Ordinarily, Bobby Love would have planted corn and soybeans on his Warren County, Tenn., farm this spring to diversify his cattle and nursery enterprises.
With prices where they are, Love says he had little incentive to plant them this year, and since his first cutting of hay “was a little short, I decided to grow some hay. It’s the first year I haven’t planted row crops,” he says.
He planted millet and hopes that will carry his 100-cow commercial beef herd through the winter. “I’m not sure if I will go back to corn and beans or not,” he added.
Cattle and the 45-acre tree nursery operation keep him and his son, Wilson, a Middle Tennessee State University senior, busy enough.
“There is never enough time,” Love says. “We always have something to do.”
Managing cattle around the nursery operation can be challenging, he adds. “I calve in the fall, since we’re not as busy with trees in the fall. If we do more than one thing at a time, something doesn’t get the attention it should.”
He says the cattle market is “okay, but it’s expensive to get them there.” Providing enough hay is critical to control feed costs, he adds.
He says he has run some stockers in the past but without a good source of feed to carry them through the winter, profit is too elusive to justify the risk.
“We just don’t have a consistent source of feed for stocker operations,” says Warren County Cooperative Extension agent Heath Nokes.
Nokes says Warren County ranks sixth or seventh in ag receipts for the state and much of the revenue comes from nurseries. The county has become the hub of a tree nursery production region that includes Dekalb, Franklin and Grandy counties.
A few more counties may have some nursery production, he says, “but that’s the bulk of it.”
“We have a lot of infrastructure, including brokers and transportation serving the tree nursery industry,” Love adds.
Love started inching into the business back in 1979, after growing up on a diversified farm that included corn, soybeans and tobacco. The tree business, he says, “is a learning process, every day.”
They grow deciduous and evergreen trees and ship “mostly to the Southeast, where the SEC plays football. We also do some to the ACC area,” Love says.
Some of the Love nursery trees have adorned landscapes at Mississippi State University, some Zaxby’s and Wendy’s restaurants and the AT&T Stadium in Dallas, where the Cowboys play.
The area is an ideal location to grow trees, Love says. “We can load trees here and deliver to 70 percent of the U.S. population within a day. We have 150 native species in this area where we receive from 56 to 60 inches of rainfall a year. We have a good growing season and good soil. We can grow trees for almost any market.”
Production challenges include deer, which can scar trees and ruin them for market. “They take out a few thousand dollars’ worth every year.”
Feral hogs have not been trouble, yet. “Just imagine the damage they could do with 3,000 plants per acre,” Love says.
“We also have Japanese beetles, fire ants, armadillos and coyotes, and we are always wondering ‘what’s next?’”
Drought has not been an issue for the past four years. “But in the ’80s we had four out of 10 dry years.”
With the time factor necessary to get a tree to market, drought years can take a toll.
Love says establishing a seedling to digging a tree for market takes three to four years. “We have to anticipate what the consumer will want,” he says. “But you can never guess a market. Just because we can grow it doesn’t mean we can sell it.”
They may put Wilson’s degree in ag management to good use. He graduates next spring and says he’s excited to come back to the farm.
‘It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he says, while taking a break from repairing a brush cutter. “I might could make more money doing something else, but this is what I want to do.”
He says he likes to think about what happens with the trees after they leave the farm. “People might not realize it, but the landscapes probably make them happy.
“I don’t always get to see where the plants have gone, but when I do, it’s a nice feeling to see a beautiful landscape.”