Garden gamble pays off for Burchell Nursery
Jacqui D. Sinarle, The Central Valley Business Journal
March 1, 2009

If farming is a gamble, then Burchell Nursery in Oakdale has been on a winning streak since 1942. Today, the operation is one of fewer than 15 nurseries of its kind in the state and sells two million trees a year to orchards throughout the country.

For more than 65 years, Burchell has been supplying farmers with peach trees as well as many of the plum, nectarine, prune, apple, cherry, apricot, pomegranate, olive, almond and walnut trees that produce a significant portion of our nation's supply of fruits and nuts. Irvin Burchell opened the nursery in 1942, and it continued under his son Bill's leadership. Today, the nursery is led by president and CEO Tom Burchell, who was named 2007 "young nursery professional of the year" by the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.

Like other agricultural businesses, the nursery's success involves skillfully predicting and accommodating consumer demand.

"The crux of the business involves deciding what to grow," Burchell observed. He considers varieties that have historically been requested by farmers, input from board and industry meetings, reports from his sales representatives and the market prices of various fruits and nuts.

In the end, Burchell said, "We have to get as much information about the industry as possible, take an educated guess about how much to plant of each variety, and take orders. About 75 percent of what we plant is based on our estimates of the farmers' needs, and 25 percent is based on the speculation that older trees will need to be replaced."

In other words, it's a gamble. If water or the economy happens to be an issue during a particular planting year,  growers might wait until the following year to replant.

"Sometimes we hit it and we sell 90 percent of the trees we grow, and sometimes we don't and we don't make money," Burchell said. "I wish we had a crystal ball to tell us what to grow but we don't, we just take an educated guess."

Adding to the vulnerability of the business is the fact that the nursery grows its trees from seed, grafting desirable varieties on hardy root stock and harvesting the majority for sale in a year, at which time they're ready to be planted in a farmer's orchard. "Most trees don't have an unlimited lifespan and need to be transplanted in one year," Burchell explained. "If these trees are held over and planted after two years, there is a greater risk of failure." Other slower growing varieties fare best if they're planted after two years.

The nursery hasn't changed a lot since Burchell's grandfather founded it. "Like any other business, it's gotten more expensive to run with increasing input costs for labor, fuel and raw materials," Burchell said. "Mechanization has changed over the years to save in labor, and we've made some mechanical improvements on cultivators, machines used to trim the trees, mechanization has changed over the years to save labor."

Like his grandfather, Burchell spends a lot of time supporting growers, keeping up on the latest trends and advising them about what types of trees and varieties to plant.

And while the balance of the nursery's inventory is grown in the ground on 900 acres in Oakdale, Burchell is currently experimenting with container-grown trees in greenhouses in Fresno.
Almond trees are Burchell's best seller, followed by peaches. Ninety percent of the nursery's inventory stays in California, from Redding to Red Bluff down to Bakersfield. The remaining ten percent-still a sizeable number-are shipped to fruit and nut growers around the country. 
The nursery has an active tree breeding program geared toward producing new varieties of stone fruit that have enhanced the business. The top three commercial varieties of peach planted in California-O'Henry, Elegant Lady and Autumn Flame-were created by Burchell, along with several popular varieties of almonds like Monterey, Fritz and Avalon.
"We've patented and released close to 100 new varieties to the industry, including almonds, walnuts and apricots," Burchell said. "We're always looking to improve the varieties out there." The nursery is also working with Texas A & M University to breed disease resistant stone fruit, and testing root systems from U.C. Davis to grow a better quality tree.
Today's farmers want the same thing that growers did in his grandfather's day, Burchell observed. "They want a good quality tree that grows well in the area-disease resistant so they won't have to spray as much, with a healthy, vigorous root system that will come into production quickly."