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Nursery plowing under its rootstock

B.C.โ€™s Traas Nursery Ltd. closing its doors


March 12, 2008
By Peter Mitham

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The largest commercial producer of rootstock for orchardists in Canada is shutting down.This spring, John Traas ploughed
under rows of shoots on the Langley property just east of Vancouver
where his father, John C. Traas, started Traas Nursery Ltd. in the late
1950s.

After close to 50 years of service, B.C.’s Traas Nursery Ltd. closing its doors

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John Traas shows off a row of Mazzard F12/1 rootstock remaining at his nursery in Langley, B.C.  Photo by Peter Mitham

The largest commercial producer of rootstock for orchardists in Canada is shutting down.

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This spring, John Traas ploughed under rows of shoots on the Langley property just east of Vancouver where his father, John C. Traas, started Traas Nursery Ltd. in the late 1950s. The senior Traas died in December 2006, leaving a legacy of service to fruit growers across Canada. Declining returns from the labour-intensive work of rootstock production is prompting his son to exit the business.

“Rootstock production is a young man’s game. And I’m not as young as I used to be,” says Traas during a June visit to his operation. He notes the nursery’s 20-acre property will likely be sold for blueberry production, a crop whose performance is garnering larger returns than anything the orchard industry has offered of late.

Poor prices have prompted numerous Canadian orchardists to exit the industry in recent years. Statistics Canada reports that apple acreage in Canada hit 54,612 acres last year, a 14.4-per-cent drop since 2001. All indications point to a further decline in 2007 as growers shift to more lucrative crops.

For Traas, the decline meant he sold less than 60,000 understock (rootstock that has yet to be grafted with material for producing finished trees) last year, hardly enough to make ends meet. He burned approximately three-quarters of his production for lack of buyers, a far cry from the days when the nursery produced more than 750,000 understock for growers across Canada and the U.S.

A global glut of rootstock has driven prices down and helped cripple the business. While limiting his plantings or turning to alternative nursery crops – such as blueberries – might have helped the nursery survive, Traas knows that after 43 years in the business, he’s ready for a change.

Traas once thought being the primary domestic source of understock for growers in Canada was a cause for pride; now, he realizes it was because so few people wanted the challenges.

“Nobody ever approached me to see if I wanted to sell my nursery,” he says. “It took me a long time to wrap my head around the fact that it’s probably just too labour-intensive. It didn’t daunt me because it was just what I’ve done all the time.”

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Close-packed M9 rootstock grows in a line at the  nursery of John Traas in Langley, B.C. Traas is retaining a 24-acre portion of the nursery property for a small orchard and some rootstock propagation.  Photo by Peter Mitham

A similar determination characterized the elder John Traas when he emigrated from Holland in 1954, following the devastating North Sea floods in which he lost his orchard.

John Senior originally planned to settle in either the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia or the Okanagan in B.C., eventually settling in Summerland, B.C., for 18 months. Several jobs in the fruit sector prompted Traas to move his growing family to Langley, a more temperate location in the Lower Mainland where he planned to establish a nursery.

Armed with the basic knowledge of rootstock propagation he had learned as a grower and farm extension worker in Holland, Traas set to work. He burned everything he produced for the first three years until a few small orders in 1958 kick-started the business.

“Before you know it, we were in the market of producing rootstock,” young John recalls. “If we had the product, we always supplied even the smaller growers because we figured we’d never know when a small order would turn into a big one.”

The nursery soon acquired extra land and by the end of the 1970s boasted 44 acres, becoming the dominant source in Canada for dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstock, including cold-hardy, hard-to-find varieties such as Alnarp 2.

Traas Nursery’s work introducing dwarfing rootstock into Canada’s orchards led to John Senior’s recognition by the Canadian Society for Horticulture Science in 1982.

“He was a true horticulturist,” recalled Dr. Charles Embree, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Kentville, N.S. “He travelled a lot and made sure that he knew what was going on. He tried to keep up with all the new rootstocks.”

John Junior helped automate the operation, developing a cutter that allowed mechanical harvesting, Dr. Embree said. The innovation reduced the back-breaking nature of the work.

Competition from foreign sources has tightened the market, however, and declining sales have left Traas serving a diminishing market of smaller growers, most with fewer than 1,000 trees.

Unlike 50 years ago, the small sales aren’t leading to larger ones – just big decisions.

“Where do you draw the line in the sand? How much do you produce, or how little do you produce?” asks young John, adding big growers will be hurt by the nursery’s closure. “The smaller producers are going to be left, not necessarily in the lurch, but they’ll have to look further afield.”

Salt Spring Island apple grower Harry Burton buys about 500 rootstock a year, and expects he’ll have to source future supplies from the U.S. This will require import licences and phytosanitary measures, a significant hassle for a small grower such as himself. He would propagate his own rootstock if he had the time and space, but he has neither. Other growers he knows are in a similar plight, highlighting the need for a nursery dedicated to providing the stock.

What disturbs him most, however, is that few people exist to fill the gap Traas’ closure leaves.

“There’s no other layer underneath that in the next generation,” Burton says. “I call this dead end agriculture. If you don’t have a rebirth happening in the next generation, then it’s a dead end.”

Traas, who will retain 24 acres with a small amount of rootstock and a small orchard, is happy to advise growers wishing to get into the business.

Given phytosanitary concerns, young growers should start with fresh, clean stock and ensure their own certification with federal authorities is in place, he says.

Speaking from experience, Traas adds growers need to know the market, as well as their own personal limitations.

“Don’t grow too many – figure out what the sustainable workload is that you can do yourself, or with people you know you can count on,” he says. “Once you start getting overextended, there’s just no turning back. It’s hands-on, all-the-time work.”