By Misty Zakrzewski
Hart’s Nursery of Jefferson has learned that beginning in 2011 they will lose their largest customer, Walmart, after doing business together for 20 years. The retail chain will begin streamlining their supply for all their Northwest stores from just one grower. Instead of panicking, Hart’s Nursery remained confident in their business. We are here to stay, we’re fighters, but at the same time we’re innovators,” says Doug Hart, production manager of Hart’s Nursery.
Hart’s Nursery is proud to be a multi-generational family business and the largest wholesale bedding plant nursery in Oregon, with over 800,000 square feet of greenhouses. In 1969 Charles Hart built a small greenhouse on his three acres of land to produce flats of flowers, and he began selling his plants to local feed and grocery stores. With the bedding plant industry still in its infancy at the time, gross sales were less than $40,000. Then one day, Hart’s Nursery earned Payless as a customer and suddenly the company began to grow, expanding the nursery to over an acre of greenhouses. Soon Hart’s Nursery acquired Kmart and Hi-School Pharmacy as customers. But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there on out, as the 80s were a turbulent time for Hart’s Nursery.
On May 18, 1980 Glen Hart and Doug, son and grandson of Charles Hart, were delivering plants to the Gresham Kmart when Mount St. Helens erupted. That was the last delivery Hart’s Nursery made that year, as they were forced to shut down the season early. In 1981, a November wind storm devastated 80 percent of the nursery’s greenhouses. Glen and Doug worked diligently for two and a half months to rebuild each greenhouse, and added a few new ones while they were at it. In 1984, Hart’s Nursery discovered a pre-emergent herbicide in their water, killing all their plants. “We really felt like our resolve was being tested, but isn’t that the life of a farmer,” says Doug. Their perseverance paid off in the end.
In 1991 Charles sold the company to son Glen. Soon after, a buyer from Walmart showed up on their doorstep looking for a grower for their first store in the Northwest. As Walmart grew, so did Hart’s Nursery, expanding the nursery to over 500,000 square feet. With their expansion came a lot of changes, and Hart’s Nursery embraced the changes to keep up with their demand. No longer could they make deliveries on shelved vans but instead shipped plants on 48- foot trailers. They added an auto transplanter that can plant 30,000 seedlings in one hour. Over the years they have changed their product mix, starting with packs and 2” pots. This year, Hart’s Nursery is growing over 100,000 baskets and 75,000 planters. Doug believes change is a healthy sign of progression. “So often people can view change as a sign that they were doing things wrong in the past. They take it personal and that is not a healthy perspective. It can slow the process of change, which is resisting nature,” he says.
This constant change seems to be working for Hart’s Nursery. Four years ago, the company began business with Fred Meyer stores. Fred Meyer appreciated Hart’s Nursery’s quality and their capability to deliver to all of their 125 stores. The nursery handles trucking internally, sending out 30 trucks a day in the spring to get all product out within 48 hours. With only one location Hart’s Nursery has more control logistically. Today the nursery’s products can also be found at Home Depot and Albertson’s.
Doug attributes Hart’s Nursery’s success partially to the growing nursery market the last 20 years. “We’re still here because we have had that luxury of an ever expanding market. Everything comes to an end and change is inevitable. Now we have to learn to be profitable without that,” says Doug.
With a positive outlook and a drive to remain a multigenerational family-run business, Hart’s Nursery should have no trouble learning to be profitable. “I remember my grandfather making the comment that he hoped that his legacy would carry on. That meant a lot to me,” says Doug. Doug handles all production while Doug’s wife, Deanna, does all the scheduling for the seedlings and cuttings, and his son, Jordan, is the head grower. Jordan’s wife, Dionicia, manages the unrooted plant department. “You know I think three generations working together is a great thing, but it has its challenges,” says Doug, “We probably have a higher percentage of challenges than most businesses out there. You look at the way my dad was raised versus the way my son was raised. Society has changes but we’re expected to work on the same wave length but it doesn’t always work that way. The family business dynamic has got to be one of the most challenging or complex of any sort of relationship out there.”
Despite the challenges, Doug enjoys the family dynamic and the opportunity to be around each of them every day. Doug works especially closely with his son Jordan on a day-to-day basis. “It’s not always perfect but we’ve really learned how there’s room for both of us in a conversation,” says Doug, “I taught him everything I know and was smart enough to let him teach me what I didn’t know.”
Doug grew up in a generation where older generations were considered the wisest and young people weren’t always seen as an asset. But Doug believes young people bring a fresh approach to the table, and a business cannot survive when innovation and improvement are met with resistance. “I’m not going to be guilty of shooting down a good idea just because it didn’t come from me,” says Doug. ‘
Jordan has improved the quality of the nursery’s products more than they thought possible. He restructured Hart’s Nursery soil mix and fertility program, working with a consultant to find the newest, most innovative methods. The nursery previously carried around 5-gallon buckets of fertilizer but updated to a delivery system that keeps a full bucket of fertilizer at all times, without having to carry any of it. “He has a real sense of how it could be better,” says Doug.
Doug wants people to know that Hart’s Nursery has strong roots that go back a long way, and for others to be able to connect with those roots. He wants others to relate to their story and say, “Yeah, we’ve had years like that too.” One thing Doug knows for sure is, he says: “We’ll survive. We’ve overcome too many other challenges in the past that could have or should have put us down.” It’s that determination that has kept Hart’s Nursery alive and kicking for more than 42 years