Friends of Farming
San Diego County
Mark Collins is all about balance. Work life balance (he lives where he works) and balance in business. I’m touring one of Mark’s nursery growing grounds in Escondido on a foggy morning in January. Mark takes a call from an employee at another site as we pause exploring the nursery in his pickup truck. “We’re getting a bunch of dirt delivered and my guys are telling me it’s full of rocks. We go through a lot of soil…” He’s interrupted by his cell phone; it’s the owner of the company delivering the dirt. They reach an agreement, and then Mark is back to pointing out the plants as we continue driving. Conduct an interview, conduct business, and check the plants. Balance: that’s what Mark aims for.
Mark Collins owns Evergreen Nursery which is among the largest wholesale landscape nurseries in the region with locations in Carmel Valley, Oceanside, and El Cajon. We’re driving on 230 acres tucked in a box canyon in north Escondido, where Mark grows much of the stock that will supply his retail locations. Evergreen Nursery grows and sells virtually anything that a Southern California homeowner, landscaper, or developer would put in the ground. “General practitioner would be a good descriptor of what we grow,” he explains. “We service our own stores. We don’t sell little plants to anybody, we just put all our plants into our stores. In terms of customer base, we’ve got 40,000 customers in San Diego and all over the west, and its people that are actually going to use the plants.”
We pull up to a greenhouse and get out. “We are working so hard on the greenhouses because the nursery industry has these ups and downs, to say the least, and when there’s downs there are plants all over the place, and when there’s ups you can’t get things.” He speaks clearly. “But we’re flatter. We don’t have those ups and downs. We kind of know what we’re going to do, and since we know what we’re going to do, we can produce stuff for ourselves. Therefore when everything goes short and there’s that one particular item that can’t be had, we still have enough of them for our regular customers.” Under a nearby shade structure he points to a green bushy plant covered in white roses. “This prop facility is just to keep us stocked up. For instance, those are all iceberg roses right there. Now, iceberg roses are a little short in the marketplace, but it’s not going to bother us a whole lot. We’re going to grow our own. We don’t worry about not being able to source a particular plant, we’re going to scratch it out ourselves to the extent that we can. That’s a lot about what we do.”
We walk past a long stretch of potted plants with dark green leaves and blooms in a range of colors. “These are all camellias that we’ve grown from scratch. This seems like a lot of camellias, but by the time you spread them out over a whole year and spread that over three landscape centers plus our wholesale guys, it’s just about right. You can see there’s all different varieties. Again, it’s all about balance.”
The company keeps sales records of what they produced and sold year to year, and they rely on this data to help them make decisions of what to grow for future years. “For us it’s just about staying in balance. Numbers. I don’t want to grow 20,000 of one thing. I don’t want to grow 10 of one thing. I want to grow what makes sense based on what sold last year.”
Mark comes from a line of nurserymen. “My dad owned the biggest nursery chain in California. When I was growing up it was NurseryLand, and my dad’s dad was a nursery guy up in LA, and his dad was a rose grower in St. Louis.” Mark started Evergreen Nursery in 1973. Today it’s Mark’s son, Steven, who runs the day to day operations at Evergreen’s three landscape centers, and who’s helped update the company’s greenhouses. “My son is very techy compared to me; I’m just a mechanic. I keep things from being broken and find out ways to make things work,” he says.
Mark walks to an area where row upon row of young citrus stock are planted. Many have ripe fruit hanging from their branches. “What we are doing a lot of, by choice, is citrus.” Under the asian citrus psyllid quarantine shipments of citrus stock into and out of the county have virtually stopped, but for Evergreen that hasn’t been a problem. “We sell it all right here. There’s a few citrus growers here in San Diego that really do a fabulous job, but there’s still not really enough supply, and when the citrus psyllid made it a hard ballgame it made me even more invigorated about doing it.” There are 32 varieties of citrus planted. “We’re using this as a sort of citrus proving grounds. For us it’s not market testing, its more direct, it’s about taste. We’re not reliant on the overall market, we’re reliant on the market through our own stores. We bring our employees here and have them taste citrus, so that when Mrs Johnson - which I lovingly call our customer - when Mrs Johnson’s landscaper shows up and says Mrs Johnson wants a fruit tree garden, what do I want to give her? Our employees know because they’ve been out here tasting, and it really makes a difference.”
Grow what people want at the right numbers, work with the setbacks and challenges, keep the numbers balanced; Mark applies a similar principal to resources. On the property we’re touring he says, “There’s 4 wells and enough solar panels to run them all, and that’s basically it. That’s sort of the way of the future for agriculture in San Diego. Have a well and a solar panel. That way you can function.” By limiting the price variables of water and energy, he thinks, a farmer can make a go of it.
Mark has been in the business long enough to have seen many things before. We walk past a stand of Queen palms rising high into the air. He notes, “a few years ago, Queen palms went on their ear. You couldn’t give them away. But we’re still selling some right now. So these things kind of come in circles.” And as the cycles keep turning, Mark and Evergreen Nursery will try to stay balanced.
Friends of Farming San Diego County 420 South Broadway, Suite 200, Escondido, CA 92025 760-745-3023 firstname.lastname@example.org