Western innovators: Nursery invigorates berry world
Family farm sees intellectual property as strong foundation for future growth
By MITCH LIES
LOWELL, Ore. -- Blueberry growers look to one source for comprehensive information on the world 's production of blueberries.
It's not the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service and its bank of statisticians.
They turn to Cort Brazelton, a 30-year-old business development manager at Fall Creek Nursery in Lowell, Ore.
"People share information with him that probably no one else could get," said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission. "It's a highly anticipated report."
Brazelton produces the World Blueberry Acreage and Production report, which shows regional and international production trends by tracking acreage and production by variety and region.
Brazelton knows the industry; he grew up on his family's blueberry nursery. He speaks five languages, which helps when he's gathering foreign data. He respects confidentiality. And because he is not a fruit producer, growers are more apt to share information with him.
"If I was to take a guess as to why I've been continuously hired to do this report for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, I'd say it is because people know Fall Creek is a company that works with the industry, and that we know how to respect confidential information, but also know how to extract trends from that," Brazelton said.
Working in the blueberry industry wasn't the first choice for Brazelton. For much of his youth, Brazelton said he wanted to get away from the family farm.
"When I was growing up, as far as I could tell, this business was digging ditches. It just didn't look like all that much fun," Brazelton said.
"I was interested in a life of the mind, foreign languages, being abroad and being a global citizen," he said.
Things changed for Brazelton while attending graduate school in Monterey, Calif.
What started as a half-time job at Driscoll's, a berry producer and marketer based in Watsonville, Calif., turned into a full-time business manager position.
"That was when I realized I was never leaving this business," Brazelton said.
By the age of 26, Brazelton was running his own consulting company.
Two years later, things changed again for Brazelton, and he came home to his family's blueberry nursery.
"The time was nigh to make the decision whether or not to come back into the family business," Brazelton said. "My family was beginning the process of deciding whether to sell the company."
While farming wasn't always in Brazelton's blood, selling was.
"He was a sales guy from day one," said his younger sister, Amelie Aust.
Aust, 27, remembers Brazelton selling berries to Nancy's Yogurt in Springfield, Ore., when he was 12.
"Cort had the ability from the very beginning to sniff the business before it was there, even at that young age," Aust said.
Aust and Brazelton, along with Aust's husband, Boris Aust, form an unusually high-powered executive team for the nursery, which produces between 10 million and 12 million blueberry plants a year.
Amelie Aust is a Fulbright scholar with a law degree and a master's degree in intellectual property from the Max Planck institute in Germany.
Boris Aust, who is CFO of Fall Creek, previously worked as a risk analyst for a major German bank.
"He worked in the tallest building in Europe," Brazelton said of his brother-in-law. "Now he works in a nursery in Lowell, Ore."
"It's been an interesting transition for him," Amelie Aust said. "He went from the investment world where he was managing portfolios of hundreds of millions of euros to sitting on the other side of the table in an agricultural company in the U.S."
Brazelton graduated magna cum laude from Oregon State University with a bachelor of arts degree in classical history and a degree in vocal music and composition. Brazelton never finished his master's degree from the Monterey Language Institute, although he has returned to teach classes at the institute.
"We're a good team," Aust said. "I think it was just a combination of factors that added up to make a really diverse second generation converging on this company at exactly the point where the owners wanted to transition."
Fall Creek Nursery, started in 1978 by Dave and Barbara Brazelton, today is much more than a blueberry nursery.
"Our traditional business is as a manufacturing company," Aust said. "We are a nursery. We make plants. We sell plants to growers and to the nursery market."
But Fall Creek also has a breeding program. It grows out and tests plants for universities and other breeding programs. It operates several test sites in North America and Europe, which help the company understand how a cultivar responds in different climates.
"The future of our business is intellectual property," Brazelton said.
"At the core, what we are becoming for a big portion of our customer base is a solutions company," Aust said.
"We are not a fruit producer. So we are highly confidential and we sit in decision-making rooms of many customers who are direct competitors," Aust said.
"And they know that," Aust said, "but having general industry knowledge and the expertise of our different team members is worth having us in the room."
The company in recent years has begun talking with Costco and other large buyers.
"We are quietly working on connecting with those who control the end of the hose," Brazelton said.
"They want to know what is going on in Mexico," Aust said. "They want to know what is going on in the Southeast. What is going on in the Northwest.
"They also want to know what is coming variety-wise so when growers start to have it, they know what to be asking for," Aust said.
"It is an interesting collaboration," Aust said. "They will never be a customer of ours directly, but our largest customers are their largest vendors, so we have an interest in trying to come up with a win-win to help pair the right people."
Working, as Brazelton said, "60 yards from the house we grew up in," Aust and Brazelton are far removed from the international lifestyles they once pursued.
Looking back, both said it was a difficult decision two years ago to return to the family business.
"If Cort wasn't coming back, I don't know if we would have," Aust said. "And if we weren't coming back, I don't know if Cort would have."
"This is not driving tractors and things like that," Brazelton said. "This is a highly sophisticated industry and a very rewarding profession."
Residence: Eugene, Ore.
Occupation: Business development manager for Fall Creek Farm and Nursery in Lowell, Ore.
Education: Magna cum laude, bachelor of arts, classical history, Oregon State University
Quote: "When I was growing up, as far as I could tell, this business was digging ditches. It just didn't look like all that much fun."