Triple crown

Triple crown

Features - Cover Story

Jon Reelhorn leads Belmont Nursery, a California nursery, greenhouse and retail garden center.

September 8, 2021

Photos by Ellie Koleen

Belmont Nursery, located in Fresno, California, is a unique business because it includes nursery production, greenhouse production and a retail garden center. Jon Reelhorn is the owner, and he runs the place. A Californian through-and-through, he was born in Stockton where he developed a love of baseball. He’s 6’5” and lean, and when you hear he used to be a pretty good pitcher, you believe it. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants right out of high school, but he chose to go to Fresno State University on a baseball scholarship. He was drafted again by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980 and chased his boyhood dream for four years before putting that plant sciences degree to work.

Belmont Nursery is located in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural hotbed that gets quite literally hot. Temperatures routinely hit the triple digits and stay there for weeks. However, it cools off into the 70s and high 60s at night.

“We like to think of it as nice in the morning and nice in the evening,” Jon says.

It works for growing Belmont’s mix of annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, houseplants and succulents. Yes, it’s hot in the afternoon, but you get used to it. Or you work around the worst of it. During the summer, Jon’s field crew starts work at 6 a.m. and goes home between 2 and 2:30 p.m.

“If it’s 98 (degrees), that’s a breeze,” he says. “If it’s 102, that’s no big deal. If it’s 105, yeah, they’ll want to work in the shade in the afternoon.”

Still, Jon wouldn’t trade it. He loves the natural beauty of Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. He enjoys the fact that he can leave work and be hiking with his yellow lab, Crash, among the giant sequoias in less than an hour. Crash, you might guess, is named partially for Crash Davis, a character in the 1988 film Bull Durham, which chronicled the travails of a minor league baseball team.

An unorthodox succession plan

After playing a few years of minor league ball, Jon got his start as a salesman with a bit of production knowledge. He worked for Alameda Gardens, a Southern California wholesale grower that has since gone out of business, selling mainly to independent garden centers. He traveled through the Central Valley making sales calls between Bakersfield and Modesto.

“Nobody else wanted that territory; they thought it was the armpit of California,” Reelhorn says. “I thought it was great because it was small.”

Fresno is almost directly in the middle of that 200-mile Bakersfield-to-Modesto drive. That’s where he first visited Belmont Nursery and met the second-generation owners, Jerry and Varrel Palmer.

The Palmer family had run Belmont Nursery for 50 years over two generations. Vic and Ruby Palmer passed it on to Jerry and Varrel Palmer, but there were no viable third generation owners. Jon had been in the industry for about 15 years at this point, and he occasionally sold plants to the Palmers. One day, he asked Jerry what he planned to do about the nursery. When Jerry told him he wanted to retire but he didn’t have anyone willing to take over, Jon said, “I’d be interested.” Jerry’s eyes lit up and a huge smile creased his face as he almost incredulously said, “You would?”

Jerry, who became a mentor and father figure to Jon, was thrilled to have someone show interest in buying the nursery.

Two weeks later, Jon called on the nursery again and Jerry gauged how serious Jon was about the proposition. After some negotiations, about a year later Jon was brought on as general manager. He worked with Jerry for about a year as a transition, “to make sure I knew what I was doing,” Jon says. After that, he sold Jon the nursery.

Jerry is happily retired now, but he still brings the mail in and gets a cup of coffee every morning, because he lives in a house on the property.

Even though Jerry sold the nursery to Jon, he said he wasn’t quite ready to quit working. So Jon asked him what he’d like to do. Jerry said he wanted to be a truck driver. He’d always liked driving tractor trailers, and he likes to talk to the customers while unloading their plants. He wouldn’t tell them he was the previous owner, though, Jon says with a laugh.

Changing the mix

When Jon took over, about 95% of Belmont Nursery’s customers were landscapers.

As he knew the garden center market well, he tried to change the product mix at Belmont to offer more of what garden centers want. Instead of only landscape shrubs, he’d add 1-gallon geraniums, for example. He chased that market for years, and it was largely successful.

But the turning point for the business came when Jon signed up for the Executive Academy for Growth and Leadership (EAGL) program.

EAGL is an executive ‘mini-MBA’ curriculum tailored to the nursery and greenhouse industry, developed in collaboration with Dr. Charlie Hall, Ellison Chair for International Floriculture at Texas A&M University.

This University-recognized certificate program has been designed particularly with the challenges of contemporary wholesale growing businesses in mind.

For nine months, Jon was able to focus and collaborate with his peers and work to improve his company’s competitive position and profitability. Dr. Hall and the other EAGL faculty helped him narrow down his business’ scope and focus on where they were making money. And for Belmont Nursery, it was retail garden centers.

“We were trying to serve too many masters,” Jon says. “When we focus and say, ‘This is what we do well, and this is who we should be serving because we have a competitive advantage in that area.’ Well, that was selling to retail garden centers. They liked us, so they ordered week after week, which just tickles me. And then it's the same product we could sell at retail.”

In a matter of 5-7 years, Belmont’s customer base changed from about 5% retail to about 50% retail.

“Sure, there are some challenges in that,” Jon says, “but guess what? I'm not selling a $3 geranium anymore. Now I'm selling an $8 or $9 geranium. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it's better to sell the same plant for more.”

