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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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
“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.
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,”
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
gardener couldn’t ask for more. “It was a fairy tale ending,”
To order a
Stark Bro’s catalog call 1-800-325-4180 or log onto www.starkbros.com.