Stephanie Haugen ’12 grew up on a farm in Washington County. As a journalism major at Pacific University, she used her senior project to explore the changes in agriculture in her home county and to tell the stories of the farmers who are neighbors to the University. With her permission, Pacific magazine is publishing excerpts of her seven-story investigative series.
Tom Epler owns and operates his nursery in Forest Grove just off Highway 47. Passersby may recognize it by the bison that also adorn his pastures.
He got his start in the business about 30 years ago.
“I read about nursery in school,” he said. “It looked like there was money to be made.”
The Eplers have been working the land for four generations, with his grandfather starting out with a dairy, then adapting to nursery.
Dairying got to be too hard. Epler and his dad agreed not to continue with it and started the nursery business with hopes of making more money without having to milk twice a day, seven days a week, early and late. They cashed in the dairy and started over for a piece of the Oregon nursery dream.
Like many who got into nursery during its rise, Epler saw the opportunity to make more money off his land. Epler sells one of his average shade trees for $120. It only costs him $18 to grow it and he can plant 700 on one acre of his 407-acre property.
The industry yields a variety of crops including flowers, fruit and flowering trees, bushes, shrubs, seeds, bulbs, and container and greenhouse stock.
“It’s a flexible industry that’s always looking for new products and new varieties,” said Gary McAninch, program supervisor of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s nursery and Christmas tree division.
With shifting consumer demand, the industry has shifted as well. When the recession hit, nurseries started growing more bushes and trees that produce food as opposed to flowers in line with customers’ requests.
Many of Oregon’s nurseries are small, making less than $100,000 in sales, and half of those nurseries make less than $20,000 in sales. McAninch estimates about 1,000 nurseries in the state, mostly small operations, went under between 2007 and 2012.
“Those that survived economized as best as possible and adapted,” said McAninch. “And the larger farms got bigger.”
Ann Murphy of the Oregon Nursery Association said the bigger nurseries aren’t the only ones surviving. Many of Oregon’s smaller nurseries specialize in certain niche products, and many of these want to stay small.
Although McAninch said “the Willamette Valley is the perfect place for growing nursery stock,” Washington County has not been immune to the troubles of the industry. From 2009 to 2010, 30 operations went out of business in Washington County alone.
Epler has managed to stay afloat, but his “sales are so tied into the housing market.”
ODA’s McAninch agreed. “The building projects aren’t happening so much so there hasn’t been a lot of buying of nursery stock.”
Epler has been barely making ends meet or actually losing money for the last three years.
Not only has the economy taken its toll, but as with all agricultural businesses, the environment and weather have a huge influence as well. Last year was wet and they didn’t get the necessary heat, according to Epler, making for a weak crop.
In Washington County between 2008 and 2009, there was a 15 percent drop in nursery sales, but all the growers still had their stock in the ground. It takes about four to five years to get a crop of shade trees like the ones Eplers grow.
The Eplers are hanging in there for now, but “If we know we can’t get something going, I’ll start changing this nursery over,” he said.
For now, they’re waiting for people to buy more trees for their yards and for their sales to start rising again.
“I hope to always be here in nursery, but I don’t know what the future is going to bring,” Epler said. “You have to able to change when things change.”