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The Early Years ...
Oregon's nursery industry is older than the state itself and began during the great westward migration of pioneers and fortune seekers in the mid-1800s. In 1847, 12 years before statehood, Henderson Luelling and 10 members of his family arrived in Oregon with a wagon load of over 500 young plants, trees and seeds. The family settled in what is now the city of Milwaukie, near the present-day Waverley Country Club. A year later, William Meek, a neighbor of the Luellings in Iowa, brought another 20 varieties of grafted trees to Oregon and the two men formed Luelling and Meek Nursery, the first nursery of grafted plant material on the Pacific Coast. Within a few years they had over 60 varieties of trees that sold for between $1 and $1.50 each.
It didn't take long for word to spread that Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley — blessed with rich soil, abundant rainfall and moderate temperatures — was an agricultural paradise. Hungry homesteaders, California miners and a few town dwellers proved to be lucrative markets for the nursery industry in the early years. By the mid-1850s, early nurseries offered a surprisingly broad array of trees and shrubs including: magnolia, Irish yew, larch, yellow locust, American elm, mountain ash, poplar, American holly, walnut, filbert, pear, apple, plum and ornamental shrubs.
The nursery industry's influence became more pronounced in the late 1880s with the founding of a horticultural department at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis, the precursor to Oregon State University. In 1890, the college built a 25' x 16' forcing house for "the practical study of horticulture," then added a 39' x 20' greenhouse a year later.
Now off to a strong start with the support of an educational extension program at OAC, the nursery industry began to organize. In 1893, a dozen growers got together and formed the Oregon Nurserymen's Association, followed in the early 1900s by the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen (PCAN) and a group of local growers known as the Portland Nursery Club. This set the stage for dramatic growth.
A Growing Concern
In the early 1900s, Oregon's nursery industry consisted of about 1,000 acres with a crop value of just over $150,000. Ten years later, acreage had more than doubled and a fledgling greenhouse/florist industry had evolved, resulting in production value that topped $1 million for the first time. Educational efforts continued, and in 1911 the PCAN financed the planting of an experimental orchard of 4,000 trees by the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station in Corvallis. By the 1930s, over 1,200 growers were producing a diverse variety of nursery stock ranging from seeds and bulbs to greenhouse plants and traditional ornamentals.
Though the national economic catastrophe of the depression hurt the nursery industry, the 1930s saw the beginnings of an important transition that is still very much in evidence today. Buoyed by growing nationwide demand and a much-improved transportation infrastructure, many nursery operators started to develop significant markets for their products outside the Pacific Northwest.
The Oregon Association of Nurserymen — now known as the Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN) — was founded in 1933, giving the industry a collective voice in legislative and regulatory affairs. The OAN helped gain legislative support for nursery-related research projects and was instrumental in the 1935 appointment of a Nursery Advisory Board within the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). The board worked with state agricultural staff and Oregon State College (formerly OAC) faculty on projects benefiting the industry. An early byproduct was publication from 1937-1950 of the ODA's "Newsletter to Nurserymen," which contained valuable horticulture and pest control information.
An Emerging Economic Force
During the post World War II economic boom, Oregon's nursery industry experienced unprecedented growth. Spurred by a housing construction boom, the wholesale value of plant material in Oregon jumped 78% between 1940 and 1950, according to a U.S. Bureau of Census report. In 1948, Oregon's nursery industry sold an estimated $4.5 million worth of trees and shrubs and the 1949 Horticultural Census listed Oregon as the nation's ninth-leading producer of nursery stock. Responding to this growth, the OAN in 1956 hired its first executive secretary, Charles Potter, and helped establish the North Willamette Experiment Station. The industry also became more active in its marketing efforts by organizing and participating in a number of gardening and flower shows.
By 1970, Oregon had climbed to sixth place nationally in total nursery sales. In 1973, the OAN held its first Farwest Show, an industry trade show that attracted 120 exhibitors and 1,500 visitors. By 1990, the Farwest Show drew the largest attendance of any nursery industry trade show in North America. And today, with nearly 400 exhibitors, the show is still the biggest green industry show in the west.
The late '70s and early '80s was a critical period in Oregon's nursery industry development that was marked by increasingly scientific and modernized growing techniques. The advent of tissue culture, more efficient watering methods, mechanized greenhouses and continued improvement in container propagation — along with more aggressive nationwide marketing efforts — enabled Oregon growers to increase production dramatically. By 1980, Oregon's nursery sales topped $100 million for the first time and the state had become the third-largest producer in the country. Sales topped $300 million by the end of 1990 and reached nearly a half-billion dollars by 1997. Roughly three-fourths of those sales were to customers outside the state, creating an expanding source of "new money" for Oregon's economy and making Oregon the largest exporter of nursery stock in the nation.
Leadership for the Future
Oregon's nursery industry also emerged as a national leader in many other ways, pioneering legislation that led to new, higher standards in such areas as water quality and recycling, worker protection and biological pest control. In the late '90s, Oregon supported the development of a survey of the U.S. nursery industry. Conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, this survey documents nursery and greenhouse production. Along the way, the industry showed uncommon vision by investing heavily in research, scholarships and new technology designed to save labor and boost production.
A more visible and lasting legacy began to blossom in 1994 with the establishment of the Oregon Garden Foundation, a non-profit organization charged with the development, construction and operation of The Oregon Garden in Silverton. This world-class project, created through the support and dedication of the nursery industry, will showcase the leadership, skill and expertise of hundreds of Oregon nursery men and women.
The Oregon Garden will be a fitting tribute to the people who built Oregon's nursery industry over the past 150 years, and an inspiration for future generations to ensure the industry will continue to flourish.