Growing Nursery Stock for Fedco Trees

Summer 2006

Growing Nursery Stock for Fedco Trees

Growing fruit or ornamental trees or shrubs can be a lucrative diversification for a farm, the sole purpose of a farm, or a rewarding hobby. John Bunker, coordinator of Fedco Trees, discussed growing stock for Fedco Trees at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in January.

Fedco is a worker-consumer cooperative. If you work for or buy from Fedco, you can pay $1 and become a member, getting a percentage of the profit at the end of the year. The coop has three annual catalogs—the bulb catalog (which comes out in summer); trees and shrubs catalog (fall); and seeds catalog (around Thanksgiving). John Bunker has worked for Fedco for about 25 years. He started Fedco Trees in 1984 and is its nursery coordinator now.

About 75% of Fedco Trees’ stock, which is all bare-root, is sold through its mail order catalog. The other 25% is sold during the last weekend of April and first weekend of May, when customers can come to the Clinton warehouse for the Fedco Trees Sale. Orders were taken through Fedco’s Web site for the first time this year; the coop does not take phone orders.

Growing into Local

Bunker started Fedco Trees because he “needed a job and wanted to employ my friends.” He also wanted to make hardy trees and shrubs available in cold climates, and support local agriculture.

At first Bunker did not buy from local growers, because some of his friends had gone broke making and growing things, then not being able to market them. Bunker decided to develop the market for Fedco Trees first, then find local growers to supply stock later.

During this time, he accumulated good records of what did and didn’t sell. “One way we can keep costs down is by selling everything we grow,” he explained.

In 1984, Fedco Trees had 90 orders and did $14,000 worth of business. In 2006, it had 2,300 orders for 110,000 trees and shrubs worth $500,000.

Now 18 local growers produce virtually all of Fedco’s fruit trees (except peaches, apricots, many cane fruits and some hard-to-find items) and about half of its ornamentals. The rest comes from 10 non-local suppliers or from Western Maine Nurseries in Fryeburg (which supplies many of the conifers). All of the local growers hand plant and hand dig stock; all use crop rotation; and all cultivate under 3 acres. Some are certified-organic, some aren’t. Of the 268 items sold in 2006, 173 were grown locally.

Ten Fedco Trees growers average two or three items per year. “They like to dabble in growing nursery crops,” said Bunker. “We recommend that new people start with one or two items.” Quantities range from 50 or 60 to 1000 plants per item. The average value of a crop is $400, and the average grower gets about $1,000 per crop.

“The largest eight growers are growing more than six items each, and five are growing more than 15 items for Fedco this year,” he continued. “The average value of these crops is $530 per item. Our eight largest growers are averaging about $10,000 each in gross sales to Fedco. It’s a major source of income for some,” Bunker noted.

The operation is not legally a growers’ coop, he explained, because the growers don’t share in the income and expenses. They meet once a year to discuss marketing, pricing, etc., and to discuss growing techniques. Many communicate with one another throughout the year. Bunker finds “a real sense of collaboration, not competition, among growers.” Many participate in group orders from Fedco for seed, cover crops and supplies and thus get substantial discounts on these.

The Honesty Dividend

Buying from local growers actually “is not cost effective,” noted Bunker. “If we were trying to simply make money at Fedco, we would have no local growers. It requires a lot more work on my part, and a lot of people go through a lot to make this happen.” However, “in some ways it is cost-effective. A lot of customers realize we’re offering something unique—honesty in a catalog. That’s unusual.”

Some items, such as PeeGee hydrangeas, certain blueberries and asparagus, are offered every year. Varieties of roses, lilacs and crabapples will change annually, providing a much wider selection over time and encouraging repeat business from customers. “About one-third of the items in a catalog weren’t there the previous year,” said Bunker.

In the fall or winter, Bunker talks with each grower about planting plans for the following spring. “They’re responsible for getting their own plants, growing them from seed, cuttings or liners. Sometimes we’ll arrange to have something propagated. If you’re growing ornamentals from liners, you can fit them in with your vegetable garden.” (See The coop is looking for stock that is healthy and well rooted.

Five people graft trees and grow them locally for Fedco. “They buy their own rootstock (which they can buy through us) or start their own from seed. They get scionwood themselves or from me,” Bunker continued.

Most (95%) of Fedco Trees’ customers are from Minnesota east and south to New Jersey. A few are in other, mountainous areas. Fedco’s and customers’ first criterion tends to be hardiness. Other criteria taken into account are:

 potential to be invasive;
 disease and insect susceptibility;
 historical significance;
 rare or heirloom status;
 fruit quality;
 beauty;
 fragrance;
 wildlife value
 architecture (i.e., structure of the tree when its leaves have fallen)

The Fedco Year

Fedco’s year begins in June through August, when Bunker contacts growers to find out what they think they’ll have for the following year. In the summer he writes the catalog, which goes to press on September 1. He places a final order with growers in October, and around November 15, growers dig plants and bring them to the Fedco warehouse in Clinton, where their roots are packed in damp sawdust and they’re stored over winter.

Between about March 20 and May 10, a crew at the warehouse tags, bundles and ships (mostly by UPS) about 2,500 orders. The public Tree Sale at the warehouse during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May ends the year. People can pick up their orders during the Tree Sale if they didn’t have them shipped.

Growers own their plants and are free to sell them anywhere else until Fedco purchases them the October before they’re sold. “We don’t guarantee that we’ll sell the plants in your nursery. We give you the most accurate information we can,” cautioned Bunker. Fedco determines a wholesale price with individual growers and pays all grafted fruit tree growers the same per plant.

“Ornamentals and others are trickier,” he explained. “They can take one to three years to grow, or the seeds are expensive, etc. We work out a price for each species or variety.” Grower Jack Kertesz noted that row covers and warm drip irrigation water may help push stock so that it’s ready for sale after one season in the field.

Start Small

Bunker’s advice to prospective growers is to start small. “Try growing 100 to 200 plants of one or two items for a year. Come to a grower’ meeting. Call the Fedco office in early summer to find out when and where the meeting will be. You don’t have to be growing for Fedco to come.”

He also suggested checking the catalog for favorite plants that aren’t being grown locally. Currently, Fedco is not looking for grafters, but those interested in grafting should keep in touch, in case that changes.

“We are looking for nongrafting fruit growers and for ornamental growers,” he continued. “We’re looking for New England native plants grown from seed or cuttings; hardy selections growing a little out of their range–such as Cercis canadensis (Eastern redbud) flowering in Maine.” Mulberries, Cornelian cherry dogwood and elderberry, for example, could be grown from cuttings.

Rare, historic or heirloom ornamentals, such as roses from cemeteries, or lilacs, are also in demand. They don’t have to be named cultivars. Unusual ornamentals, such as dwarf conifers, are also sought, as are rare, exotic plants that grow in New England and are not invasive, such as the katsura tree.

Fedco uses about 10,000 fruit tree rootstocks per year, and local growers are providing only a small percentage of these, which can be grown from seed—yet another opportunity for prospective growers.

Bunker can be reached at [email protected] or at Fedco Trees, PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903; (207) 873-7333.

Copyright 2006

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