Nancy Buley didn’t grow up in the nursery industry, but her connection to the outdoors is powerful. She’s spent her life in the shade of a forest and along the banks of a river.
“I grew up in the trees. My parents had a house on Sandy River, and I grew up exploring the forest,” Nancy explains. “My brother and I had a very outdoorsy upbringing with camping, fishing and hunting. I have a great appreciation of the outdoors, which has a lot to do with my interest in trees.”
She got a dose of agriculture during her formative years when she picked strawberries and raspberries every summer.
Later while attending Oregon State University, she helped a friend study for a tree identification test. Reading those flash cards created a lightbulb moment for Nancy.
“It helped me start really seeing the trees, even though I grew up surrounded by trees,” she says. “With these flash cards, I was seeing details that I hadn’t noticed before,”
Nancy enrolled in a horticulture class that piqued her interest. She changed her major to technical journalism and minored in horticulture and animal science.
During college, she freelanced for the Oregon Association of Nurseries, which turned into a full-time job proofreading the association’s buyer’s guide. She also wrote features for Digger, the association’s monthly publication.
Eventually she married into horticulture, as her ex-husband Scott was a landscape contractor.
“I mowed a lot of grass, too,” she says with a chuckle.
Nancy and her family moved to the Santa Barbara, Calif., area where Scott took a superintendent position at a golf course. He was also selling J. Frank Schmidt & Son trees at the time. That was a serendipitous side job. When they moved back to Oregon, J. Frank Schmidt needed help writing tree descriptions. Frank, the second generation at the nursery, recommended her for the job. Nancy and Frank were schoolmates, and his grandparents and Nancy’s grandparents were close friends.
“They hired me to help Keith [Warren] so he could concentrate on plant development work,” she says. “What was supposed to be a summer job has turned into a 24-year career. It’s been a good, long summer.”
She’s now the communications director at the Boring, Ore.-based nursery.
Walking the huge fields of JFS inspired her to dabble in her own nursery, Treephoria.
“It’s a couple of acres — we turned a horse pasture into a growing operation,” she says. “And I found out how hard it is to grow trees. In my little patch, I’m more appreciative of how complicated and challenging tree production really is.”
Nancy calls it a “collector’s nursery.”
“We like growing the unusual trees — things that if I didn’t have a full-time job, I’d go broke growing. It’s not the mainstream trees, but ones that don’t really fit into production nurseries,” she says. “We may not have the best business model, but it’s fun.”
“But it’s too much work to be a hobby,” she quips.
Nancy says that Treephoria has made her a better communicator at JFS.
Besides communicating the value of trees to customers such as finished growers and garden centers, an important part of her role at JFS includes educating landscape architects about new trees and better alternatives to old standbys. Years ago, when most in the production nursery trade weren’t interacting with landscape architects, Nancy made connections with that segment.
“I preach the gospel of trees, and I really enjoy that aspect of my job,” she says. “It’s really important to preach beyond the choir and get in front of landscape architects, arborists and garden writers. That’s been a big part of my job.”
With Jeff Lafrenz handling marketing efforts at the nursery, it has allowed Nancy to focus on outreach, something that not only benefits JFS, but the entire nursery industry.
“Her greatest asset has been as a liaison with the landscape architects, and this group is hungry for information,” says Dr. Michael A. Dirr, retired professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, author and plant breeder. “Certainly, Schmidt has benefited through Nancy by this link, this connection with this group. These are the people who spec the plants, who do the big jobs – looking for hundreds of trees, even thousands of trees. But the entire industry can thank her for this connection. Every nursery should be communicating with landscape architects the way Nancy does.”
Nancy says the late Norbert Kinen, a former general manager at JFS, encouraged her to approach the landscape architects.
“He said we should exhibit at the ASLA [American Society of Landscape Architects] show. That was around 1994. He asked me to go to the show in Cleveland and check them out. Some were delighted and some were puzzled when we showed up,” she says. “We’ve gone every year since. It’s a really good thing for the company, and the landscape architects have been extremely appreciative. It’s not something you can quantify, but these connections have helped us create a great deal of pull-through marketing.”
The nursery, and Nancy, are a constant at the ASLA shows each year, which float around to different cities.
“I’ve made some really good friends, and ASLA even made me an honorary member,” she says.
Her collaborations are invaluable to the industry, says Becky Thomas, co-owner of Spring Grove Nursery in Mazon, Ill.
“Nancy has a unique way of bringing together designers and growers,” Becky says. “She holds a wealth of knowledge about trees and horticulture, but even more valuable is her ability to connect people. She constantly seeks to bring together people from her vast network and initiate a connection for a common goal or interest. Networking is probably one of my favorite things about our industry, and Nancy is always introducing me to more and more fantastic green industry peers.”
