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Family nursery growing to support next generation

By JAMIE CLARK TIRALLA
AFP Correspondent

Union Bridge, Md. (May 9, 2017) — The nursery industry has had its share of ups and downs in recent years.
Joseph Barley, founder of Clear Ridge Nursery in Carroll County, Md., said the secret to success is not sitting still.
“When I first started this business, I thought I could stay within my niche. After 22 years, you realize that you have to adapt and diversify,” Barley said.
Barley, who has a background as an arborist and in forestry, opened Clear Ridge Nursery in 1994 in Union Bridge.
In the early years, he focused on native trees and shrubs.
While that’s still the primary focus of the business, he said they have also adapted to meet the demands of their customers.
“When I first started, it was literally like walking off a cliff,” Barley said. “I’ve learned it’s important to always be thinking five years ahead.”
Barley said the biggest challenges he sees facing the nursery industry are a lack of young owners, labor issues and the ability to diversify.
“Everybody’s getting older and I don’t see a lot of young faces — particularly as business owners,” Barley said. “We’re fortunate here that [Jessica] raised her hand and started us on a 10-year effort toward succession.”
Jessica Todd, Barley’s daughter, said it wasn’t until after she graduated from college that she saw taking over the family business as an opportunity.
“I had one foot always in [the business]. I saw how [my father] was able to support a family, and I saw that I could do that too. And not just for my family, but the families of our employees,” said Todd, who purchased 51 percent of the nursery nine years ago.
Barley said he was grateful to have an excellent consultant to help him and his wife plan the succession of their business.
Father and daughter agreed that labor was one of the most difficult aspects of their business.
Barley said federal programs like the H2-A temporary agricultural worker visa are tedious and unpredictable.
Hiring people year round, though, means you have to constantly have things to keep people busy.
“You have to hold on to the people that you have,” Barley said. “We can’t make it on seasonal labor. We try to balance and maintain the full time labor force that we can support and still get the job done.”
He said the full-time staff he has often isn’t enough during the busy season. But on the other hand, he said it can be more than he needs during the down times.
Todd said diversification of the nursery is what helps them to be more efficient. In the last decade, the business has made several changes to adapt to the market and utilize their workforce year round.
One change was growing out trees and shrubs in larger container sizes. Another was entering into the re-wholesale market. And they recently began to wholesale cut flowers grown on the farm, capitalizing on the trend for locally grown, value-added agriculture.
“Native trees is still our niche and three-quarters of everything we do,” Barley said. “But we’re also adjusting with the markets and with our customer’s needs.”
Last year, Clear Ridge Nursery won the bid to be the supplier for Tree-Mendous, a program of the Maryland Forest Service that provides discounted trees for planting on public land.
Anne Gilbert oversees the program, which is housed at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
She said the most important aspects of the program are that the trees be native to Maryland and planted on public land.
“Our goal is to build up the urban tree canopy across the state…the primary mission is to get trees in the ground,” said Gilbert.
Gilbert said she works with all types of organizations from boy scout troops to county governments to help them plant thousands of trees each year.
Clear Ridge isn’t entirely new to the Tree-Mendous program. Barley said they were one of many suppliers for several years during the program’s early years.
The Maryland Forest Service has since streamlined the program.
Gilbert said utilizing one nursery allows for better management and efficiency.
“It’s a great program and we’re hoping to help expand participation,” Todd said. “It fits us well because we are a grower and specialize in natives. The feedback we’ve had from customers so far has been very positive.”
Groups can place orders for trees in the spring and fall, directly through the Tree-Mendous program at DNR. Clear Ridge collects the payment and fills the orders, arranging for pick up or delivery, depending on the order.
As Todd assumed control of the company, Barley said he’s optimistic.
“If you stay in your comfort zone, you don’t push yourself to get better,” he said. “My role now is to replace myself. And that’s not easy because you’re constantly being pulled back in. I’ll always be active, but I’m working on not being depended on.”
Todd is ready for the challenge. She said through the succession planning process, she gleaned a lot of important information from her father.
Pursuing leadership roles has also helped prime her for the business.
Next year, Todd will step in as President of the Board of Directors for the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association. She will be both the youngest and first female president of the organization.
“I was apprehensive about putting myself out there…but it’s been one of the best things that ever happened,” said Todd. “I’ve learned so much and met more people outside of our specific industry.”
While their business is growing trees, Todd and Barley agree that what they do more so is grow relationships. With their customers and their employees.
“I’m not just looking at my quality of life,” Todd said. “I’m also looking at the quality of [my employees] lives…[and] how to grow with our customers, so we can grow with them. Because if they’re not growing, we aren’t going to be either.”