Terry Bates was a high school teacher before he and his family moved to Wallowa County in rural northeastern Oregon to open a nursery.
On Mother’s Day, 1980, he had an open house at his first site next to a lumberyard in the tiny town of Joseph. The day’s high temperature was 13 degrees.
“Joe McCormack, an old rancher, was in the shop drinking coffee that day and he asked me, ‘What are you going to do here?’” Bates said.
Almost 40 years later, Bates and his wife, Irene, are still doing what they set out to do, raise plants for a region with crazy temperature and weather shifts, surviving through windstorms and snowstorms that pummel greenhouses.
Bates dug a well to water his plants and built a shallow pond, providing wildlife habitat. The pond is popular with mallards and wood ducks. Along the river, white tail deer are common and once in a while Bates said he sees mink.
Then he pointed to where a small stream comes into the river.
“That’s where salmon and steelhead smolts like to hang out,” Bates said.
In his mid-70s, Bates doesn’t appear ready to retire any time soon.
He spread out his arms as he said, “This is our retirement — running the greenhouse so we don’t get stuck in a chair!” Bates said.
At Alder Slope Nursery, Pam and Randy Slinker did decide to retire, but on a beautiful 80-degree day, Randy Slinker wasn’t in an ordinary chair, he was behind the wheel of his Cobra replica he built more than 20 years ago.
In 1976 the Slinkers bought the nursery property. The couple’s son Nathan, a poet and college professor, moved home a couple years ago with his wife, Aschley Humphrey, to take over the family business.
“After a couple years teaching, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I thought running the nursery would allow me time to do other projects in the winter like write and create art,” Nathan Slinker said.
Last winter’s “project” was building a house on the Alder Slope Nursery property. Between the new house and the greenhouses vegetables grow in raised beds, a new addition to the nursery’s business.
Since Nathan Slinker returned home, he is a weekly presence at the Wallowa County Farmers’ Market in Joseph, an organization he now oversees as its board president.
Piles of compost wait to be turned back into the soil. The plants inside the greenhouses receive their nutrients in low doses from organic, slow release fertilizers like bone meal and cottonseed oil during one of the two daily watering sessions.
Periodically, the tour is interrupted by customers looking for plants and fruit trees.
When asked about changing careers from teaching to running the family business, Nathan Slinker said, “I like doing this and seeing the whole process.”