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Struggling farmers to grow 'nursery crops'

Earlier this year, Dan Morris sought 600 good-quality, deciduous trees with an acceptable diameter for Union University’s Great Lawn project. Response to faxes for his spring order often came back, "Not available."

Morris, owner of Morris Nursery and Landscapes, Inc., in Jackson, Tenn., eventually found what he was looking for. But he spent a week visiting 15 wholesale businesses in Tennessee’s nursery belt around Warren County before he found quality landscape trees that were two to three inch caliper, well-branched, full crown.

Morris’ quest for Shumard oaks, a good fall-color tree that transplants fairly well, took him to Huntsville, Ala., where he had no luck, then to Joplin, Mo., before he found 138 of the trees in Norman, Okla.

Thanks to suburban sprawl, demand outstrips the supply of good, specialty plants.

According to Carol Reese, University of Tennessee area ornamental-horticulture specialist, consumers have become more discriminating about what they want in their landscape, whether it be wooded areas, extensive hardscapes (such as patios) or lush green space and flowers.

Using a diversity in plants offers multiple seasons of interest, helps to attract wildlife, presents an opportunity for creativity and allows homeowners to hedge their bets against disease.

"We’ve learned to mix it up so that if one tree starts dying, we haven’t ruined our (landscape) plan," explains Reese. "Right now Leyland cypress, which was considered the ideal screening material a few years ago, is dying all over the state from a fungal disease."

When people move into a house, the appearance of their yard becomes a primary concern. What can I plant? What’s going to look good? How do I take care of it? These questions point to an information gap that affects the majority of potential plant buyers.

Reese would like to hear plant names such as Henry’s garnet sweetspire or golden creeping Jenny roll off the consumer’s tongue as easily as Kleenex or Windex. "We need to do brand-name marketing," says Reese. "We know that certain plants are going to do well for you, but we do a poor job of bridging that gap of ignorance.

"People are tired of the old meatball syndrome where you string the same three or four hollies everybody else uses around the foundation of the house. Consumers have become much more savvy. Look at the popularity of HGTV (Home and Garden Television)."

Two years ago, floriculture/nursery ranked fifth in the state of Tennessee in the percent of total farm receipts behind, in rank order, cattle and calves, broilers, dairy products and tobacco, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Between 1991 and 1999, cash receipts for floriculture crops produced in Tennessee, (including cut flowers; potted flowering plants, herbaceous perennials; bedding and gardening plants; foliage, cut, cultivated greens and propagated floriculture material; and unfinished plants) increased by 71.2 percent, according to the Tennessee Agricultural Statistics Service (TASS). Today, the crops are valued at about $60 million.

Nursery crops include transplants for commercial truck-crop production, propagation material or lining-out stock, broadleaf evergreens, coniferous evergreens, deciduous shade trees, deciduous flowering trees, deciduous shrubs and other ornamentals, fruit and nut plants and cut and to-be-cut Christmas trees.

During the 1990s, cash receipts for these crops grew by 37.5 percent. Nursery crops grown in-state are estimated to be worth $140 million.

In 1999, Warren County was Tennessee’s top county in agricultural production with $83 million in receipts, which represented 3.8 percent of the state’s total farm receipts. More than 80 percent of the county’s market value of all farm products came from nursery and greenhouse production, according to TASS.

"A lot of farms have been overcome by the suburbs," Said Morris, who grew up on a farm in Lauderdale County’s Arp community.

"Many small farms are now growing ornamental horticulture (plants), fruit trees or sod for urban gardening rather than depending on cotton and soybeans. Some would have closed or gone bankrupt had they not switched to horticultural agriculture.

For Morris, what started as an in-home mom-and-pop landscape business with two employees in 1978 turned into a landscape contracting, retail nursery, grounds maintenance and irrigation business that has increased its revenue 656 percent since its first year of operation. It now supports 35 employees.

"The horticulture industry has experienced tremendous growth," Morris says. "We have plenty to do."

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