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Cornell Farm plant sales thrive during the pandemic and plant therapy hits home as a way to relieve stress.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Deby Barnhart has owned and operated the Cornell Farm garden center with her husband Ed Blatter since 1987. Sales were up 42% in 2020 because of the house plant craze and then the pandemic stay-at-home culture. Here she stands in front of the 1926 farmhouse and the monkey puzzle tree which was planted there in 1905 or 1906 after seedlings were handed out at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

In the K-shaped Covid recession and recovery, one sector that did fabulously well was plant nurseries. People stuck at home, who had disposable income, fixed up their homes and landscaped their yards, while even those trapped inside turned to house plants for comfort and joy. Garden centers were allowed to stay open through the state s shutdown.

One big winner was Cornell Farm, the plant nursery and garden center that has been on its five-acre diamond of land since 1987. Cornell s sales jumped to $6 million in 2020, up 42% from the year before. The biggest leaps were in edibles (salad stuff and fruit) and native plants, such as mahonia (Oregon grape) and hemlock the tree.

There was already a houseplant craze in the making before COVID-19, as Millennials discovered the joys of fiddle leaf figs and spider plants and expressed it through social accounts such as @justinablakeney and @plantsonpink. The pandemic kicked that into overdrive.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - The 'patio' at Cornell Farm, which started out as a flower and tomato stand in 1987. It has since grown to a $6 million in annual sales business.

Cornell Farm offers more than 800 varieties of annuals and perennials, plus bushes and large-specimen trees. For the first 10 years, they grew everything they sold except the trees and shrubs. Now they grow 60 to 65% of all the annuals and perennials that they sell. However, since COVID-19, demand has outstripped supply many times over. Consequently, they are buying more from Willamette Valley growers.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Deby Barnhart has owned and operated the Cornell Farm garden center with her husband Ed Blatter since 1987. Sales were up 42% in 2020 because of the house plant craze and then the pandemic stay-at-home culture. The company grows plants on site in several greenhouses on the edge of Portland, and  65% of what it sells are grown in house, the rest coming mostly from Willamette Valley growers.

Eighties

Sited now on the outskirts of Cedar Mill, next to Catlin Gabel school, Cornell s site started as a dairy farm. Today, the 1929 Dutch colonial farmhouse serves as the office and restaurant. The eatery never closed during COVID-19, due to a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the government, and farm-to-table dinners with chef Daniel Escalle just resumed in March.

Deby Barnhart owns and operates the business with her husband Ed Blatter and their three children. One is a merchandising manager, and one is a product designer who does Information Technology and marketing. The youngest just earned a four-year degree in horticultural therapy (the healing power of plants) from Oregon State University.

In the 1980s, the couple had been publishing Metro, a local culture magazine, for five years when Ed s parents suggested they open a nursery.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Deep roots are important when it comes to plants that will sell and stay alive long enough that new gardeners don't assume they have a black thumb.

So, we decided that we would start a nursery not knowing anything,  she says with a laugh.

They started with 200 geraniums, 50 cherry tomatoes and 50 fusion baskets. It was more like a farm stand, located where the patio is now, and was serviced by a gravel road.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Pink flamingoes have always been a best-selling non-plant item at Cornell Farm garden center in Cedar Mills. CODIV-19 disrupted the supply chain and they lost their favorite model that comes in a box marked "pink livestock". (The owner died.) The margin on a flamingo is 75 percent and they sell for $12.99.

Hand

Today, Cornell Farm still appears earthy and low-tech. At one end is the gallows  where the thousand-pound bag hangs, waiting to drop soil onto a table. Pallets of black plastic pots, called plug trays,  sit waiting for a gardener to plug in a seedling. Everything is hand-planted and watered, and constant inspection is considered the best form of organic pest control.

Plant sales are 70 to 75% of the business. Being a garden center, they sell plenty of non-plant items, accessories such as planters, stone frogs, and rust-patined metal animal sculptures.

Pink flamingoes have always been a big seller, although CODIV-19 disrupted the supply chain, and they lost their favorite model that comes in a box marked pink livestock. (The owner died.)

Now we re trying to look for the next thing. The margin on a flamingo is 75%. They sell for $12.99. It s all in the volume,  she says. Some people do flocks in their front yard, flocking people for a birthday. 

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Snake plants (left) are popular with people just starting out in houselplants, according to Cornell Farm salesperson Robin Fujita. 'They thrive on neglect. You can stick them pretty much anywhere.'

Roots

The staff keeps up with the research in hybridization at universities and private labs across the world.

Barnhart points out a huge flat of geraniums, where only a couple of the plants have flowers showing. Staff will pick them off so that the plant will develop stronger roots. What we put out is premium,  Barnhart said. That's our goal. 

If she has a beef with big box stores, it s that they sell plants that are grown too quickly and are not ready for replanting.

We want to be able to provide a plant that's going to not only just start off with a bang, but become this beautiful, lustrous, voluptuous plant. At the big box stores, they barely have roots, and that's why people think they have a black thumb because they planted it and they might overwater it, and the plant doesn't have enough roots to be able to withstand it. 

In 2020, Cornell took away space in one of the greenhouses to accommodate larger orders for houseplants. It s because of the craze for houseplants and indoor living,  Barnhart explains. She admits that the same plant can be sold as an indoor plant for up to twice as much as selling it as an outdoor plant but justifies it because of the cost of indoor growing  they need more power for heat and light.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Non-plant items make up about 25% of sales at Cornell Farm garden center in Cedar Mill.

