In 2020, Texas fruit tree grower Legg Creek Farm had its best year ever with sales of Southern-adapted fruit trees increasing more than 50 percent.
Company founder Trey Watson expects to maintain those gains through the end of 2021, as Texas gardeners scramble to replace damaged fruit trees lost during the state's surprising winter storm.
Legg Creek sells Southern-adapted fruit trees online and ships them across the U.S. Watson started selling online in 2009 with a simple homemade website and was shocked at the number of sales.
“We started out with a website I built myself,” Watson recalls. “It was a terrible website, in hindsight. I would post to Craigslist, that’s how I got traffic. And people started buying.”
His business is one of the only Texas farms selling native and other varieties of fruit trees specifically adapted to the hot, dry temperatures of the South. It’s a fascination that goes back to his teenage years.
“I would order fruit trees back when the internet was young,” he says. “But I couldn’t get them to grow. It was probably my own fault. I would order from places that I would consider ‘up north.’ Our climate here in East Texas is much more in line with the Southeast vs. if you go over to Austin. That is more of a western-type, more arid climate. We tend to have a little more rain. So I thought ‘this is crazy that I can’t get any fruit trees to grow that I ordered online.’”
Since then, Watson earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and master’s degree in environmental science, both from Stephen F. Austin State University, and authored several books about growing fruit trees in the south in addition to founding Legg Creek Farm.
Watson has written “The Lazy Gardener's Guide to Easy Fruits and Berries”, “The Southern Gardener's Guide to Growing Fruit Trees” and “How to Grow Apples in the Southern U.S.” He also received an endorsement from the North American Native Plant Society for “Southern Bounty: How to Grow and Enjoy Southeastern Native Fruits and Nuts”.
Watson clearly got the hang of growing fruit trees in Texas, and he’s got a more sophisticated website now, too. The Legg Creek Farm site provides plenty of information for its customers about chill hours and how to pick a fruit tree that will thrive in your area. And it will let them buy straight from the farm’s inventory. In fact, 95% of Legg Creek’s business is done online.
“We have had customers ask, mainly people willing to drive from Houston or Dallas, and ask if we have a nursery and the answer is… not like you think,” Watson says. “It’s not a cute little nursery for customers. We have rows of trees and we bring them to a central point and process them out in boxes we ship with FedEx.”
Running an online-first business
Legg Creek does have wholesale customers, including several orchards. But most of its product goes directly from the farm to the customer. Interaction is typically done via email or Facebook messenger. Watson has a few employees that manage the orders as they come in and handle any questions.
One of the keys to Watson’s success has been a rigorously maintained email list. He’s judicious about how many emails he sends, constantly conscious of the danger of overloading his customers’ inboxes. They were willing to share that address with him, so he believes it would be a betrayal of sorts to overly harass them.
“We’re sitting at 5,000 emails and we literally use that like it’s a treasure,” he says. “You know how companies like Ebay or Amazon send an email every day? I hate that. We send out customer emails when we think there’s something they would be interested in. Using that [list] like the gem that it is has been beneficial to us.”
Legg Creek’s biggest sellers are its most popular low-chill apples: Anna and Dorsett. Pink Lady and Granny Smith are also popular, as well as a variety that originated in Israel called Einshemer. Those are all apples that will grow in areas where apples typically won’t. Watson says that his customers really like the fact that they can grow apples in their hot, humid climate. He sells them all the way across the Southeast. Even people in South Texas along the border — typically citrus country — have bought and planted Legg Creek apple trees.
“I have customers sending me pictures and saying ‘Oh my word, I have apples in Houston,” Watson laughs. “That’s awesome!”
In terms of profitability, the native trees are tops. Watson says that’s because they’re relatively small and he can turn them quickly.
Growing and selling an apple tree is a two- to three-year process. Whereas some native trees take less than two years if the nursery can get the one-year seedling big enough. They’re profitable and popular, Watson says. Some of the natives, like the pawpaw and Allegheny chinkapin, don’t do well after they’ve been in a forest that has been recut.
“None of the forests in the Southeast, including where I’m at in East Texas, are virgin forests,” Watson says. “So when they came in and clear-cut these forests 100 years ago, some of these little native, understory fruit-bearing trees have a really tough time coming back. The seed source is still out there, but personally I enjoy getting these out to people at reasonable prices so they can re-establish some of these native fruit and nut trees.”
Native fruit trees are also big sellers. Particularly, the mayhaw which is a small native tree that's used in Texas for wine and jelly. Pawpaw trees and mulberry trees are also in demand and shipped to customers living as far north as the Canadian border.
There are some headaches to running a nursery with such a large retail component. Shipping to retail customers all over the U.S. is particularly difficult.
“FedEx has been great, but they are very proud of their work,” Watson says. “It’s expensive and it’s getting more expensive.”
For instance, last year the freight carrier added a holiday surcharge for everyone because of tremendous demand, with so many more people than usual using their services. After the holidays passed, the surcharge stayed. Watson understands; FedEx had to hire more people to do the extra work, but it’s still an added cost for him.
“We just had to roll with it,” he says. “Demand was high enough that we were able to more or less absorb it.”
Another headache is supply chain woes. Legg Creek had a lot of interest in citrus trees such as oranges, lemons and limes last year. In the spring of 2020, the nursery was growing some and working with a supplier that got hit by a hurricane.
“Shortly after the hurricane, the Texas freeze wiped them all out," said Watson. “It looks like I could have sold 5,000 citrus trees if I wanted to this year. And I can’t sell any. It’s not the market; it’s just the nursery we were working with putting the liners together is shot to heck and that was their specialty.”
The evolution of e-commerce
A lot has changed in the e-commerce world since Legg Creek Farm got started in 2009. Watson says early on, it was easier to get a higher number of organic searches, for example. It was easier to be one of the top-ranked search results for certain words on Google. That’s a result of more competition for the same words as more companies become SEO-savvy, but also an effect of Google changing the rulebook for its search engine.
“A lot of people who have e-commerce businesses try to get ranked for a certain keyword on Google, and you pay someone who’s supposedly a SEO expert to do that,” Watson says. “I would never do that now. That does not seem like something that is worthwhile to spend money on. It’s outdated, in my opinion, because if Google keeps changing its algorithms and how they do things, it’s not worth it.”
What is worth spending your online marketing budget on? Well, it may not be the trendiest social media network out there, but Facebook is established. Watson has found paid advertising on Facebook to be effective over the last five to six years.
Also, he’s seen a lot of traction from a new advertising model: the influencer. These are people with gardening or permaculture blogs or big social media followings. They already have an audience; the key is turning their audience into your customers. Legg Creek has done more advertising with influencers than ever this year, and Watson has been pleased with the results. Partnering with these people is not typically difficult to do, he says.
“A lot of it is just individuals who work hard and have a YouTube channel, or a blog, or an Instagram account we like,” he says. “It’s a personal, one-on-one connection. That connection can be brought out to people who follow them and are fans of them. We can bring them in and get to know them as well.”
For more: www.leggcreekfarm.com