Oldest WI nursery to host state show

Gloria Hafemeister
Mike Gates demonstrates how plants are started in the greenhouses at McKay. He propagates some plants and many others begin their life in a new type of cell that expands with it is watered. The result is the plants are handled less and develop faster.

WATERLOO - McKay Nursery is the oldest and largest nursery in Wisconsin. Founded by William McKay in southern Wisconsin in 1897, McKay Nursery has been specializing in hardy, northern-grown nursery stock for over 120 years.

Company officials are quick to say that while they are horticulturalists and nurserymen, they actually think of themselves as careful farmers. Their sustainable and earth-friendly practices are not only ethically correct but they also contribute to the financial success of the business.

McKay Nursery Company hosted the Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom tour recently, sharing their story with 48 participants. McKay’s also hosted the Wisconsin Nursery and Landscape Association Summer Field Day and Trade Show this week.

Tom Bergan, vice president of sales at the employee-owned company, says with some of these practices they have found they are able to shorten the time it takes from when a tree is established until it is ready to market by one full year and at the same time do it more efficiently with less labor.

He says, “Being employee-owned since 1984 we have found employees take more pride in what they are doing. There are lots of opportunities for employment in the green industry.”

He also mentioned McKay’s proactive approach to quality control.

The company is one of eight nurseries participating in the Systems Approach to Nursery Certification (SANC) program, a voluntary, audit-based program designed to reduce pest risks associated with the movement of nursery stock. The program is based on how plants are produced rather than on how those plants look at the time of single inspection.

During the tour the teachers and agricultural promoters learned how the company manages the 1800 acres of land where they grow trees and shrubs within a five-six mile radius of the company’s headquarters on the edge of Waterloo.

The company produces bare root and container nursery stock and does its own propagation in house.

Mike Gates and the research and development management team members demonstrated how over time they have discovered things that lead to a patent of particular varieties. Trees take a lot of time to develop. Shrubs take a little less time. Seedlings are the best way for developing new varieties.

Gates demonstrated modern day propagation and how many others begin their life in a new type of cell that expands with it is watered. The result is the plants are handled less and develop faster.

Bergan says they raise 400-500 species of plants and market a million containerized plants, shrubs and trees each year. Trees are marketed as bare-roots or burlapped and balled and the company is moving away from hard containers and instead using grow bags and pouches.

Plants are marketed by retail, wholesale and on-line. Shipping trees in 3-gallon containers to customers in 48 states is the company’s niche.

While these plants are growing and developing they need a great deal of monitoring during growth. When the temperatures dipped to a record low in mid May they were out putting blankets over the most sensitive plants. They monitor constantly for signs of insects or disease, wind damage and anything else that might interfere with raising a healthy plant. Workers also spend time watering and feeding the young plants.

Bergan says constant monitoring is important.

“Response time is everything. If our people in propagation see something they must respond quickly. If not, it can be like a brush fire and spread quickly,” he says. “One pest can cost a business like this a lot of money.”

Visitors also learned about the company’s efforts to create habitat that is attractive to bees in order to increase the bee population, something that is necessary for pollination. Cover crops that produce a variety of flowering plants for the bees and also contribute to the health of the soil are an important part of this initiative.

He said after years of using herbicides to control weeds between trees they are realizing that there are better ways to accomplish this goal. In the past they planted 1000 plants on a field and now they plant 700 trees with cover crops like tillage radish and clovers between the rows to discourage weeds. They also use drip irrigation that feeds and waters the tree roots and not the weeds.

Bergan says more spacing also allows for better plant breathing.