Here be monstera

Barnhart says they got more of a boost from the pandemic than the trend for millennials falling in love with house plants which took off in 2019.

The monstera, that's definitely one of the hottest things there is,  she said, touring the indoor store. It is unbelievable to me. There are houseplants that we've sold for $200 here in four-inch pots, really tiny. Like the Pink Princess philodendron.  It's a non-flowering plant that has burgundy leaves with pink markings.

Some people will just swoon over that. And other people will just go, 'What's the big deal?' 

Cornell Farm doesn t grow either plant, instead opting to buy them  but they are in short supply. That day, one of the young sales staff, Robin Fujita, confirmed they are out of monstera.

The monstera has distinctive foliage. The solid leaf grows and develops fenestrations, or egg-shaped holes. It's a fairly easy-care plant, so it's good for beginners or really anybody,  says Fujita, who deals with new gardeners all the time.

I get a lot of people that are like, I've got the paseo. So, I've got the pothos, I ve got the dracaena,  things we recommend for beginners, and they're looking for the next step. A snake plant is a classic beginner s plant because they thrive on neglect. You can stick them pretty much anywhere, which is good for a lot of people. And they also are not very easily underwatered,  Fujita said. Some people come in, and they're specifically asking for like the Pink Princess, which tends to be really expensive because it's rare. Some people are like, definitely down to spend a lot. 

But it s more common that they say, I want something small, so I can watch it grow,  Fujita says.

Fujita learns a lot from Instagram. Popular accounts include Summer Rayne Oaks (@homesteadbrooklyn), who did a book signing at Cornell two years ago, and Boys with Plants (@boyswithplants).

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Geraniums in plug trays at Cornell Farm. Gardeners pick the first flowers so the roots can grow in. Owner Deby Barnhart says bog box stores often rush plants to market with shallow roots. New gardeners often assume they have a black thumb when such plants die easily.

Costs growing

Barnhart says costs are going up. Suppliers in 2020 sold out of their smaller sizes that, under normal circumstances, they would have let grow longer. But because of the high demand in 2020, there is now a shortage of certain bushes and trees. Also, with the increase in state minimum wage, labor costs are rising. Non-high school workers start at $15 an hour. The costs of soil, pots and fertilizer are going up too. All the inputs,  Barnhart says.

Transportation costs are not an issue since most people pick up their own plants. The farm also offers a planting and consulting service.

No-touch pick-up was really huge. They just wanted to order online, drive in, pull up, pop their trunk, somebody throws it in, and they drive away,  Barnhart says.

The staff tends to be either introverts, who are usually growers, or extroverts, who often end up in sales. The number one training we look for is customer service. We are known for our friendly service that is going to help them be successful. 

Restaurants are the best source for recruiting employees because servers are fast, and customers are often in a hurry to check out after spending two hours plant shopping.

And plant knowledge, of course, is right up there. But we can train that. We just cannot train personality. 

More space

The company plans to build more indoor retail space in 2022.

Plans and construction and design and architects take forever. We are actually in Washington County with a Portland address, which is has been much better (than Multnomah County) for building permits,  Barnhart said.

Next door, where Brookdale and Golf Creek, two apartment complexes, sit, was 20 acres of cedar trees when Cornell Farm opened in 1987. With current parking maxed out, they plan to do more in online sales and curbside pick-ups in future. Their current point of sales system, Shopify, is struggling. For instance, they are stuck with the word shipping  even though they don t ship.

Marketing is a growing area. A modern brand is nothing without a story, but telling it takes care.

We actually don't really advertise now except on public broadcasting. We've just felt that the place draws people on its own. We just want people who love plants and who will find us because of that. People who are just interested in the price of a plant will probably go to Lowe's. And that's fine. But we want to help people be successful and make sure they get the right plant for the right situation. 

Benefitting from COVID-19 comes down to one main thing.

(Gardening) a control thing," Barnhart said. "If your life is out of control, like COVID, here's something that you can do that really is going to give you happiness. It s beauty, and potentially food if you if you're into food. 

Pay by scan

Big box stores don't pay for anything until it is scanned. If it doesn't go through there, the grower has to take it back. And in some cases, the grower has to take care of all the plants in the store.

That's how they get the prices down so dang low. They negotiate so hard. We have already heard of growers that went belly up because they went lower than they could afford to. 

They prefer to grow their own, so they don t get squeezed.

You can get trapped. (Growers) build these huge ranges, because (big retailers) say they need a million plants. And only some of them sell. And (the growers) don't get the money. Or (the retailers) cancel their order. 

Right now, times are good.

The potting soil is just flying out the door," Barnhart said. "Peak time is April, May and June. We just had the biggest day we've ever had in March. It was a sunny weekend.  Plant lovers, she says, are just like bees. We only come out when it's warm and sunny, except your hardcore gardener. The sun comes out and all of a sudden cars drive in. It's like, they're driving by and just on impulse they're pulling in. I can't explain it. But it's wonderful. 

Cornell Farm

Family-owned and run plant nursery and garden center

FTE: 35 plus 15 part-time

Gross sales in 2020: $6 million

Phone: 503-292-9895

Address: 8212 S.W. Barnes Rd., Portland, OR 97225


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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