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Rural Missouri Magazine
Stark Bro's
blooms again

Historic fruit tree nursery returns from bankruptcy

by Bob McEowen

Billy Kidd, son of Stark Bro’s Nursery's Production Manager Elmer Kidd, grafts fruit trees. Over the course of a year five varieties of apple are grafted to one stem to produce a Stark 5-N-1 tree. In 2001 the 188-year-old nursery ceased operations when its parent company declared bankruptcy. Today Stark Bro’s is again locally owned.

On an April morning so fresh it heralds the arrival of spring, a fieldhand quickly works his way along a row of yearling trees. Deftly, the worker slices a stem with a pocketknife and carves a slot into a twig he pulls from a plastic bucket. The two pieces are slipped together and another worker, following closely behind, wraps the graft with cellophane.

Next year gardeners across America will turn to the apple section of the Stark Bro’s Nursery catalog and order the “5-N-1” apple trees being created this day.

The 5-N-1, which bears five different apples, is one of hundreds of trees produced by Stark Bro’s Nurseries and Orchards Co. of Louisiana, Mo. Full of a bewildering selection of fruit trees, berry plants and ornamentals, the company’s catalog has been a staple in American households for generations. Founded in 1816 by James Hart Stark, the company predates Missouri statehood and is the oldest mail-order nursery in America.

“It’s a fallacy to think that anything can last forever but Stark Bro’s has,” says Elmer Kidd, who earned his first paycheck hauling drinking water to Stark’s field hands 40 years ago and now supervises its orchards and greenhouses as production manager. “There’s not many businesses that can say they’ve been around almost 200 years.”

Betty Butler of Perry, Ill., tends berry plants in Stark Bro’s Nursery’s vast greenhouse complex

But Stark Bro’s almost did not survive. In 1994 descendents of the Stark family sold the business to mail order giant Foster and Gallagher, which also owned several other well-known nursery lines. On June 29, 2001, Foster and Gallagher declared bankruptcy. A call came into Stark Bro’s offices in Louisiana telling management to send workers home.

“It was like getting a fence post pushed right through my heart,” Elmer says. “That was probably the most agonizing time in my life.”

Beyond the loss of employees’ incomes, health insurance and retirement accounts the bankruptcy appeared to mark the end of a great American institution. Stark Bro’s was a hot house of horticultural innovations. It brought the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples to market and originated many other varieties we take for granted today.

“To this day I’ll see people pick up a Red Delicious apple. They turn it over and touch the bumps on the bottom,” says Lita Eatock, director of marketing for Stark Bro’s. “For years I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. I found out later there was a big promotion in the ’20s with Stark Bro’s promoting the Red Delicious apple. There’s five bumps on the bottom of an apple and it’s S-T-A-R-K.”

David Frazier of Bowling Green waters plants at Stark’s retail garden center in Louisiana. The store is housed in the company’s Luther Burbank building, named for the “father of modern plant propagation.”

This close association between Stark Bro’s and certain fruit is no accident. The father of modern plant propagation, Luther Burbank — an innovator held in the same esteem as his friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford — worked closely with the Stark family and chose their company to sell his new varieties.

All the history and innovation Stark Bro’s stood for would end forever if the company was allowed to fold. Adding insult to injury, employees knew they had done nothing to deserve their fate.

“We didn’t look at it as Stark Bro’s going bankrupt. It was Foster and Gallagher going bankrupt,” says Lita, a 25-year employee. “All along, Stark Bro’s made our profit goals. We were doing what we were supposed to do.”

While the bankruptcy worked its way through court, Stark’s fired employees prayed someone would step forward to rescue the company.

Elmer Kidd examines a tender tree in Stark Bro's test orchard. Kidd first worked for Stark in 1964. Today, he is the company's production manager and led a group of volunteers who tended trees during the bankruptcy.

“We had a large crop in the field with a lot of revenue in it,” Elmer recalls. “I held out hope that crop was going to inspire somebody to buy it. Hopefully, the right person.”

While the judge and lawyers seemed oblivious to the potential of nearly a million trees planted on leased farm fields in Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Stark’s home in Pike County, Mo., the employees knew their future rested with those trees.

