The decision Kirk, Devin and Allison Cooper made in 1992 to purchase Arneson Rootstock has proved to be a good one.
They could see many advantages at the outset and discovered several more as time progressed.
The 35-acre property near Canby, Ore., included 10 acres in apple rootstock when they bought it. Good water rights, an established business, a strong market and the desire to go into business together were among the attractions for the Coopers.
However, it was a new venture for all of them. Devin, an Oregon State University graduate, had been working as an industrial engineer for 10 years, and his wife, Allison, was a stock broker. Devin’s father, Kirk, now deceased, had experience in the plywood business, so having previous owner Glen Arneson stay on a year and inheriting his well-trained crew was a huge boon.
Arneson’s became Willamette Nurseries and 26 years later the bulk of that crew remains, part of a staff of 25-30 year-round employees augmented by 25 more at peak times.
Now run by Devin and his wife, Allison, Willamette Nurseries produces 4 million rootstocks annually and ships coast to coast, to Mexico and to Ontario.
“At first we planted the nursery up to about 18 acres of stoolbeds and had some seedlings there as well,” Devin Cooper said. “The market was fairly strong but in the late ’90s it really dropped, which forced us into looking at some other rootstocks to grow.”
That’s when they branched into other fruits and ornamental shade trees. Through diversification and the subsequent purchase of another property close by, the Coopers now produce about 30 varieties of apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry and shade tree rootstock on 103 acres of their 135-acre nursery.
“The demand for apple rootstock has been really strong the last 10 years but we never want to get into the position of having just one product line again,” Cooper said.
Rootstock, which helps determine a tree’s soil preferences, size and shape, disease resistance and ornamental leaf color, is always under development and the nursery’s offerings evolve as new varieties are released.
“A primary driver for apple rootstock breeding in the U.S. is out of Cornell University,” Cooper said. “At times we participate in the testing process to help determine how best to propagate.”
When they started, Cooper didn’t realize what an advantage they had in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Its fertile soils and maritime climate enable Oregon to grow cuttings they can’t in other parts of the country.
“I grew up here and I knew it was a unique spot but until I got into this business I didn’t realize how unique it is in the world,” Cooper said. “Oregon also has a strong nursery inspection program that allows us to ship almost anywhere in the country. Other states may produce rootstock but they cannot access all the areas of the country we can because of Oregon’s nursery inspection program.”
Five years ago the Coopers’ son Alex joined the business. As the Coopers, in their early 60s, and most of their experienced employees approach retirement age, one of his biggest priorities is passing on their knowledge to the next generation.
“We are concerned with developing that next generation for the company and are working on documenting all the processes we can to assure that happens as seamlessly as possible,” Devin Cooper said. “Not only do we need to pass on the knowledge and skills; we need to find the employees to pass those skills on to. The shortage of labor is probably going to be the biggest challenge we have going forward.”
Alex, who’d been working in fermentation science, didn’t like the idea of the business being sold.
“I have a really good relationship with my parents,” he said. “Still, it’s overwhelming; he bought it when it was a lot smaller company and grew it incrementally and it grew in complexity step by step.”