There have been Hildreths farming the land in Tennessee since before the Civil War. Eric Hildreth represents the fifth generation of Hildreth nurserymen. He learned the trade working for his dad at Rickey A. Hildreth Farms. After 15 years, Eric decided to strike out on his own. He founded Carpe Diem Farms in 2014 and employs five year-round workers at his tree nursery. His customer mix is about 25% garden center, 25% landscaper and 50% rewholesaler.
Eric is 35, and he and his wife Laura welcomed a baby girl, Amelia June, in April 2021. “Millie” joins her two-year-old brother Warren Brown Hildreth.
NM: What’s it like running a small nursery business with two kids under three years old?
I know where the coffee pot is.
NM: How do you take your coffee?
I take it black. My wife will talk me into an iced coffee every once in a while, but I typically just want it straight black.
NM: What was it like growing up in a family where everybody is either a nurseryman or understands the trade?
It meant that you didn't have much free time. If you had a sleepover, you still got picked up to go to work the next day.
NM: What made you decide to start your own nursery?
I was getting married, and my soon-to- be future wife told me I had to make more money.
NM: What does your wife do?
She's a dental hygienist. She really wants to quit, but I told her behind every successful nurseryman was a wife that worked in the city.
NM: What are the most popular trees you sell?
Our top sellers are dogwoods, maples, oaks, and quite a few elms as well.
NM: How do you decide what to add to your production schedule?
Looking into the future, I'm looking at increasing columnar and fastigiate-type plants. Because I'm seeing from landscapers that lot sizes are getting smaller. And I feel like that'll be the future for street trees — and also for planting around nosy neighbors. I don't think red maples are going away by any means. But I think columnar is going take up a larger market share than it has.
With the garden center side that is dealing with homeowners, we’re seeing more awareness of cultivars. They're not just looking for a red maple. They want a specific red maple.
NM: How has running your own business changed since you got started in 2014?
It used to be a lot more phone calls. Now for a lot of my business, I'm dealing with either email or text messages. And I like that, to be honest, because with text message and email, there's a trail for what was said and what was agreed to. Whereas sometimes people forget or change their mind when you talk to them on the phone.
NM: What's your favorite thing about running your own business?
I like the sales side. I like interacting with the customer. I used to think that I wouldn't like it as well, but it sure is easier dealing with the sales side than actually driving stakes and doing everything else. I still enjoy shaping the tree and having in my mind what I want the plants to do. But I'm thankful that I'm not having to physically do it as much as I used to.
NM: What are the toughest parts of running a small business?
I think the hardest part, at least for me, is being a mobile secretary. I don't have a secretary that sits in the office and takes calls as a buffer for me. But I market that: When a company deals with my company, they're dealing with me directly. But the trouble with that is I might be welding or repairing something, and if the phone rings and it's a customer, everything else has to stop. I used to run the digger myself. But I noticed if I got phone calls, it could stop production too much. I have to be available. And sometimes that means I'm taking calls at 8:00 at night and sometimes that means I'm getting woke up at 6:00 in the morning with somebody calling or a truck that's wondering where they're supposed to be for a pickup. I think the toughest thing for a small business owner is it's literally your life. It doesn't matter if you're on vacation. You've got a lot of flexibility as a small business owner, but at the same time it's a ball and chain you're carrying around.