MBAs and Small Specialty Nurseries

Ellen Hornig
Thu, 19 Aug 2010 06:13:36 PDT
Whether or not a small nursery runs in the black depends to some extent on 
how you define "in the black".  An economist would say that you have to 
cover all your opportunity costs, meaning you make as much or more in this 
line of business as you would in any alternative in which you're capable of 
engaging.  By that standard, few of us indeed would be "in the black".

In the last couple of years, I've cleared around $70K - probably better than 
I would have done if I'd stuck with teaching economics in a small state 
college.  However, I built up to that with years where I made in the low, 
then the middle, tens of thousands, so overall I'm quite sure my career as a 
nuyrseryperson has been less remunerative than continuing my career as a 
professor of economics would have been.  Besides that, I'm quite sure I 
worked twice as hard as I would have in academia - there is some truth to 
the supposition that many academics don't really know what work *is*. 
Nursery work is a killer, 24/7.  In a small enterprise, you the owner are 
also the bookkeeper, the webmaster, the employer, the manager, the 
propagator, the head worker, the long-run planner, and the worrier.  There 
is always something to keep you off balance: the weather, bugs, fungi, 
failures to germinate, etc, and then the biggest one of all: you're growing 
and producing now for a market you will not meet until next year at the 
earliest, further out in the case of many crops.  The potential for making 
short-run adjustments is pretty limited: if you can't sell it when it's 
ready, your choices are pretty much to donate it (and if you're remotely 
situated, like me, you can't always even find someone to accept your 
generosity;  my workers' gardens are long since almost completely filled, 
and institutions have overall plans into which my surplus may or may not 
fit) or compost it (and even there, you have to pay the worker who empties 
all those pots into the compost).

That said, I assume we all stay in it for the same reason: we love it; and 
probably most of us get out of it for some variant on the same reason: we're 
licked.  One does age...the intensity of effort that was exhilarating at age 
48 (when I got serious about my nursery) requires considerable 
self-flagellation at 59 (where I am now), and I assume becomes simply 
impossible for most of us in a few more years.

I also think that succession is simply not a possibility for most of us 
small endeavors.  Too much of the business's capital (its intellectual 
capital) is tied up in the owner's head.  How do I transfer all that I know 
about my stock and its idiosyncracies, the many tricks of propagation, the 
flavor of the whole business that makes it unique and therefore, to a 
limited audience anyway, entrancing?

Maybe we just have to accept that most micro-nurseries, like most gardens, 
are processes, not products, enjoy the ride while it lasts, and be prepared 
to move on when it's over...


Ellen Hornig
Seneca Hill Perennials
3712 County Route 57
Oswego NY 13126 USA
----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Robin Hansen" <>
To: "Pacific Bulb Society" <>
Sent: Thursday, August 19, 2010 12:25 AM
Subject: Re: [pbs] MBAs and Small Specialty Nurseries

>I do think Justin has some valid points re MBAs.  However, with few 
>exceptions, my nursery has run in the black. (Last year I declared a loss 
>which is the first time in a long time.)  I review prices periodically, 
>because I believe that if I'm in business, then I shouldn't be running a 
>charity.  I do have the advantage that my overhead is almost nil in terms 
>of utilities, property taxes, etc. due to the fact that I have to live 
>somewhere, so why not out in the country, and to the mild climate and 
>abundant water where I am.  Not everyone is so blessed.
> Well, yes, I have a day job, for any number of reasons.  But the nursery 
> keeps me out of mischief, and if and when the time comes that it doesn't 
> justify its existence financially, then it will be closed.
> I greatly appreciate Jim's contributions regarding the state of the 
> nursery industry.  I think all of us as members of PBS have a vested 
> interest in this industry, and it's best to pay attention.  Oregon has 
> suffered sharp losses of nursery income in 2009, and this is a state where 
> most of the nurseries are small specialty businesses.  I suspect that as 
> time goes on the "buy local" campaign will apply to the nursery industry 
> to some degree.  I believe that this is one key to survival for small 
> nurseries like mine.
> I was talking to a friend of my sister's.  In order to buy out their 
> family interest in the dairy they had owned and operated for years, they 
> went organic.  Diane said it has been 8 years and it's going well - i.e. 
> they are making a decent living.  Given the ever more limited resources in 
> the world, I suspect we'll go back to being more regionalized in some 
> areas of consumer goods.  As far as I'm concerned, that is no bad thing.
> Robin Hansen
> Hansen Nursery
> Cyclamen Specialist
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