McKay Nursery strives for sustainability

Jan Shepel
Now Media Group


Growing top-quality shade trees, shrubs and perennials is job number-one for McKay Nursery Company in Waterloo, but sustainability and environmental stewardship are a big part of the calculation about how the job gets done.

When members of the state board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection toured McKay's facilities last week, they saw company workers' attention to a pollinator plan, the use of cover crops in newer shade tree fields and lower crop density.

The nursery business can take a lot of nutrients away from the soil and cover crops have been added to put organic matter back into the soil as well as create habitat for pollinators, Sam Noel, McKay's land manager, told board members. In recent years the production staff has been working to find better ways to nurture the soil while they take care of trees and shrubs in their fields.

Their cover crops of choice include blends of radishes to aerate the soil and clover to fix nitrogen. Trees have been spaced further apart than they would be in traditional nursery fields, which diminishes production per acre, but allows for better soil conditions, he added.

The cover crops have helped reduce erosion and soil compaction, he said, and reduced the use of herbicides on these fields as well as facilitating harvest of trees when they reach salable sizes in three to six years.

The employee-owned company, which operates about 2,000 acres in the Waterloo area, bought more land to compensate for the more generous spacing of shade trees and other plants. Their newer fields feature 700 plants per acre versus 1,000 on tighter spacing.

The bee habitat that ag board members walked through includes clover, alfalfa, timothy, elderberry and other berry plants, he said. A beekeeper has honeybees in the area.

Tom Buechel, McKay's head of production said that the company has gone to the wider spacing on its shade tree fields and will soon do the same in evergreen and shrub fields. The spacing has an impact on his staff's pest management – wider spacing allows more air to circulate and can help reduce some pest problems.

The shade tree fields include maples, oaks and lindens, but the company no longer produces ash trees due to the devastation of the emerald ash borer pest. McKay took a hit from that development, Buechel said, because they had patented 'Autumn Purple Ash,' a unique variety of ash. 'It cost the business a lot,' he said.

As markets change and develop, Buechel said they try to see where the best markets are and scale production up or down based on what makes money.

Though the company operates about 2,000 acres, on 13 or 14 farms, only about 1,000 to 1,100 acres are in production at any given time. The remainder is 'rested' and some of the land is used to grow soybeans or corn.

Crop managers said they only use glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybeans so they don't get herbicide interactions with their nursery crops — something that has happened in the past.

Container production

Joe Kern, container manager for the nursery, said McKay produces a million container plants per year, from one-gallon perennials up to three-gallon shrubs and 25-gallon shade tree containers. As he and his staff have looked for ways to improve, they have transitioned much of their production to plastic bags rather than the standard black plastic pots.

The new containers allow light to 'prune' the roots of the plants. As the roots get to the container they stop growing rather than circling inside the pot as they often do with black plastic containers. 'We're seeing great results,' he said. 'This is becoming a trend in the industry.'

In addition to the way the new container affects the roots of the plants, they also make shipping easier.

Though McKay is not a tree breeder or a plant breeder, its production staff members are always on the lookout for a tree, shrub or plant that looks like it might be different and special. The company is involved in a street tree evaluation program with six different municipalities.

With shrubs it is easier to find new and different plants, said Buechel, because there is more genetic variability.

The whole team at McKay, Buechel said, is involved in studying a wide range of industries to bring ideas back to the nursery. Some practices or products have come from dairy farms and others have come from the medical industry.

Ag board members had the chance to see the huge shipping warehouse where trees, shrubs and other plants are loaded into waiting semi trailers and straight trucks – 100 or so of which bear the McKay logo. Local landscape companies also bring their vehicles to be loaded with new materials for their projects.

The facilities also include a huge cooled warehouse where bare root plants are held for sale either in retail or wholesale channels. The space holds 350,000 trees and other plants after they are dug in the spring. A fair amount of the material goes to cities.

If the plants don't get sold they will be put in the ground and grown further for future sales.

Online sales

Buechel said that about half the company's business is retail and half is wholesale. The biggest change in their business model came when the big box stores began to offer trees and shrubs which cut substantially into McKay's business. More recently however, an online presence has helped boost sales. A fair number of Fed Ex trucks haul plants away each day, on their way to online buyers.

The shipping department loaded 230 standard semi trailers of material out of the warehouse last year. Some of the sales are done through independent dealers who work with homeowners on landscape plans and then get those plants from McKay.

Buechel said that one thing that his staff does which probably doesn't happen in the big box stores is surveillance for plant health. In order to ship their plants everywhere in the Unites States, they must have phytosanitary certificates – meaning their plant material is free of pests and diseases.

A group of six inspectors from DATCP's Plant Industry Bureau spends several days at McKay. 'We welcome them with open arms,' said Buechel. 'For us it's like having extra scouts at the nursery, in addition to our 165 employees who are also always scouting as they work.

'It would be impossible for us to do what we do without the state inspectors,' he added.

The department 'takes a systems approach' rather than the former practice of just 'looking at the end product,' said Plant Industry Bureau director Brian Kuhn. 'We now scout the entire process.'

If McKay's workers see something they don't think looks right, as they did recently with some boxwood plants, they call Kuhn's bureau, and the samples can be quickly tested and the results returned to the nursery. In the recent case, it wasn't boxwood blight and McKay's managers had the peace of mind in knowing that.

'We call it regulation,' said Secretary Ben Brancel, 'but we're trying to make it so the business owner can continue to operate.'

'In this case the response time was incredibly quick,' said Buechel.

Propagation farm

One place where sanitation is a key management factor is McKay's separate farm and greenhouse facility where plants are propagated. Visitors walk through foot baths and everything that is used in the facility is subject to sanitation procedures.

Mike Gates, the propagation manager, said 85 percent of the nursery's stock begins at this farm. Some comes from softwood and hardwood cuttings that are produced on this farm and then grown out first in the adjacent greenhouses and plant yards.

Gates and his staff will make 650,000 cuttings in a summer to propagate trees, shrubs and other plants – some of them grafted.

Perennials are the hardest plants to anticipate the market for, said Buechel. 'You have to try to guess what people are going to want to buy.'

The industry has been working to comply with various regulations that govern invasive plant species. Things like buckthorn and some cultivars of barberries fall into that category. Buechel said the industry is trying to supply plants that have the kind of characteristics customers want without the invasiveness. For instance, a weak link in the plant's fertility can render is non-invasive.

McKay has also gone to a system of composting on one of its farms, working with the city of Waterloo on mixing it with their leaf material 'It's a win, win for both of us,' said Beuchel. The city helps with the management of the compost, like turning it, and McKay supplies the location.

With the compost site, McKay plans to create material that can be used to amend the soil in its production fields and also break the cycle of any pests by composting beyond current industry standards. For example, they may leave the material on the compost farm for an extra year.

In addition, the compost site is far away from any McKay production fields to help keep any pests at bay.