Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Oby Morgan
Even without snow on the ground, there’s a bleak beauty to the North Carolina high country in winter. The landscape is the flat gray-brown of bare trees and fallen leaves, with the occasional dark green of conifers, all rendered duller this morning by a sky the color of cement.
And it’s cold. Not biting, wind-whipped, take-your-breath-away cold, but the still, heavy kind that seeps into everything.
For a good few miles, heading northeast up beyond Burnsville, the landscape with its indifferent sky is all there is. And truth to tell, that’s almost all there used to be, between here and the college town of Boone, until about half a century ago when two things happened: (1) some ambitious developers decided Western North Carolina could compete with New England and the Rockies as a skiing destination; and (2) some equally ambitious arborists decided the topography, which wasn’t good for much else, could support plantations of Fraser firs and help furnish America with Christmas trees.
The ski resort business, which was launched with the opening of Cataloochee and Wolf Laurel to the southwest, spread to the high country almost immediately. First there was Beech Mountain, then Sugar Mountain, then Sapphire Valley, and a spate of others, some now defunct. As for the Christmas trees, Avery County—where we’re headed—is at the epicenter of that industry: North Carolina ranks second in the United States in terms of trees harvested and cash receipts, generated by some 400 growers statewide.
Which makes for an interesting economic narrative, but has only marginally to do with why we’re going to Avery County on this cold, gray January morning.
We mentioned earlier that before the skis and the trees there was almost nothing going on, businesswise, in these parts. But we’re going to visit an establishment that’s been alive and well and quietly flourishing here for almost 70 years: Vaughan’s Blue Ridge Nursery, on the fringe of the hamlet of Pineola, which is really an unincorporated neighborhood centered on the intersection of U.S. 221 and state highway 181. In the early 1900s there was a large sawmill in Pineola, and at one time the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad—better known as “Tweetsie”—passed through, but it abandoned Pineola in 1939. Vaughan’s came along eight years later.
“Mr. Vaughan had been in the hosiery business,” says Shuford Carpenter, who owns the place and runs it with a staff of about a dozen, depending on the season, along with family members. “He started the commercial nursery business and kept it going for a good while, but eventually it started going downhill.”
We’re sitting in the makeshift office area behind the counter of the retail store section of the operation (more about that later), with Shuford looking at the ceiling and remembering.
“See, I got out of high school in ’64 and I got a job working for AT&T. That paid the bills, but in the meantime I got bit by the Christmas tree bug—it was just starting to take hold—and I was looking for a way to get involved in it enough to break out on my own. In the meantime, in the 70s, AT&T laid off a bunch of folks. All of a sudden there wasn’t any work going on around here again except farming. That and the Christmas trees.
“Vaughan’s was originally three plots of land in one—left, right, and center parcels. A bad ice and snow storm had ruined one side and there was a fire on the other side. There’d been about a hundred people working here—I think everybody in Avery County had worked for Vaughan’s at one time or another—and it had hit ‘em pretty hard. So the place, the middle part that was left, went up for auction.
“Now I had no intention of gettin’ in the nursery business. The auction included all their equipment, so about $30,000 worth of equipment; that was all I was after for the Christmas tree operation; we didn’t even bid on the property, which had a patch of Christmas trees on it.
[quote float=”right”]“Uh-uh. That’s a big no-no. See,” Shuford plucks a tag from a plug and indicates the writing on it, “these things are patented by the original grower. Every one of ’em. They’re coded. You can get fined for producing non-tagged cuttings. It’s like moonshine.” [/quote]“Well, the auction was on a Saturday, and they sold those two flank parcels—the ones that were damaged from the fire and the snowstorm—right off. Like I say, I didn’t think anything about it. I had my equipment; that was all I’d been interested in. The next Tuesday the phone rang, and it was my nephew. He just said, ‘Come up to Vaughan’s.’ Turned out they still had the middle parcel of land left; it hadn’t sold at auction. I got that phone call at 2:30. By 4:00 we were in the nursery business.”
Fortunately, even in decline Vaughan’s had managed to retain a vestigial customer base. “We were so green we were actually dependent on our customers to tell us what we should be stocking and doing,” Shuford remembers. “They were a big help. We had to play catch-up right quick; we’d never been in the cut-flower raising business, but now here we were, getting ready to serve customers from as far away as Charlotte and Hickory, some from as far away as Ohio.
“We started rebuilding all the infrastructure,” he says. “One thing we did that helped a lot was to put in natural gas. That gives us even, centralized heat all through the operation that we can adjust as needed. That’s important because being up here in the high hills our crops come in about a whole month later than, say, Charlotte. You know how tricky the weather can be up here in the spring.”
