California’s Central Valley is an agricultural powerhouse, home to many field growers of everything from carrots and tomatoes to nectarine orchards and almond groves. Dave Wilson Nursery started there in 1938 on a rented patch of ground near Modesto, California. Since then, the company grew into one of the largest growers of deciduous fruit, nut and shade trees in the U.S.
About five years ago, Dave Wilson Nursery was producing around 500 acres of bareroot trees. Over the last five years, the company’s customers in the commercial grower space started to demand more potted trees and fewer bareroot trees. Almonds are Dave Wilson’s biggest seller in that market, and five years ago, 80% of almond production was bareroot trees and about 20% was potted. Now, those numbers have completely flipped.
Dave Wilson president and CEO Bill Reid, who joined the company in 2017, says the company now delivers 80% of its almond trees in pots using hybrid rootstocks. Reid has made a commitment to grow more potted trees.
“We've seen a really strong surge in the need from our customer base on a potted tree,” Reid says. “That's where this whole thing kicks off and it's our desire to make sure we meet the demands of the marketplace.”
Dave Wilson Nursery is split into three divisions and maintains separate sales departments.
The wholesale department sells to retail nurseries, garden centers, wholesale container growers and mail order companies which, combined, provide DWN trees and plants to home gardeners in all 50 states. The production department is charged with growing quality nursery stock, from planting seed, liners and cuttings, to budding and grafting, cutting back, suckering, staking and grading. The commercial orchard division makes up the largest part of the business, and those customers have forced a change in the way Dave Wilson Nursery grows its trees.
Behind the move
There are two reasons behind the push for potted trees. No. 1 is convenience. Commercial growers that buy Dave Wilson’s trees to eventually harvest the fruit and nuts appreciate the ability to plant a potted tree whenever they want, depending on their needs.
“With a dormant bareroot tree, you have a fairly small window of opportunity to get that tree in the ground,” Reid says. “But any month of the year is a good month to plant a potted almond tree. They don't have to do it just during the bareroot season.”
Weather conditions also impact bareroot planting schedules. Potted trees offer greater planting flexibility.
The second reason commercial growers have been pushing for more potted trees is the surge in demand for hybrid rootstocks in the marketplace. Most fruit trees are a combination of two plants that have been grafted together. One plant is selected for its roots and is called the rootstock. The other plant is selected for its fruit, flavor, ripening time, and chill hour requirements and is called the scion. Hybrid rootstocks have several advantages over conventional rootstocks, but the main one is the ability to better fit the customer’s growing situation. For instance, some hybrid rootstocks have been bred for certain soil types. If a grower has saltier ground, or wet soil, or if their field-grown trees will need to stand up to high winds, Dave Wilson Nursery is able to tailor an offering to that customer that meets their specific needs.
However, despite those advantages, the hybrid rootstocks do not excel in a bareroot growing environment.
“The hybrid rootstocks can't really thrive in exposure to the sun and the wind that your conventional rootstocks typically go through when they're dug,” Reid says. “They like to stay out of the sun, out of the wind as we process them and as we grow them.”
The four big hybrid rootstocks currently available in potted trees through Dave Wilson Nursery are Viking (used for almonds, apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums), Atlas (mainly almonds), RootPac-R (almonds, nectarines, peaches) and Hansen (almonds).
Space and control
Those are the two reasons commercial tree growers increasingly want potted trees. But there are reasons Dave Wilson Nursery has been eager to expand its potted tree production, as well. More effective use of space is one. The acreage requirements to grow a potted tree are drastically smaller than it takes to grow a bare-root tree. Reid says at Dave Wilson Nursery, his team can grow 200,000 trees in the same space they grow 18,000 bareroot trees. They didn't have much greenhouse space, so they were growing their potted trees outdoors. However, the production department came to the realization that they could grow a more consistent quality plant if they could control their environment.
“Consistent quality is what we want to produce,” Reid says. “And the more control we have, the better a job we can do. A controlled environment is a big deal and a game changer for Dave Wilson.”
Potted trees grown outdoors are still subject to the same environmental issues that a bareroot tree must handle. Temperature, in particular, presents a tricky challenge.
