Oregon Nursery Association – Digger Magazine, July 2008
In the years following World War II, the U. S. economy boomed. Two factors that fueled the surge – an expanding housing market and the development of an interstate highway system – proved especially important for Oregon nurserymen. Increased demand for ornamentals and shade trees, in combination with fast, cost-effective shipping, opened the door to national markets for the first time.
But change was required for those who wished to seize this opportunity. The technology that had sufficed during the 1930s and 1940s was no longer sufficient to keep Oregon growers competitive.
Fortunately, the Northwest was home to some of the finest minds in the nursery business. The innovations these men created to increase production and reduce overhead played a prominent role in Oregon’s emergence as a major player in the U. S. market and continue to be felt around the globe today.
The advent of plastic
George Anderson knew there had to be a better way.
During the 1950s, clay pots were the norm. They were heavy and hard to stack. To make matters worse, demand was outpacing supply.
“Growers were using one-gallon cans that had been used by prisons and cafeterias,” said Anderson, president of Anderson Die & Manufacturing Company. “Holes had to be poked in the bottom to provide drainage. The industry started growing, and the cans were harder to come by and more expensive.”
In 1957, Anderson began producing 2-inch square pots – the Northwest’s first plastic containers designed for nursery use – in a building on McAdam Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Not only were the plastic pots easy to move and stack, they came with drainage holes in the bottom.
The company outgrew the McAdam location and built a new plant in Milwaukee, Oregon, in 1965. About that time, nurseryman Ed Wood came to George with a request.
“He’d been using four-gallon metal containers for rhodies,” Anderson said. “He asked us to make a plastic container for the same purpose. Today it’s known as a ‘number three short.'”
Soon every nursery was eager to purchase plastic pots of various types and sizes. The containers originally designed and produced by Anderson Die & Manufacturing Company have been used around the world.
Making a great idea even better
In 1964, Jack McConkey was working as a peat moss salesman. He told a bulb farmer who was making and using wooden trays that it was time to switch to plastic. The bulb farmer, located in Puyallup, Washington, told McConkey that Jack could make anything he wanted – provided he bought the operation. Jack made the purchase and formed McConkey Company, which he later moved to Sumner, Washington.
“My father was one of the industry leaders in the development of molded plastic containers,” said Ed McConkey, now the company’s president and CEO.
McConkey Co. was the first to make colored plastic bowls for decorative plants and distributes its products throughout the western United States, Europe and Asia. The company manufactures approximately 250,000 plastic pots each year.
In addition to his work with plastic containers, Jack McConkey established a soil mixing plant during the early 1970s and provided bulk delivery, eliminating the need for growers to mix their own soil. He also worked closely with Gordon Gleason to distribute the potting equipment that Gleason invented.
The Stripmatic potting system
In 1956, Gordon Gleason was staring at a pile of 17,000 one-gallon metal “Plantainers” at Glenn Savage’s Rhododendron Nursery near Portland, Oregon.
The idea of growing nursery plants in containers was taking off, so Savage purchased the Plantainers in San Francisco and had them shipped to a 10-acre site at Sunnyside. Because the Plantainers came tightly stacked in tubes of 30, they had to be pried or knocked apart before they were filled.
“I was overwhelmed with that pile of pots and asked Mr. Savage how we were going to pot up that many plants,” Gleason said. “Mr. Savage said, ‘That’s your job. You figure it out.'”
Gleason solved the initial problem when he designed the Stripmatic, which dislodged a pot from the stack, dropped it onto a conveyor, and moved it to the person doing the potting. As plastic pots of various sizes became available, Gleason upgraded the Stripmatic to handle pots ranging from 4 inches to 5 gallons. He included a soil hopper that discharged soil into the pot from above.
While talking with other nurserymen, Gleason complained that he was only able to pot 600 pots per hour, even with the Stripmatic. “They looked at me in disbelief and said, ‘We’re lucky if we can get 600 in a day!'”
