family background / Allison and Eric are the third generation working at the family’s nursery in Central Washington, as the business manager and production director, respectively. They are children of Beth and Todd Cameron. (Note: Allison gave birth to Canon Schrader on March 11, shortly after this interview. Congratulations!)

age/Allison 35, Eric 31
grower/Eltopia, Washington
crops/Tree fruit and rootstock
business/Cameron Nursery

How did you get your start?
Allison: I didn’t really grow up having much to do with the farm. Our father encouraged us to go and form our own path in life. I graduated from Washington State University and started working in the insurance industry for about five or six years, gaining experience in contracts and corporate business. I started working at Cameron Nursery in 2013 and have been working with the legal, contract and financial parts of the business.

Eric: In high school and college I focused on engineering and technology, eventually getting certified in AutoCAD. When I was asked to join the nursery, I needed to learn a lot about how the farm works in a short amount of time.

How is a nursery different from a farm?
Eric: My job is mostly problem solving — driving our fields to check on crews and look for potential problems in the early stages, so we have a chance to correct it. This is a nursery and, unlike an orchard, the trees are very close together; so if there’s any type of problem, stressor, insect or disease, it spreads very quickly. We have a very short window of time to react compared to a commercial block. My primary job is to find those issues quickly, make a plan and act appropriately.

Allison: I’m more on the financial and legal side, so we’re constantly trying to make sure our leases are in place three to four years in advance and checking on contracts to ensure they are meeting current litigation standards. I help make sure we are staying on track with intellectual property rights, which involves staying in compliance with our varieties and contracts. Our accounting team works multiple years in advance. Right now, we’re focused on 2023 and 2024 because the 2021 trees are almost done and shipped out.

What is it like operating a nursery?
Eric: The nursery landscape is changing with all the new varieties and rootstocks. There are new challenges every day. Planning for the future is a constant cycle, and there are times when it feels like you’re in a casino rolling the dice. But the more you can account for contingencies and make sound plans, the more successful you’ll be.

Allison: The quicker you are able to adapt to change, the better. Right now, we’re getting ready to plant our 2023 field — and many growers aren’t even planning for what they will be planting in 2023. It puts us in the position of deciding what growers will have available. We joke that we don’t need to go to Las Vegas to gamble, we’re nursery people. It does involve educated guesses, and that can be difficult. Planning ahead is so very important.

Eric: Another challenge has been a recent drop in demand, so there’s a surplus of rootstocks. In result, we are renting less ground. We’re having to decide what rootstocks we’ll hold on to or get rid of. Every nursery goes through these challenges, and hopefully we make the right decisions for our future.

What advice do you have for growers before they plant?
Eric: I’d start out looking at the end goals and ask questions like: What variety do I want to produce? Is topworking an option or do I have to start out fresh? For instance, if you’re topworking, it’s important to know what rootstock you’re already using, what your spacing is and to look at whether or not topworking will be profitable in the end. Depending on what you learn about your existing block, you may be forced to start out fresh. If so, starting fresh gives a grower many more opportunities. The cost is quite a bit higher at the beginning, so planning is crucial when putting a new block in.

Allison: I think one of the things that we’re really focused on right now is plant diseases. If you’re purchasing trees to fill a 40-acre orchard, and you’re working the numbers looking to make a profit as fast as possible, you should not forget to look into disease problems in your plan. If that new orchard is topworked, you have the potential of all sorts of compounding diseases in the existing root systems.

Going with a fresh planting may be the best choice, even if it costs much more money up front. Make sure to ask around for help assessing your property for diseases management. When putting your plan together, I’d recommend organizing a team to think through all of the different pieces necessary to start a successful new planting.

What challenges do you face?
Eric: One of my recent challenges has been with irrigation. Because the nursery trees are so close together and the different rootstocks respond to varying conditions, how the field is planted and irrigated will give you really different results.

If you have a strong root and a weak root growing in the same irrigation system, it creates crop management challenges. To overcome that, we do our best to have a thorough planting plan before any of the 1.5 to 2 million new roots enter the ground. That plan must include an irrigation map that matches what we are trying to achieve.

Allison: One of the biggest struggles with bringing new varieties and new rootstocks into the nursery, let alone into the U.S., is getting enough time to test and evaluate. The whole process takes a lot of time. It’s pretty often that we have growers call us about new varieties and new rootstocks they’ve heard about, long before we even have access to the plant material or budwood.

This is one of the challenges of operating a nursery. Even if growers really want something, there may not be a way to get it right away. Another thing to consider when looking at new varieties is the current overabundance of variety selection that’s available to consumers right now.

When a new variety is brought in, in many cases it needs to be good enough to kick something else off store shelves. Growers should evaluate new varieties on whether there’s space for the new variety or not. These dilemmas are fun to work through, and it certainly keeps us busy.

Eric: For us, these types of special-order requests from growers are in the thousands. The past two years, we’ve ordered about 30,000 rootstocks for the purpose of special-order trees that are for testing or for bulking up budwood. New varieties and staying ahead of the curve is a huge part of the nursery business.

Have any advice about working in the nursery business?
Eric: One area of growth would be to work with tissue cultures. There are several tissue culture labs, but when working with rootstocks, specifically Geneva and Gisela, there’s a large demand. I’m pretty certain nurseries would welcome more people with experience with tissue culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if the nursery industry heads more in that direction.

—TJ Mullinax