“We do a lot of business with the local resorts, though,” Shuford says. “Them and local contractors. And since they’re close by, in Mitchell and Yancey counties besides here, they’re working with the same weather, the same growth season we are. So that helps even things out. Once we’re well into the season we’ll be sending a lot of stuff down to the Piedmont, to Charlotte and Hickory.”
Shuford rises from the office couch and heads for the door, eagerly reaching for a cigarette he appears to have been looking forward to. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll show you the operation.”
Back out in the cold, we’re looking at a row of enormous tent-like structures that resemble airplane hangars. Shuford opens a flap and motions us inside. The “tent,” it turns out, is actually made of a sturdy substance that’s opaque but allows the light in, so that the space is full of ambient daylight. It’s a greenhouse. (And we were expecting multitudinous panes of glass in metal frames.) The space is filled with long, long rows of tables, each filled in turn with rows of shallow pots from which protrude what appear to be clusters of dead sticks.
“These are cuttings in their rooting beds,” Shuford says. “They’re on a timed system. They’ll be sprinkled with water every fifteen minutes.” He points overhead and, sure enough, there are rows of horizontal metal sprinklers, spaced every few feet down the length of the greenhouse.
“In all,” he says, “we’ve got eighteen of these cold frames and houses. Like I said, we’ve got gas furnaces in all of them. You can see we’ve got diffuse light and of course we’ve also got gro-lights that we can supplement that with. Everything is on a schedule—watering, feeding, light, according to what we’re raising in a given place. We can’t control the weather, but we can control what goes on in here pretty good. Come on; I’ll show you something else.”
He leads the way into a second greenhouse. This one is devoted to trays of tiny plantlings, the embryonic leaves no bigger than a housefly, each sitting in a container smaller than a shot glass. All have coded tags stuck into their tiny pots. “These are what you call plugs,” Shuford says. “We buy them, mostly from South America, then we finish raising them ourselves. Plugs are probably our single biggest supply expense.”
So why not buy just a few, raise them to adolescence, then take cuttings and raise those?
[quote float=”right”]“I tell you, doin’ business with those big chains is like havin’ a tiger by the tail. Yeah, they buy big quantities, but because their own pricing is so low compared to independents, our profit margin with them is really slim.”[/quote]Shuford grins as though the thought must have crossed his mind, maybe more than once, but he shakes his head ruefully. “Uh-uh. That’s a big no-no. See,” he plucks a tag from a plug and indicates the writing on it, “these things are patented by the original grower. Every one of ’em. They’re coded. You can get fined for producing non-tagged cuttings. It’s like moonshine. At four cents per untagged cutting that can add up to serious money.”
Back outside, we pass a device like a miniature ferris wheel, where rows of pots ascend, are filled with dirt from a feeder shot, and descend to be taken away. “These pots are for new cuttings,” Shuford says. “This is our own potting soil, as you can see, “ he says, indicating the white pellets embedded in the black loam, “it’s already fertilized. Of course, it’s formulated according to what species is going into the pots.
“In the spring these will be ready for us to take and sell. A lot of them will go to Charlotte or Hickory, some to South Carolina, and then a lot more to places like Home Depot in Atlanta.” He gives his head a shake. “I tell you, doin’ business with those big chains is like havin’ a tiger by the tail. Yeah, they buy big quantities, but because their own pricing is so low compared to independents, our profit margin with them is really slim. We’ll make some money back, though, doing contract landscape business with the resorts and the country clubs and development properties. In a few weeks we’ll have a full landscaping crew working full-time here and they’ll stay busy. Let’s go back inside.”
Fine by us.
We re-enter through the front door of the retail business. “This is the retail florist operation,” Shuford says. “We got into that through the back door, too. We thought it would be a good idea if we had a retail side—something that brought in a cash stream all year round—so we bought up what used to be the old Newland Flower Shop—it had been in business since the ’60s—and turned it into our own retail florist and garden center.” He chuckles. “We closed the deal the week before Mother’s Day in 2008. Talk about another quick learning curve. Some of our customers had to teach us how to use the cash register.”
Shuford waves an arm, encompassing the shop and everything outside. “This has all been one case after another of adapting to suit what was going on. I like to think we’ve covered the bases pretty well, up to now. We’re probably of the biggest operations of our kind in this part of the state, but to stay that way we’re going to have to be ready to adapt all the time.”
He takes a grateful drag off his cigarette. “Adapt,” he says. “That’s it.”
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