“We’re on this island out here. We tend to be much bigger in scale than what colleagues of mine do in other parts of the country just because we can’t get restocked as quickly,” Edmundson said.
The difference in climates also makes it harder for distributors when bringing in supply from other regions.
[Related: Modernization of the Nursery Act passes]
“Right now in Oregon and California, plants are starting to leaf out already, so if customers were to buy from there now, the plants might come here, get frozen and get damaged,” Edmundson said.
“That’s why we invest so much in our infrastructure for overwintering,” so that plants wake up protected and on schedule, he explained. White poly sheets provide shade as well as trapping heat to keep plants dormant for longer and to regulate the temperature they’re exposed to.
Arbor Valley is developing a “hub and spoke model,” wherein it opens distribution centers along the Front Range to cater to smaller contractors and municipalities, maintaining its Brighton location as a production and supply warehouse.
The first such center is in Franktown, about 35 miles southeast of Denver.
Balance automation, personalization
Technology is another way Arbor Valley streamlines its operations without sacrificing customer service.
“We want to automate transactions, but personalize interactions,” Edmundson said.
Pricing, order status and delivery information are examples of areas where automation can help a company. Enabling customers to access up-to-date information on their own rather than having to contact an employee frees up workers to focus on tasks that customers value more when they’re done by a person.
The problem is there isn’t a lot of technology designed specifically for nurseries, forcing companies to adapt solutions built for other industries.
Arbor Valley is trying to “connect the dots” between tech used in other industries and applications in the nursery business by working with CSU to increase collaboration between its horticulture and engineering departments.
The company is also looking for corporate partners that might be interested in the horticulture industry, but aren’t aware of the need.
Better adoption of tech solutions can help growers solve another important challenge — labor.
Next-gen nursery managers
The industry needs to do a better job of selling itself to potential workers.
“If we were putting up a dating profile of our industry, we’d be telling them all the things that are terrible about us,” Edmundson said of the industry at large. “We’re highly seasonal. We don’t pay very well. It’s really hard, back-breaking work — no wonder we have no dates.”
Students often come to horticulture by accident as their first job out of high school or as a second career after working in an office, he said. “How do we go from getting people by accident to getting them on purpose?”
Edmundson wants the industry to focus on the positive aspects to attract people eager to be here who will be more successful.
“You get to be connected to your environment, you don’t have to sit behind a desk all day, you get to do something new and different all the time,” he noted.
More abstractly, green industry workers can make a difference and have an impact on their community. “Not everyone is motivated by money,” he said.
Edmundson’s father, Dave, who founded the firm with his own father in 1980, served on the board of the Colorado Horticulture Research and Education Foundation. Started under his leadership, Arbor Valley has offered a scholarship program for students in the horticulture program at CSU for almost two decades. Students who are in their second year or higher, and who have declared horticulture or environmental horticulture as their major, can apply for the scholarship.
Arbor Valley also offers five or six scholarships a year for students at Front Range Community College, Edmundson said.
After Dave’s passing in 2010, Edmundson took over his role on the foundation board, interviewing candidates for the scholarships.
“We value the future of our industry. We back it up with our investment in trying to get qualified students,” he said.
College counselors and recruiters often focus on students interested in STEM fields, Edmundson said, so Arbor Valley has started reaching out to local high schools, including Greeley West, Arvada West and Westminster, with vocational or horticulture programs to support that path to the industry.
In addition to Front Range Community College, Aimes Community College in Greeley and Pickens Technical College in Aurora have horticulture programs. By working with these schools, Arbor Valley is trying to “create a pipeline to CSU” to develop a pool of talented workers.
Edmundson said the green industry in Colorado is second only to cattle producers. “We feel that’s important for CSU to recognize. Even though we may not have billionaire owners to put our names on buildings, together we can marshal resources and effort to do outreach to our community and drive enrollment.”
He continued, “We’re looking for the opportunity to grow from within the industry so we can maintain some of the culture and the legacy that my dad and other people I’ve worked with have brought to the industry that make it a great place and a great industry to be a part of.”
(Photo: Povy Kendal Atchison)