At stake was not just the 2002 crop but the next year’s as well. Stark sells two-year-old trees. The 2003 rootstock was in the ground but it would require countless hours of work, grafting delicate buds onto the stems, to produce hybridized fruit trees. “All the chips were riding on that crop,” Elmer says.

Former Stark Bro’s employees took it upon themselves to tend the crop, most working without pay. Finally, in late August, the judge allowed a potential buyer to bankroll the work. It was almost too late to finish the job before first frost.

“We had a meeting out at the end of the row and I told the crew, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do it but with God’s help we’re going to get this done,’” Elmer recalls.

The weather held and budding was finished in early October.

“I’ve endured a lot of things in my life but I can’t remember anything like that. It’s something I’ll tell my grandkids about,” Elmer says.

A Stark empoyee joins two different tree stocks together to produce a graft. The nursery specializes in hybrid trees. Grafting, as opposed to growing trees from seed, ensures that trees are genetically identical from generation to generation.

On Sept. 11, while the world watched events unfold at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, creditors gathered in Chicago to decide the fate of Foster and Gallagher. Among them was Rockford, Ill., businessman Cameron Brown.

Cameron had long ties with Stark Bro’s. His father was a nurseryman who helped launch the Stark Bro’s retail garden center in Louisiana. At the time of the bankruptcy the Brown family leased land to Stark Bro’s.

Inspired both by the crop in the field and the history of the company, Cameron, along with business partner Tim Abair, decided to buy the nursery and bring Stark Bro’s back to life.
“It was an opportunity to buy a company with an incredible history and background,” Cameron says. “Next month I’ll be 60. At my age it’s much more thrilling to see people get put back to work and to see a great tradition continue.”

In October 2001, the Stark Bro’s office staff came back to empty desks, their computers and phones lost to the bankruptcy. They had six weeks to produce a spring catalog. They got the job done and the company has continued to grow strong ever since.

“At this point we’re humming. We’re rolling. We’ve got the train back on the track but the first two years were really a lot of work,” says Stark Bro’s Vice President and General Manager Kim Young.

Stark's vast complex at Louisiana, Mo., includes more than 7 acres of warehouses, 3 acres of greenhouses, a retail garden center, test orchirds, company offices and a call center. The trees offered in the Stark Bro's catalog are grown across the Mississippi River in Illinois..

Stark Bro’s employs about 150 people year-round. At the height of production season that number swells to nearly 350. The company’s Louisiana facilitiy includes 3 acres of greenhouses and more than 7 acres of warehouses, in addition to the main office and retail garden center.

Stark Bro’s mail order call center is staffed seven days a week during busy times and handles as many as 2,000 calls a day. Besides the catalog, the company conducts business through a state-of-the-art Web site, where online orders are instantly linked to Stark’s inventory system.

The 2004 catalog features two dozen apple varieties, most available as dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard size trees. More than a dozen peach trees are available, as well as a number of pears, apricots, plums, necatranes, cherries and other fruits. Stark even offers unusual backyard trees like paw-paws and olives, and novelty trees like the 5-N-1 and a fruit cocktail tree which bears five different fruits.

Dianna Clair of Bowling Green, flips through the Stark Bro’s mail order catalog while talking to a phone customer at the company’s call center. During business times the call center employees 20 people and will field almost 2,000 calls a day.

In addition, Stark Bro’s sells nut trees, ornamental trees and shrubs, grapevines and a large variety of berry plants in its catalog and on its Web site. Both venues are chock full of planting and growing advice among tempting descriptions.

Unlike most mail order nurseries, Stark grows most of what it sells and even produces trees and plants for other catalog nurseries. In fact, a large number of the boxes that leave the company’s shipping dock bear the names of competing nurseries.

Clearly, Stark Bro’s is back in business. For long-time employees the purchase of the 188-year-old nursery by local owners marks a return to the company’s roots.

“We look at life in three stages,” Lita says. “There was the Stark-family-owned years. Then there were the dark years of corporate ownership and now, once again, we’re family owned.”

Stark’s chief gardener couldn’t ask for more. “It was a fairy tale ending,” Elmer says.

To order a Stark Bro’s catalog call 1-800-325-4180 or log onto www.starkbros.com.

 

 

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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