Grower of the Year: J. Frank Schmidt III

Grower of the Year: J. Frank Schmidt III

Features - Cover Feature

Compassion and sincerity perpetuate a nursery legacy.

August 27, 2009

Frank is a third-generation nurseryman. He was named president and CEO of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. in 1991.

Photo by Nancy Buley
J. Frank Schmidt III honors his family’s heritage every day. It goes well beyond carrying on a namesake. It’s more than heading up the company his father started during a post-World War II building boom. This humble and somewhat reserved man venerates the Schmidt legacy by applying the life and business lessons passed down by his grandfather, father and mother.

“Growing up, I learned a lot from my mom and dad – about the nursery business and about life. Dad was a great mentor in my personal life, as well as teaching me how to be a nurseryman. Mom still inspires me every day with her energy and positive attitude,” Frank said.

From sensible back-office business decisions to innovative production techniques, this third-generation nurseryman continues to shape the family business into an enterprise that reverberates respect and achievement.

An eye for quality
J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. (JFS) in Boring, Ore., has one of the leading tree introduction programs in the country. Its new plant development pipeline is extremely deep, with hundreds of plants being evaluated for potential future introduction.

The nursery has introduced or co-introduced 71 patented and trademarked cultivars.

“Our tradition of developing, growing and marketing new and improved cultivars started way back with my grandfather and his introduction of an improved European mountain ash. It was a great improvement over the seedlings of the species that were in the trade at the time, and we still grow and sell it today,” Frank said.

The Sorbus aucuparia selected by J. Frank Schmidt Sr. was never named, but it is still the clone being grown and sold as JFS’ budded European mountain ash. Frank refers to this as “Grandpa’s Tree.”
J. Frank Schmidt Jr. continued the tradition of superior selections with the introduction of Red Sunset maple in 1966. Millions have been sold in the 40-plus years since then, and it is still one of the more popular red maples in the country, Frank said.
Frank became active in cultivar selection in the early 1970s, discovering the trees that became Queen Elizabeth maple, Big Cis plum, and Mt. St. Helens plum.
“When it comes to new and improved trees, we look to J. Frank Schmidt for innovation, quality and knowledge. Their introductions are thoroughly tested. Their marketing support is outstanding. And I love their customer support because they make me feel like a person, not just another grower,” said Jon Reelhorn, owner of Belmont Nursery in Fresno, Calif. “Their arboretum is outstanding, too. It’s a great place to compare the different trees, like elms, when there are so many and they seem so similar.”
Frank’s latest find is Pacific Purple vine maple, which debuted in May. Frank spotted this colorful variation of the popular Pacific Northwest native (Acer circinatum) growing in a row of seedlings on one of the farms.
“The introduction of new and improved cultivars is a driving force in the nursery industry. Everybody wants to know what’s new, and it is new products that generate business and build a loyal customer base. Our new tree introductions help to differentiate our company in this competitive marketplace,” Frank said.

Spread the message
Exceptional genetics and growing conditions certainly fuel new JFS introductions, but a strong marketing message is key to selling new trees.
“We have stepped up our marketing efforts on our newer introductions, and we are helping our customers by creating pull-through marketing that will help them sell the trees they buy from us,” Frank said. “Our recent launch of cultivar-specific Web sites for Royal Raindrops crabapple [] and Redpointe maple [] has been very successful. The list of sources is already bringing buyers and sellers together.”

And the nursery is reaching out to folks who aren’t direct customers.
“We are also sharing our marketing messages with specifiers who influence purchases,” Frank said. “Outreach to specifiers is a Schmidt innovation that has served the company and its customers very well. Although specifiers are rarely direct customers, educating them about new cultivars and sharing cultural information creates demand for our cultivars and other trees grown on to landscape size by our customers.”

JFS’ TreeLocator service is a great pull-through marketing tool that connects growers with specifiers and buyers. TreeLocator is designed to assist landscape professionals across the country in finding local sources of JFS trees. With a simple phone call, JFS will match a specifier’s needs with Schmidt customers in their region. JFS provides the specifier with names and telephone numbers of local growers who have purchased the desired trees for growing on to landscape size.

The JFS reference guide has set a standard for the industry. It began in 1993 when the grower published a catalog without prices, and it’s evolved into a reference for tree information that is widely used in the trade and in academic circles.

“The tree form drawings, created by Keith Warren, were very innovative back in 1986 when we first used them in our catalogs, and are a great reference, too,” said Nancy Buley, marketing director at JFS.

Bare root and beyond
JFS specializes in bare-root shade and flowering trees. Bare-root trees are harvested at one, two and three years of age, measured from the time the newly propagated trees are lined out in rows for growing on to salable size. Depending on the species, its roots may be one to three years older than the top, bringing to six or seven years the time it takes to produce a salable tree.
A container division expands JFS’ range of plant material and extends the selling season to year-round. Most trees in the container yard are containerized rather than container grown. One-, two- and three-year-old trees from bare-root production fields are potted in early spring and released for sale after the roots are well established.
“Our VigorLiner program features container-grown trees that are difficult to transplant via bare-root methods,” Frank said.
The nursery’s B&B division complements its bare-root production with hand-dug B&B trees, and broadens its palette of plant material.

A better mousetrap
Besides tree innovations, JFS is also known for its resourceful tools of the trade. And Frank has been behind some of the more intriguing machines.
“I’ve always liked to tinker with machinery and figure out ways to mechanize things so we can grow better trees, or save on labor and other inputs,” Frank said. “We’ve innovated a lot of pieces of equipment over the years that have made our work easier and our trees better. We’ve had some very creative mechanics and fabricators in our shops.”
Frank came up with the concept for a front-end digger for digging large bare-root trees.
“The guys in the shop did a great job turning the idea into a working machine. They also did a great job building them to last, because we are still digging trees with them after 25 years of hard use,” Frank said.
The Grow Straight stake was a small innovation that made a big difference in tree quality throughout the industry.
“It was dad’s idea to guide the growth of the bud straight up instead of letting it go to the dogleg bud union that everyone was used to at the time,” Frank said. “At first we used masking tape. Then we talked over some ideas that led to my going into the shop and hammering out the prototype of the Grow Straight stake from some tin cans. That was back in 1975 when I was just out of school and starting to work full time at the nursery.”
One of the nursery’s more recent inventions is a three-row planter that installs drip irrigation tape as it moves down the row. To conserve water and to improve tree growth, JFS is gradually converting from overhead irrigation to drip, and this new planter is making the transition easier and more efficient, and assures precision planting depth.
A lot of good mechanization ideas have come from JFS employees, including a tilting pallet trailer that speeds up the loading and shipping of container trees and a boom crane for handling heavy B&B trees.

A lasting legacy
Frank is an enduring and genuine leader, not only for his family’s business, but for the entire green industry. He is a past president of the Wholesale Nursery Growers of America (WNGA) and a former Senator and Board Member of the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA). JFS is an industry benefactor, whether it’s dollars, trees, land or time – something Frank’s father started years ago.
“The Schmidt family has contributed so much to the industry,” said Tom Fessler, owner of Woodburn Nursery in Woodburn, Ore.
Frank may have been born into the industry, but he chose to make it his career. He began his nursery career on the weeding crew, learning all aspects of the business from his father. He attended Mt. Hood Community College while working in various capacities at the nursery. He served as farm manager and production manager prior to being named president and CEO in 1991.

For more: J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., (800) 825-8202;