Belmont’s target customer is the homeowner with a project. They position themselves with branding as “Experts to the Experts”, touting their expertise as the go-to plant supplier for landscape professionals and retail garden centers. They back it up with eight California Certified Nursery Professionals on staff. However, that direct-to-customer business tends to dry up in the hottest parts of summer in the valley, when local homeowners aren’t planting because it’s too hot. That’s why selling their Belmont-grown items to retail garden centers is crucial to Belmont’s business plan. In the dog days of August, when it’s 100 degrees in the Central Valley but it’s only 80 degrees in the Bay area, customers there are still buying and selling. Those garden center customers are eager to buy plants from Belmont and sell them to their customers.

Jon also expanded the company’s shipping range past Northern and Central California into the Pacific Northwest.

On the growing side of the business, Belmont uses its climate to its advantage in several ways.

“It's hot here in summer, but some of the best growing conditions in the world are here between Feb. 15 and June 1,” he says. “And then in the fall between Sept. 15 and about Nov. 1 or Thanksgiving.”

Because of those excellent conditions, warm enough but not humid, plenty of sun and long days, Belmont is able to send a rose in bloom to its Pacific Northwest customers even long before Mother’s Day.

Jon has no desire to grow Belmont any larger than it is. The nursery will always be a regional supplier.

“We don’t want to get bigger; we just want to get better,” he says.

California challenges

Labor is certainly one of the biggest challenges for a nursery, whether it’s in Ohio or California. Federal and state regulations make it difficult to do business properly, Jon says.

“I tell people I grow flowers for a living, but what I really do is workman's compensation and water quality testing for nitrites and crazy stuff like that, which I don't need a degree in plant science to do,” he says.

The Central Valley is not as densely populated as the cities along the coast of California, but as urban sprawl continues and the town grows closer to the nursery, will the grower still be able to spray crops or will they have to find a new way?

California residents are typically under water use restrictions due to the state’s widespread drought. The state’s water board determines best practices for monitoring water use for homeowners, agricultural and horticultural producers.

The board has discussed putting together a plant palette, telling the growers what they can grow and what they can’t grow. For instance, a flower that takes more than their allotted amount of water to grow might be banned. The fact that people making those decisions don’t know the amount of water needed to keep a plant alive – or don’t deem plants important enough to adjust their plans -- is a scary thought for a nursery owner. It’s another reason Jon believes it’s imperative for growers to get involved in politics. They need to help their elected officials and representatives understand the fuller picture. They need to talk to the water board members, help them see that draconian restrictions might drastically reduce water consumption, but at the cost of not allocating enough water for homeowners to have plants in their front yard.

“If we’re not on the ball, if we’re not talking to our legislators and watching what’s coming down, if you’re not involved in Plant California Alliance or your farm bureau, you’re riding somebody else’s coattails and saying, ‘I’m not going to participate,’ well, then somebody else predicts your future,” he says.

“And that happens an awful lot. There's an awful lot of people that don't participate. They don't want to pay their dues, or they don't want to get involved. And so now the legislator doesn't understand how limiting the amount of water that a homeowner can use can decimate our industry.”

Stepping up

It frustrates him that horticulture, which is a $3 billion industry in California, is so fragmented and that it doesn’t have a stronger voice in government. He appreciates AmericanHort’s unified voice for the industry, especially the work senior vice president for public policy and government relations Craig Regelbrugge does to ensure the concerns of the grower are heard on a national level.

Work like that is what caused nurseries to be deemed essential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being able to stay open and sell when so many other businesses were forced to close was the key factor in many growers and garden centers having tremendously successful years. It’s $295 for a basic AmericanHort membership, and Reelhorn says every green industry business got their money’s worth last year.

“You won’t pay $300 to be able to stay open during the pandemic? How much was that worth, right?” he asks.

The pandemic itself was a boon for Belmont’s business, like many other growers and retailers in the industry. And although there is a pervading feeling of luck that the nursery industry was able to thrive when many others were unable to even survive, Jon knows that even if he feels lucky to be where he is, he owes it all to hard work by a talented group.

“It's certainly not luck because, without Craig Regelbrugge and without the people representing us in either Washington D.C. or Sacramento and convincing the people that are making the decisions that were essential, we could have just gone away,” he says. “We were ready to just fold up and say, ‘Okay, we can just keep many people on as it takes to keep the plants alive, but otherwise who knows what's going to happen?’ You lay a few people off and then two weeks later you're hiring them back and two years later we're still running. So, we feel pretty fortunate about just being in that position because there was an awful lot of people that weren't.”

Reelhorn is currently vice chairman of the AmericanHort board and has held leadership positions with the American Nursery and Landscape Association and the Horticultural Research Institute before that.

Now that he’s one of the “old guard” he tries to maintain that inclusivity that helped him feel at home when he was the new kid on the block. He first got involved with ANLA when he bought Belmont Nursery in 2001.

That year, he was looking for support as a new business owner who knew plants and sales but needed help with managing his company. So, he traveled across the country to the ANLA Management Clinic, a move he says “took a lot of guts.”

He still remembers walking into the event in the middle of Kentucky, not knowing anybody, and meeting Louis Hillenmeyer at the check-in. The founder of Louis’ Flower Power Shop, a central Kentucky retail garden center, he was a local guy, full of personality.

“He was so kind, he introduced me to the program,” Reelhorn says. “Every time I'd walk by later in the event, he'd say hello to me. It just made you feel like you were part of the family. And you can just tell that there's something really good about this group, because even if you’re a newbie from California that didn't know anything, he treated you really good.”

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