In 1971, Gleason developed the “carousel” system, which used a conveyor to move pots beneath a machine that discharged soil into the pots. Speed could be adjusted to fit the size of the crew. In 1976, he added a continuous mixing unit that fed the carousel. The design of the carousel has remained essentially the same and continues to be produced today.
Gleason also created the first “flat filler” in 1974. It was equipped with a feed bin that discharged soil into a flat as it passed beneath it on the conveyor. A roller packed the soil, and a rotating brush swept it smooth and level. By 1980, he had added a dibbler system, which drilled holes in the soil to accommodate the size plant that was to be inserted.
Gleason formed Gleason Industries in 1973. He sold the business to the McConkey Company in 1991. While other people invented individual machines, Gordon Gleason created complete systems that increased production and reduced labor costs.
“A system is only as good as its weakest link,” he said. “All the components have to work in unison.”
Improving the over-the-row digger
The over-the-row digger was one of the most important mechanical advancements in the nursery industry, with several versions in service for tree excavation during the 1950s and ‘60s. Dan Smith, president of TRECO®, who worked at Knolview Nursery with his father, Bernard, and brother, Dave, recalls that the first diggers were produced by John Deere.
A u-shaped device was attached to the front of a tractor or crawler. The machine straddled the row with the blade cutting under the tree to a depth of 22 to 25 inches.
“The drawback was that these diggers had no mechanism for breaking up the dirt,” Smith said. “This meant the rootballs were heavy, and the work was very physical. There were numerous back injuries.”
During the mid-‘60s, John Deere upgraded the design to include hydraulic fingers that removed much of the soil around the roots. As a result, the trees were lighter and easier to move and workers suffered far fewer injuries.
“It was also very important in terms of shipping costs,” Smith said. “Being able to ship bare root meant you could get 12,000 trees in a truck, as opposed to 1,000 with rootballs.”
Because the John Deere machines were top-heavy and under-powered, the Smith brothers set out to build their own digger. Dave handled the design; Dan did the fabrication. The result was the K455, produced in 1974.
The K455 was a hydraulic-driven crawler with a low center of gravity that could handle an additional 15-degree tilt, a real bonus when working on sloped ground. In addition, the Smiths more than doubled the horsepower of their machine and included hydrostatic pumps that carried power directly to the individual tracks. This meant better control, especially in muddy conditions, and with less wear.
“The overall benefit was that we could harvest at greater speed with more stability and overall safety,” Smith said.
GK Machine, Inc., the industry leader in over-the-row diggers, uses the same basic design of the machine the Smith brothers created more than three decades ago.
At J. Frank Schmidt & Son, the company motto is “Growing New Ideas.” Founder J. Frank Schmidt Jr. and his son, J. Frank Schmidt III, have accomplished that with several innovations widely accepted in the industry.
Around 1970, J. Frank Schmidt Jr. began experimenting with using masking tape to eliminate doglegs at the bud union. “That was about the time I started working at the nursery,” recalls J. Frank Schmidt III, the company’s current CEO. “I thought a more rigid material might work better, so I started playing around with metal devices. The first ones were made from tin cans – cut and bent into an angled shape. We tried them on different varieties of trees, and they worked!”
The company patented these Grow-Straight® Stakes, which have been adopted by many ornamental tree growers.
“We started containerizing field-grown, bare root trees in about 1980s,” Schmidt said. “It was Dad’s idea to put bare root trees in containers so they could be sold all year long. He left it up to the rest of us to figure out how to make it work.”
The staff started with a truck load of 15-gallon containers, no knowledge of potting mixes or fertilizers, and one acre on which to experiment. Today, the company’s shade, flowering, and ornamental trees occupy 75 acres. “I guess that means we figured it out,” Schmidt said.
Located in Boring, Oregon, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Company has also been responsible for 53 tree introductions, the development of bare root tree pallets, and the production of an over-the-row digger.
The new millennium finds growers facing rising fuel prices, an uncertain labor source, and increasing global competition. Times have changed, but one thing remains constant – in order for Oregon nursery growers to remain successful, they will need to maximize their ingenuity and embrace change.