Celebrating a Golden Rose

August 26, 2013
Written by David Schmidt
Individual nurseries do individual things better than we do but we do everything better overall.”

4978-AIPHDAVID-SCHMIDT  
Bylands Nurseries was named 2011 International Grower of the Year by the International Association of Horticultural Producers. PHOTO COURTESY BYLANDS NURSERIES

 
That, says John Byland, is why the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH) chose Bylands Nurseries as their 2011 International Grower of the Year.

The family received the Golden Rose award at the AIPH congress in China, besting nurseries from Belgium, China, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Adrian and Katherine Byland began the nursery on rented land in West Kelowna in 1954.

John took over in 1982 when his father died suddenly. After studying commerce at university, John’s son, Mike, joined the company several years ago.

While Bylands has one of the largest retail garden centres in the Okanagan, that is only a sideline.

“Only about two or three per cent of what we grow goes through our garden centre,” John notes, pointing out the family now farms a dozen or more plots totalling about 400 acres, which includes 170,000 square feet of greenhouses, 20 acres of cold frames, and about 45,000 square feet of refrigerated storage space. Most of the greenhouses feature open roofs and roll-up sides. Only 10,000 square feet is heated.

“We try to grow in cooler temperatures because that’s where our customers are,” he explains. “In mid-January, we are only heating our propagation areas.”

When Bylands began over half a century ago, the farm was located virtually in the middle of nowhere. Although most of their properties remain in the Agricultural Land Reserve, many are now surrounded by industrial parks or million-dollar homes.

“It’s disconcerting to see our tractor share our road with a cement truck,” John says ruefully, adding that is why it is doubly important for them to be as environmentally responsible as possible.

Bylands is the largest grower in Western Canada outside of the Fraser Valley, and likely the most diversified nursery in Canada.

“We grow fruit trees, perennials, container shrubs, bare-root trees and container trees,” John notes. “We have close to 2,000 SKUs.”

While that minimizes risk, it can be a challenge to maintain quality. To keep tabs on all that production, John regularly drives around and through all his properties.

“I like to see every field we have at least every second day,” he says, noting that allows him to spot problems as they arise.

The company employs about 70 full-time workers and a few dozen employees under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

“SAWP has been a game-changer for us. It would be difficult to do what we do without it,” John says.

He is concerned proposed changes to the program, intended to employ more domestic and fewer foreign workers, could have a detrimental effect, as local entry-level workers prefer fast food and retail sectors to agriculture.

“If we want competitive agriculture, we need the SAWP program.”

Bylands’ trip to the top of the international podium began in 2010 when they became the first winner of the B.C. Landscape and Nursery Association’s Grower of the Year Award.

The inaugural Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association grower of the year award followed in 2011.

Since the CNLA had used the AIPH criteria, it nominated Bylands for the international award.

Those criteria are economic performance and position in the marketplace, innovation in production and growing techniques, market orientation and company image, environmental standards, and human resource management.

While Bylands has an enviable record in each of these areas, they excel in innovation and environmental standards.

One of their first innovations was the use of pot-in-pot growing techniques.

“We were the first nursery in Canada and only the second in North America to use a pot within a pot,” John says, noting his initial aim was to find a way to keep plants upright, especially in the wind.

The pot-in-pot system also allows more efficient water usage and results in no soil being removed. And the pots have proved remarkably durable. Many of their 200,000 sleeves have been in the ground for 20 years.

Perhaps their most important innovation is making compost from all of their potting mix and wood waste, plus hog fuel and green waste from the district.

“We charge a tipping fee but it is less than half the cost of the landfill,” John says, noting the fees are set to make his compost operation “revenue neutral on the cost of the grinding machines.”

The operation produces about 20,000 yards of compost/year, which is used as a potting mix, virtually eliminating the use of peat moss. It is also added to the soil between field crops.

“Our process is to dig out trees bare-root, apply compost to the field and replant,” John explains. “By diverting green waste from the landfill, we have saved 50 acres of land, improved the organic matter of our soils from one to two per cent to three to four per cent, and our plants are healthier.”

Bylands was also one of the first Canadian nurseries to become DPCP (domestic phytosanitary certification program) and Clean Plants certified.

Producing and using their own compost contributes to their enviable environmental record but that practice is overshadowed by their pest and water management.

“We’ve been very proactive in our environmental stewardship,” John says. “The way we manage pests is much more sophisticated than it used to be.”

Their approach to water management is the jewel in their environmental crown.

In 1993, they became the first B.C. nursery to create a water reclamation pond. They now have ponds on two of their properties, allowing them to recapture and reuse all the water on those properties.

They have also installed drip irrigation on the land they own. Leased land is used for bare-root production.

They are also eager adopters of technology, noting all of their production is controlled by an Argus system.

“It’s allowed us to produce our products better,” Mike says, with John adding they now harvest 90 out of every 100 trees they plant, instead of the 60 they used to harvest.

While a lot of their product is shipped to prairie garden centres, Bylands is also the major producer of fruit trees for Okanagan orchardists, growing 100,000 to 200,000 fruit trees/year.

Producing a fruit tree is a two-year process (growing a tree one year, then budding it onto a dwarf root stock for the second year), so predicting the market is critical. That is not always easy, especially when external factors come into play.

“The planning horizon for perennials is challenging,” John says, using apples as an example. A few years ago, apple returns weren’t promising so the nursery cut back on its apple tree production. However, once the province reinstated its apple replant program, the demand shot up again.

“We are seeing a real uptake in apple trees but we won’t be able to meet all the demand because now there’s a shortage of root stock.”

Orchardists are not the only people looking for fruit trees.

“Consumer demands are shifting,” Mike says. “There’s a huge push to fruits and vegetables by urbanites. Because their yards are getting smaller, they are demanding smaller, low-maintenance plants. We also need more breeding for colder plants, drought-tolerant plants and warm climate plants in response to climate change.”

Whatever the future demand may be, you can bet Bylands will be there to meet it.



David Schmidt is a freelance writer and photographer in British Columbia.

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