Nancy introduced Becky to Shannon Ramsay, founder of Trees Forever in Iowa.
“Nancy put us together and said, ‘You two should get to know each other.’ She’s always saying that,” Becky explains. “I ended up being on an emerald ash borer compliance team with Trees Forever based on that introduction.”
Nancy, who Becky considers an important mentor and friend, was partially responsible for the direction Becky and her husband Jamie took with marketing their new business. They were attending the ANLA Management Clinic several years ago and listened to a presentation by Nancy and Keith Cline of the U.S. Forest Service about ways to market the value of trees.
“I sat in that session fascinated by how she took the actual data that the Forest Service was working on and applied it to our industry and a new message,” Becky recalls. “Her talk resonated with us and we adopted much of what Nancy and Keith explained in our own marketing message.
“We’ve been consistently marketing the value of trees – their social, environmental and economic impact on our society. Focusing on that message makes it easier to get people to commit to planting more trees.”
Nancy’s outreach also extends to members of the International Society of Arboriculture, as well as nonprofits and community tree-planting groups.
She’s on the board of Friends of Trees, a Portland, Ore.-based organization that is charged with improving the urban tree canopy and restoring sensitive natural areas. The group works with thousands of volunteers and to date has planted more than 750,000 trees and native plants in two states. Scott Fogarty, the executive director at Friends of Trees, says almost immediately after meeting Nancy that he asked her to be on the board.
“She’s such a welcoming individual,” Scott says. “She’s so approachable and personable, and her knowledge of trees is amazing.”
She meets with community leaders, elected officials, other nurseries and arborists asking them to promote and support the Friends of Trees mission, he adds.
Nancy’s knack for bringing people together has benefited not only Friends of Trees, but other groups across the country, by linking community tree planting volunteer groups with the green industry. And that gets more trees planted and encourages more volunteers.
“She’s always taking the time to identify what nonprofit groups’ needs are,” Scott explains. “With Louisville Grows, she helped them tremendously by helping them steer the waters on how to become a nonprofit. Her nexus is the ability to connect those organizations with the nursery industry itself.”
In her role at Friends of Trees, Nancy often accompanies Scott on lobbying trips locally, regionally and nationally.
“We’ve met with lawmakers both in Oregon and Washington, D.C., to lobby for the Farm Bill since federal funds predominantly support the states’ urban forests, and we’ve lobbied for tree planting along state rights-of-way. I just appreciate everything she does for urban forestry,” he says.
Nancy encourages anyone and everyone in the industry to be an advocate for trees and plants, whether it’s on the local, state or national level.
“We need to be political and raise the profile of plants, which will in turn raise their value. Lawmakers are usually very receptive to tree people — they appreciate the information we provide. Most, at first, are unaware of what value trees bring to their communities,” she explains.
Although meeting with community leaders and lawmakers is critical to Friends of Trees’ mission, Nancy receives the most joy from being with the volunteers and the people who get to enjoy the plants once they’re in the ground.
“Being involved in Friends of Trees brings into focus why we’re doing this when I see the delight of people getting a tree and planting it, or just seeing people enjoy having the opportunity to work with nature, whether it’s in a neighborhood or an urban forest,” she says.
Nancy receives a lot of inspiration from simply walking through the JFS arboretum.
And she seeks advice from people on the job like Frank or Guy Meacham, the product development manager. She has access to a Rolodex full of folks in the arboreta and academic world who are eager to share research and discuss ideas.
Keith Warren, who retired from JFS in 2015 as the product development manager, provided Nancy with years of mentorship and friendship.
Her admiration of the Schmidt family grows each year, even as she approaches her 25th year at the nursery.
“I am very proud to work for such a generous family,” she says.
She continues to learn by talking with the production staff or just standing in the background observing the production crew, and even when she gives a nursery tour on the JFS grounds.
“Collectively, we still learn,” she says.
She is often inspired by the tenacity of nursery workers and business owners.
“It’s their determination that sticks with me when I feel like I want to give up on things,” she adds.
She says it may sound predictable, but the people are her favorite part of the industry.
“I’m always delighted to be with them. They’re hard-working, humble, really interesting and generous,” she says. “I’m very fortunate to be where I am, to do what I’m doing.”
Nancy has no immediate plans to slow down or retire. But when that time comes, she’ll likely do more international travel and see some of the magnificent gardens and arboreta of the world. She also wants to personally meet some of the great gardeners that she’s befriended on social media.
She’ll continue to research her family and community history, and is considering an industry-related project.
“One of my professors had recorded the Oregon nursery industry up into the ’70s or ’80s. That needs an update, and I’d enjoy doing that,” she says. “When I freelanced for OAN, around 1976 or so, I interviewed several nursery owners who are still in business, like Berryhill Nursery, for example. Those interviews were priceless. It’s fun to capture the stories of those people.”