being the Dragon Lady nursery, after their amazingly uniform hedge form Ilex 'Dragon Lady' (not shown).

My nursery tour started at Waynesboro Nurseries in Waynesboro, Virginia, then went 150 miles to Ingleside Plantation Nurseries in Colonial Beach, Virginia, then 90 miles to Washington, D.C., for the night. Day 2 started with a 30 mile drive to D.R. Snell Wholesale Nursery in Mount Airy, Maryland. After that, it was a quick skip over to Raemelton Farm and Waverly Farm, both in Adamstown, Maryland. From there, it was 230 miles northwest to Lake Forest Gardens in Fombell, Pennsylvania. I spent a night in Pittsburgh, then drove 100 more miles on to Hermon Losely & Son, Inc., in Perry, Ohio and 60 miles to Rusty Oak Nursery in Valley City, Ohio, enroute to Columbus. 

And those were just the farms I visited before taking a four-day break to attend AmericanHort’s Cultivate ’16 in Columbus. Back on the nursery tour, I visited Evin’s Mill Nursery, Odom Nursery Company and Riverbend Nurseries in Tennessee before taking a rest in Nashville. The final day featured a long drive to Oklahoma to visit Deep Fork Tree Farm, Cedar Valley Nurseries and Whitetail Tree Farm before the final leg of the drive back to Austin.

The fields at Raemelton Farm, the first USDA-certified organic ornamental tree farm in the country.

The fields at Raemelton Farm, the first USDA-certified organic ornamental tree farm in the country.

The results of my whirlwind trip: 3,000 miles, about 60 hours of video to share with our staff, stronger relationships with the growers I met and valuable insights into the growing process and how it relates to the plant sales cycle.

I couldn’t give just a single highlight if I tried, but I will say there was a lot of pride visible at the farms I visited and each farm was impressive in its own right.

D.N. Snell was absolutely stunning with its rolling green hills and freshly mowed grass and clean isles; they take great pride in their quality and in the liner material they purchase.

Raemelton’s digging machine is state-of-the-art; instead of using a traditional triangular tree spade to dig up trees, they use one that works in a circular motion to better collect the tree’s root system. Raemelton is also the first USDA-certified organic ornamental tree farm in the country. The farm has a research partnership with the University of Maryland, so students conduct studies on the farm and it benefits from all the information collected, a win-win for education and business.

And Herman Losely’s tree crops are huge, thanks in part to the process they use to keep trees growing through the cold northern winters.

Attention to quality is paramount at D.R. Snell, where every tree has deer protection and high-end liners and daily inspections ensure that all trees have consistent quality. 

Attention to quality is paramount at D.R. Snell, where every tree has deer protection and high-end liners and daily inspections ensure that all trees have consistent quality. 

Checking out the equipment at Raemelton Farm. This U-shaped tree spade blade vibrates and digs the root ball like scooping ice cream, leaving more of the critical root zone intact than traditional triangular tree spades can.

Checking out the equipment at Raemelton Farm. This U-shaped tree spade blade vibrates and digs the root ball like scooping ice cream, leaving more of the critical root zone intact than traditional triangular tree spades can.

While certainly incomplete, the farms I visited represent a decent cross section of the growing industry — large and small growing capacities, growers of starter material and finish growers. And all the growers had common challenges and concerns.

As a buyer, I asked these growers an important question: What can we do to make your job easier and our transactions more successful?  

The number one reply was that they needed more advanced warning from buyers if projects are going to be delayed. After all, they aren’t selling bricks or stones or something that can sit on a shelf. They are dealing with living things that grow and need care. A project delay that causes a plant to be left sitting on the farm for an extra three months is money lost to the farmer, especially if that plant could have been sold to somebody else and replaced with a plant from a later crop.

Cedar Valley Nurseries smartly adjusted their spacing to put some plants closer together after studying their ROI and growing strategies.

Cedar Valley Nurseries smartly adjusted their spacing to put some plants closer together after studying their ROI and growing strategies.

In fact, I wound up talking about communication a lot during the trip. Communication between plant buyers and sellers is absolutely critical, and there are many ways both parties could benefit from sharing more information. Buyers need to be more open about project timelines and delays and be open to working with growers about coming up with a Plan B, just in case. When plants are bought under contract and the project gets delayed, let the grower know immediately and see if they want to sell those plants to someone else if they have other plants coming down the pipeline that will fit your needs according to the new project schedule. And growers need to do a better job of sharing their crop schedules and crop quantities so that buyers understand when plants will be available.

It was a beautiful day at the immaculately maintained Deep Fork Tree Farm in Acadia, Oklahoma, just off Route 66.

It was a beautiful day at the immaculately maintained Deep Fork Tree Farm in Acadia, Oklahoma, just off Route 66.

Local Plant Source is dedicated to making communication between growers and sellers as easy as possible. We do this through tech-based tools that allow growers and sellers to easily keep track of project timelines, communications and other logistical information. But the tools can’t do it alone. As an industry, we must all change our behaviors to work more seamlessly together. A great first step is to consider the wholesale plant and commercial landscaping industry from other perspectives.

I had an amazing time on this 3,000-mile road trip. I know most plant buyers can’t take the time to repeat my journey, but I’d recommend any plant buyer take a visit to your closest tree farm or grower. Walk around. Ask questions. Let them teach you something about what they do so that the next time you buy plants, you’ll know just a little bit more than the time before.