Flower, tree nurseries are a big part of Wisconsin’s farm economy

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Monday, June 21, 2010
— When we think “Wisconsin agriculture,” we think “milk.”

Producing milk requires corn and soybeans, whose familiar dark green rows surprise us this time of year when they seem to grow inches every day.

What also might surprise us is a slow-growing crop that brings billions to Wisconsin’s economy.

Rather than being planted around barns full of cattle, these fields are planted around cities full of people.

Wisconsin’s “green industry” generates $2.7 billion annually, said Brian Swingle, executive director of the Wisconsin Nursery Association.

“Green industry” is an umbrella term for a list of products and services that better our backyards. Members include tree, sod and flower growers; fertilizer appliers and landscapers, to name a few.

Locally, flower and tree growing nurseries are common, particularly in central Walworth County.

Of the 616 farms licensed to grow trees and flowers for resale in Wisconsin, 13 are in Rock County and 25 in Walworth County, according to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection data.

The high-quality soil in the area helps, Swingle said. But it’s not the only reason nurseries are common in south central Wisconsin, he said.

“It’s very good terrain,” Swingle said. “It’s very flat, and the soil’s very good. And, also, you want to be close to the market.”

It’s a market that can be hard to predict, said Rita Yadon, who owns Arbor Vista Nursery on Dam Road north of the city of Delavan. She mainly sells to wholesale buyers such as nurseries and landscapers, Yadon said.

She grows trees, shrubs and perennial plants.

Arbor Vista has a retail yard, and the retail shoppers are good market predictors, Yadon said.

Homeowners research what they want, Yadon said. Thanks to the Internet and popular television garden shows, they are becoming well-educated shoppers, she said.

Once retail shoppers develop an interest in a type of tree or perennial plant, they hire landscapers and tell them what they want, Yadon said.

“I’ve learned that landscapers have a tendency to stick with the tried and true,” she said. “Homeowners are becoming more and more sophisticated.”

The tricky part is predicting a market four to eight years in advance.

Becky and Glen Feltham own Countryside Trees in Walworth Township.

For 25 years, they’ve been planting cut-your-own Christmas trees. The business developed into selling trees for landscaping and then into growing and selling hardwood trees, Becky Feltham said.

They grow trees on 200 acres east of Delavan Lake.

In the spring, the Felthams order and plant 5,000 evergreen seedlings that are between 12 and 18 inches tall.

Six to eight years later, they’ve got Christmas trees, Feltham said.

They start digging trees for landscaping when the trees reach 4 feet in height, she said.

Hardwood trees are ready for resale in four to five years, she said.

That slow grow time makes growing trees an expensive business, Swingle said.

“If it’s not the most expensive crop per acre, I don’t know what beats it,” he said.

The downturn in new home starts has been tough on growers.

“Our business is tied a lot to the construction business,” Feltham said. “We sell trees to nurseries when nurseries are selling to homeowners.”

For a lot of growers, that’s meant growing inventories, Swingle said.

But the silver lining has been the homeowners who have chosen to spend money improving their backyards rather than traveling, Swingle said.

“People are nesting,” Swingle said. “They’re spending more money on their homes. People are thinking about outdoor living.”

Yadon has noticed the trend. She expected a lot of folks would shop for landscaping plants this season, and she hasn’t been disappointed, she said.

Last year, her landscaping friends had jobs building “hardscapes” such as decks, outdoor fireplaces patios and retaining walls, Yadon said.

This year, she’s seeing homeowners who are shopping to do their own landscaping.

Yadon said it’s a gift to work in the line she does. While the work is hard, she enjoys being outside. And the vast majority of the time she’s working with happy customers, Yadon said.

“You don’t get crabby people when you’re talking about plants.”

Last updated: 2:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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