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n Economy improves, but pests, disease and anti-immigration forces still threaten industry

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Dinsdale said there is still a lot more stock coming to the retail outlet. We arent opening because were ready, were opening because were impatient.Like many farm stores, Blooming Junction — at Zion Church and Susbauer roads — showcases farm-fresh organic vegetables, hardy perennials and shrubs.

“I just really love plants, and I love growing vegetables,” said owner Grace Dinsdale, who opened the store last month. “I have a lot of ideas about eating good food and enhancing a living space.”

Blooming Junction also showcases a nursery which, unlike many others, came through the industry’s rocky period strong on the other side.

Dinsdale’s expansion to retail is the latest twist in her 30 years of operating a successful wholesale nursery on Southwest Golf Course Road outside Cornelius, where she grows more than 1,800 varieties of plants.

It’s also more of a feat than her customers probably realize.

With a suffering housing market, plant pests and diseases and workforce challenges to deal with, nursery growers have taken a hit nationwide — and those who survive have had to adapt.

From the early 1990s to 2007, Oregon nursery sales grew, along with the housing market and “Go Green” movement. New fertilizer, materials, marketing and greenhouse technology set the base for growth in the late 1980s in combination with the nation’s emergence from an economic slump and newly prosperous housing market.

In 2007, Oregon nursery grossed almost $988 million. Nurseries were fulfilling many a dream.

Since then, they’ve also broken hearts.by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Dinsdales retail location also features its original farmstead buildings and old native pine trees as well as more exotic palm trees.

By 2008, sales had dropped by $168 million and have continued to fall, though experts say they may be leveling out.

Gary McAninch, program supervisor of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s nursery and Christmas tree division, estimates about 1,000 nurseries in the state went under between 2007 and 2012. Thirty operations in Washington County alone went out of business between 2009 and 2010.

“The building projects aren’t happening so much, so there hasn’t been a lot of buying of nursery stock,” McAninch said.

“The market is more constricted,” Dinsdale added. “I don’t think anybody in the business could tell you they weren’t affected by the recent downturn.”

The industry initially thrived in Washington County, where nurseries yielded more profit per acre than many other agricultural commodities. Even after the economic downturn, there were 6,500 acres in 2009 and 200 operations in 2010.

Tom Epler’s, off Highway 47 in Dilley, is one.

Epler’s grandfather and father operated a dairy and grew grain, but it got to be too difficult. Epler’s dad starting growing row crops and grains, but then they saw the opportunity to make more money off the family land.

They started over for a piece of the Oregon nursery dream, hoping to make a living without having to milk twice a day, seven days a week, early and late — or rely on the inconsistencies of other crops. He sells one of his average shade trees for $115; it costs him $18 to grow. He can plant 700 trees on one acre of his 407-acre property.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - 'Its fun to come out here whether you want to buy or not. I want to make it more of a public space,' Dinsdale said. 'Were about beauty and quality of life.'When Epler started in this business, “it was too easy,” he said.

But for the last few years, Epler has barely made ends meet or lost money. “If we know we can’t get something going, I’ll start changing this nursery over,” he said.

To make things worse, recent immigration bills have blocked many nursery employees, according to Ann Murphy of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, which favors a guest-worker program that would let non-citizens live and work in the country for a set number of years.

“They are a skilled work force and we have relied on them,” Murphy said.

Plant diseases and pests have also posed challenges. Since 2004, when Sudden Oak Death disease was detected in several West Coast nurseries, including some in Oregon, the

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has implemented regulatory inspections.

Fear of pests and disease — as well as a “buy local” trend — have contributed to the increased nationwide demand for home- state-grown nursery stock.

This is bad for Epler, who who ships more than 80 percent of his stock out of state.

The Eplers sell most of their stock wholesale, with 30 to 40 percent going to Colorado, where Willamette Valley specialty trees can’t be grown as easily.

“I hope to always be here in nursery, but I don’t know what the future is going to bring,” Epler said. “You have to able to change when things change.”

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