SALEM, Ore. — A hobby discovered late in life has provided the Schreiner family with a thriving niche business for the better part of a century.
F.X. Schreiner was a “gentlemen farmer” in Minnesota when in 1925 he began hybridizing irises for fun.
Shortly before his death six years later, he’d offer his three children some practical advice: “This would be a good business.”
Bob, Connie and Gus took the guidance to heart, and nearly nine decades later, their father’s words continue to ring true.
Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, now operated by the third and fourth generations of the family, produces roughly 1,200 selections of iris on about 100 acres north of Salem, Ore., that are sold around the U.S. and the world.
The company also makes about 20,000 crosses a year to hybridize new varieties, resulting in about 15 to 18 marketable new selections a year offered to customers.
“Most of them will be thrown away because they’re not that much different,” said Ray Schreiner, the founder’s grandson. “People are going for bigger flowers, beards, bud counts and any new color break.”
Flowers are hand-pollinated, the seeds are later harvested from cucumber-like pods and planted in November, then germinate the following year and have their flowers evaluated during the spring bloom.
Those handful of plants judged to be superior or unique have their rhizomes replanted to begin commercial production — each rhizome will produce three or four more, so scaling up takes time.
The Schreiners considered using tissue culture propagation, in which tiny plants are split up and regrown over a relatively short period of time in a lab.
While the technique does exponentially increase the numbers of a new selection, they found that those descendants didn’t stay true to type compared conventional vegetative propagation.
“They didn’t stay stable,” Ray said.
Brand new selections tend to fetch the highest prices — $60 to $65 per rhizome — but the volume tends to be low, said Liz Schmidt, Ray’s sister.
“We don’t have a lot, so we don’t sell a lot,” she said.
Most people will not fork over $60 or more per rhizome, but collectors, breeders and farmers often will, said Ray. These new varieties can generally be freely cultivated, as irises haven’t traditionally been subject to plant patents.
That would likely change if anyone eventually manages to produce a red iris, which has so far proven elusive, he said. “It’s almost the colors of the rainbow, except red.”
Some traits, such as irises that bloom more than once a year, take a longer time to breed. Weather fluctuations can affect this particular characteristic, but it’s getting more consistent, Ray said.
“The trouble with re-bloomers is they don’t always rebloom,” he said.
The contributions of Schreiner’s Iris Gardens to iris breeding have been repeatedly recognized with prestigious awards, such as winning the Dykes Memorial Award — considered the industry’s top honor — 11 times since 1958.
Growing irises on a commercial scale is particularly labor-intensive during the summer. The company begins digging up rhizomes to fill orders in July, which often overlaps with planting rhizomes in August for the next year’s crop.
“When the weather is nice, you have to go like crazy,” said Ray.
Labor shortages are nothing new in agriculture and the problem is growing worse, which has the company looking for ways to improve efficiency.
Currently, iris rhizomes are harvested mechanically with an implement attached to the back of a tractor. As the harvested plants fall out the back, four workers scurry to throw them into bins on top of it.
In the heat and the dust, it’s hardly the most desirable task on the farm, and those four workers would be happy to be assigned other duties.
“It’s a horrible job,” said Ray.
“Nobody wants to do it,” Liz added.
To improve the process, the company is modifying a combine harvester that would dig up the iris rhizomes on the front end.
Dirt would be shaken from them while tumbling across rods under the machine, then they’d be directly deposited into bins out the back without human intervention.
“It’s not like any other crop, where you can just buy the machinery,” said Ben Schreiner, Ray’s son and the family’s fourth generation to grow irises.
Schreiner’s Iris Gardens
Location: Salem, Ore., after relocating from St. Paul, Minn., in 1946.
Family: Founded in Minnesota by R.X. Schreiner, relocated to Oregon by his children, Bob, Connie and Gus. Now run by Gus’s children, Ray Schreiner, Steve Schreiner and Liz Schmidt, as well as Ray’s son, Ben.
Size: 100 acres
Crops: 1,200 selections of irises, as well as day lilies
Employees: 21 year-round, roughly 100 seasonal
Sales channels: Online, print catalog, wholesale and direct-marketing from 10-acre display garden