Western Innovator: Grower succeeds despite counselor’s advice

Kathy LeCompte, co-owner of Brooks Tree Farm, examines one of the conifer plugs growing in a greenhouse at her company's original location in Brooks, Ore.

As a university horticulture student, Kathy LeCompte once got some bad advice from a guidance counselor about her plan to commercially grow and sell plants.

“I was told early in my career there was no room for women in the nursery industry,” she said.

After successfully running the Brooks Tree Farm for the better part of four decades with her husband, Dave, LeCompte likes to think she and other women have helped change the negative gender stereotype espoused by her counselor.

“It turns out he was wrong,” LeCompte said.

Since starting on a 30-acre parcel in 1980, the company has grown to seven sites with 255 acres and annually sells up to 6 million plants of roughly 50 varieties.

The nursery produces conifer seedlings for multiple markets — reforestation, Christmas trees and ornamental stock — as well as native plants for habitat restoration projects.

Much of the company’s plants are field-grown, but it’s also invested in greenhouses in which they’re grown in “plugs,” or tiny containers that contain the roots, rendering them less vulnerable to drying out.

“They tend to be a lot more uniform,” LeCompte said.

Selling plants with more than one purpose has traditionally broadened the company’s base of customers, helping to insulate it from shocks to any one market.

“It helps even out production,” LeCompte said.

Brooks Tree Farm was usually far enough back in the supply chain to cushion it from economic disruptions, but the most recent “Great Recession” proved an exception to that rule.

With the severe downturn in housing, loggers weren’t cutting trees for new homes and didn’t need seedlings for replanting. At the same time, housing developers and homeowners stopped investing in landscaping, drying up demand for plants.

“It hit our nursery on both sides. We weren’t supplying the timber or the ornamental nursery trade,” LeCompte said.

To make matters worse, severe overproduction in the Christmas tree industry destroyed demand for seedlings in that sector as well.

Between 2008 and 2015, the company dumped three million Noble fir seedlings, for example, because they were getting too big to effectively harvest and ship.

“It’s not like other businesses where you can leave product on a shelf until things are better,” she said.

Fortunately, the fourth pillar of the company’s business, native plant sales, was a major factor in why the nursery survived. Environmental restoration projects are often funded by the federal government, which spent heavily to stimulate the economy during the recession.

The native plant market is inherently risky because there are relatively few buyers who can order tremendous numbers of plants.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, native species are often finicky to germinate and cultivate even though they’re grown in their natural climate.

“They just take a lot of baby-sitting,” LeCompte said.

Seeds from the cottonwood and willow spoil very quickly, for example, and the seedlings that do emerge can grow very unevenly. Meanwhile, their irrigation needs are disparate: Willows desperately need water, whereas over watering cottonwoods would quickly produce enormous, unsaleable trees.

Though native plants pose particular challenges, anticipating demand years or even decades out is a conundrum facing each of the market segments served by Brooks Tree Farm.

Knowing how many Christmas trees consumers will want, for instance, is highly speculative, LeCompte said. “We’re guessing what the market is going to need 12 to 15 years out. That’s tough.”

Now that the glut of Christmas trees has ended and housing starts have improved, there’s enough need for seedlings that a shortage has developed.

“Those trees were pushed out and now there’s an under supply,” LeCompte said.

One product that’s not as exposed to long-term trends in other industries are tiny coniferous trees that are used as gifts at weddings and funerals.

The traditional use for these trees was as “grafters” that serve as the base for other varieties, but Brooks Tree Farm also sells them in decorative boxes or champagne flutes, serving as inexpensive and flexible party favors.

Such diversification is helpful in an industry filled with uncertainties about future demand.

“Those are questions none of us knows the answers to,” LeCompte said.

Brooks Tree Farm

Owners: Kathy and Dave LeCompte

Headquarters: Brooks, Ore.

Employees: 30 year-round, up to 75 during peak harvest season.

Founded: 1980

Property: Seven locations totaling 255 acres.

Markets served: Christmas trees, reforestation, ornamental nursery stock, native habitat restoration.

Sales territory: Primarily the Pacific Northwest, but also throughout the U.S. and occasionally international.

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