“If we're not getting warm enough days, we don't get a good kickoff,” Reid says. “On the other hand, if it gets too hot, our trees can grow too rapidly.”
In addition to offering advanced environmental controls, growing under cover allows Dave Wilson to incorporate production line and manufacturing processes and take advantage of the resulting efficiencies. Labor is an issue in California, just as it is all over the U.S. The difficulty in finding labor is another reason the increased focus on potted trees has gained traction.
Compounding the issue, many of the steps in Dave Wilson’s production of tree nursery stock are done the old-fashioned way, by hand.
The nursery does its own rooted production and buys rooted cuttings from some outside sources. The container itself isn’t groundbreaking. Reid says Dave Wilson’s potted trees are grown in a nursery tree pot similar to everyone else's, a 4-by-4-by-9 inch container. However, they can be run through a flat filler or popped onto a production line.
“One thing I believe is being able to manage your labor so that you can bring your plants to the people and not have your people spread out over 500 acres to try to do your production,” Reid says. “Not that there aren't opportunities in both segments, but common sense tells you if you have a smaller, confined space to do your work in, you can be more efficient.”
With the ability to run their potted trees on a production line and with automatic flat fillers, DWN got the opportunity grow their trees like how greenhouse operations grow annuals and perennials.
Reid had been exploring his options for building greenhouse space on Dave Wilson Nursery’s Hickman, California, location. As part of the process, Reid visited Fredriks Nursery, another Central Valley grower 40 miles away in Ripon. He wanted to see their greenhouse structures in person, because they were the same type he was considering building in Hickman. During the visit, David Fredrik approached Reid and the DWN team with an intriguing possibility: would they be interested in purchasing his facility?
This turn of events was fortuitous, as Dave Wilson Nursery was looking to buy exactly what Fredriks Nursery was selling.
"When the opportunity to sell to a fellow Central Valley family-owned business presented itself, it made sense for our family to sell at this time in our life,” Fredriks president David Fredrik said in a statement. “We believe that Dave Wilson Nursery will be a good partner here in Ripon and we're pleased by the local leadership.”
The opportunity to buy an existing space was advantageous because DWN was still in the phase of scouting locations, planning a build and applying for permits. The Fredriks Nursery acquisition meant DWN could accelerate its greenhouse production timeline.
“We didn't have to go through any environmental and timing issues that we would've had to do here in Hickman,” Reid says. “It was already up and running.”
Currently used for flower production, the greenhouses will undergo some technological enhancements to adhere to Dave Wilson Nursery's stringent quality requirements for growing almond, walnut and stone fruit varieties and rootstock. Reid expects only minor retrofits.
Fredriks Nursery presently employs approximately 20 full-time staff and 140 seasonal employees. Reid says all Fredriks employees will have the opportunity to apply at DWN.
The deal was scheduled to close in January 2020, with crop conversion goals set for this winter and early spring. Additional production from the new facility should be delivered to customers as soon as fall 2020.
Bareroot isn’t dead
Despite losing favor with the commercial grower market, there are still plenty of customers out there who prefer bareroot trees. Bareroot offers some specific advantages, especially for the consumer market. Phil Pursel is a sales representative for Dave Wilson’s wholesale business, which produces about 2 million trees a year. They are sold and shipped to retail nurseries and garden centers all over the country. It’s a small part of the business compared to the 10 million almond trees the company grows for the commercial market. And it’s very seasonal, with most of the shipping being done from mid-December to mid-February. Pursel says 1.5 million trees ship in about a two-month period, shortly after the trees are dug in December. Bareroot, field-grown trees cost less to ship than potted trees because of the additional weight that comes with shipping the pot and soil. Pursel says Dave Wilson Nursery has shipped 15,000 trees on a 53-foot truck.
The wholesale division provides additional diversity in the business’ revenue streams.
“When the commercial side is down, we support the nursery and vice versa,” Pursel says.
Whichever way the trends turn next, Dave Wilson Nursery aims to keep innovating as its customers needs change.
“I don't think any business can just sit back and take it easy,” Reid says. “We have to earn our business every single day.”