How Fall Creek Nursery Became a Modern American Success Story

Fall Creek Nursery’s recipe for success couldn’t be simpler. Take a product that you absolutely believe in, like blueberries, and then do everything in your power to provide growers, growers, with the best plants possible – what founder Dave Brazelton describes as “genetic problem-solving tools – for wherever growers can grow.

Simple concept, but the implementation took decades of work and the nursery seed was planted in an unlikely place. Brazelton got his start in the business at age 15 after a six-day Greyhound bus ride from his California home to a cousin’s 1,000-acre lowbush blueberry farm in
New Hampshire.

But Brazelton wanted to cultivate West. He and his wife Barbara met in Arcata, California – where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and botany from California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt – and one asset they shared were scientific and inquisitive minds. She was a nurse and he was a vet lab technician, trying to save money in the 1970s for their life plan.

“Let’s plant 5 acres of blueberries, and we’ll be happily ever after,” Brazelton recalled, adding with a chuckle, “Well, we failed in that plan.”

What changed was that Marge Calkins came into their lives, a nursery dynamo who owned a run-down little farm and retail garden center, as well as a few acres of blueberries and a small blueberry nursery.

Brazelton, then in his mid-20s, was playing harmonica at band practice when Barbara called to say a lady had a farm for sale near Eugene, OR, and wasn’t taking ‘No’ for response, even when told the Brazeltons were broke. Calkins then released the statement, which Brazelton said was quoted often in the family: “This farm doesn’t cost you money, it makes you money. How do you know you can’t afford it if you don’t come take a look? »

Brazelton asked his wife how she answered, and Barbara spoke the words that were to change the fortunes of the family – not to mention the American blueberry industry: “I told her we’d be up next weekend !”

Calkins lived into her 90s and served as lifelong advisor/pseudo-grandmother to the Brazeltons, and Brazelton credits her for giving them the nursery bug. Before that, they had only thought of agriculture, even if the end product was never in doubt.

“We really thought the blueberries were going to grow, then we thought about being part of it [nursery] company, and it made a lot of sense to us,” he says. “That’s where we formed the concept behind Fall Creek.”

TOTAL BELIEF ON BLUEBERRIES

It was not an obvious business decision; the Brazeltons were a pure bet on solid growth. In 1978, the state’s blueberry industry was more of a “hobby crop,” Brazelton says, with just a few dozen growers cultivating about 350 acres. Today, thanks to improved varieties and innovative growers cultivating an area known for its high yields and high quality, there are well over 15,000 acres of blueberries in Oregon. Fall Creek played no small part in this growth, but Brazelton ignores it.

“Generally, our customers have really driven our growth,” he says. “We didn’t decide to lead the growth. We went where our customers went and wanted us to go.

Brazelton admits Fall Creek wasn’t that professional back then, but they had an ace in the hole that has served them well over the years.

“We were just mom and dad, but what we had was a complete focus on producers. We were producers ourselves and we were just focused on what they needed. And I don’t think that ever changed. It became fundamental,” he says. “Even today, as we plot out our five-year forecast and our strategic projections for the next 10 years, we always start by talking to our customers , the producers.”

Fall Creek has of course become much more sophisticated over the years as the company has grown, but this customer first, last and always attitude has not been.

“Today we also talk to retailers, even consumers,” says Brazelton, “but we always start with the growers.”

During the 1980s, the nursery grew with the innovative growers of the Pacific Northwest, which Brazelton says inspired them to search for better varieties. The northern highbush varieties came out of USDA’s Arlen Draper, some of which are still prominent. One of these, ‘Duke’, is not only still planted today, Brazelton claims it is the most widely planted variety in the world. Fall Creek still offers ‘Duke’ because, even though it is an older variety, Brazelton says that all Fall Creek does is present the best possible varieties to the grower, regardless of their source. The varieties developed by Fall Creek account for only about half of their sales, Brazelton says.

Universities have been great partners over the years, Brazelton says, and if you visit the Fall Creek Research Farm in Lowell, OR, you see trials from every university with breeding programs. But college programs “have a lot of masters,” and they can’t align as closely to business as Fall Creek.

It was the perfect time when in 1990 HortResearch New Zealand, now part of the New Zealand Plant and Food Research Institute, was approached about licensing patent varieties. Brazelton says he immediately jumped at the chance, even though he had some questions: “What is a patent? And what is a license? Other than that, sign me up!

CALIFORNIA GOLD

Another development that actually started in the mid-1980s but took a decade to materialize was the strong interest from California growers who wanted to produce blueberries in the San Joaquin Valley. But climate, soil pH, etc. were not conducive to varieties at the time.

“A lot of farms didn’t do well,” Brazelton recalls. “We lost a lot of people on the pass.”

In addition to learning about growing conditions, especially water chemistry, key to developing today’s California blueberry industry was introducing the new Florida varieties developed by breeders such as Paul Lyrene of the University of Florida.

“Big, innovative growers, new growing techniques, and improved genetics can kick-start an industry very quickly, and they really kick-started California,” Brazelton says. “I consider this a great achievement because at the time growing in non-traditional blueberry environments became possible using these three things. Without these breakthroughs, there would be no growth in eastern Washington, there would be no growth in southern Europe, and there would be no growth in regions with very low cold. like Peru. This all stems from what happened there where we learned about the desert climate.

GO WITH THE PRODUCERS

Today, Fall Creek Nursery is fulfilling its dream of expanding into locations around the world to provide better, location-appropriate strains for growers. In addition to its headquarters in Oregon, Fall Creek has nurseries in Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain and South Africa, and plans to open soon in Chile and China.

Over the years, the Brazeltons’ two children, Cort and Amelie, have taken on greater leadership roles. Amélie is executive vice-president of the board of directors. Cort Brazelton is co-CEO and Amelie’s German-born husband, Boris Aust, is an executive adviser.

In 2016, Dave Brazelton focused on succession planning and the family decided to bring in management to work alongside him. Oscar Verges, a native Spaniard with a background in finance at Chiquita, was hired to serve as chief operating officer. Dave Brazelton stepped down as CEO in 2018, and Verges soon joined Cort Brazelton as co-CEO. Because they are so focused on serving growers where they grow – a core belief of Fall Creek – Verges has implemented a matrix giving each regional nursery autonomy.

Interestingly, Verges says the focus on the US market is different than in expanding regions. The blueberry is one of the few fruits native to the United States, and there isn’t a lot of virgin land under development; most of it is in older varieties that should be replanted. Older blueberry varieties are generally smaller, sweeter, and lack the Brix of modern varieties, many of which also provide agricultural benefits such as disease resistance.

“Get rid of that old flip phone and get a new smartphone,” Verges compares of the opportunity for growers of new strains. “We are developing varieties for fresh consumption that are harvested by machine. The goal is a blueberry that never touches a human hand until it’s consumed. We need better genetics, but also better harvesting machines, better storage, better sorting. Even the retailer has to contribute, with an improved cold chain. It could be a drastic change.

Cort Brazelton is renowned for his expertise, often making presentations to industry around the world on the global blueberry market. But he says he has to hand it over to his parents for being industry pioneers and the profound impact they still have. Blueberries were far from available before the Brazeltons arrived.

“I think he’s rightfully accused of being the Johnny Appleseed of blueberries,” he says of his father. “That’s been mom and dad’s goal from the start – bringing blueberries into the mainstream.”



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Dora W. Clawson