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Fruit Tree Developer Looks to the Future

January 29, 2003

LOUISIANA, Mo. (AP) _ In nearly 200 years of existence, the Stark Brothers Nursery put down long roots in this small Mississippi River town. When it fell on hard times, it found that the loyalty of workers ran nearly as deep.

Today, the nursery with the black bear logo and simple slogan _ ``Stark Trees Bear Fruit″ _ ships a million fruit trees a year: apple and apricot, pawpaw and persimmon, English walnut and Arapaho blackberry spring.

But the nursery was in limbo just 19 months ago, shut down when its owner of seven years, Foster & Gallagher, filed for bankruptcy. Some 300 workers abruptly lost their jobs.

That summer, before the nursery’s assets were sold, a crop of 800,000 fruit trees in the field needed tending. Trees usually are budded from June to September, and by early August, the work hadn’t been done, pending direction from the bankruptcy court.

Elmer Kidd and a crew of 10 others worked 10-hour days and Saturdays to bud the trees so they wouldn’t be lost. They weren’t paid for their labor.

``Everyone had a winning spirit, working shoulder to shoulder,″ said Kidd, 51, a production director who began working at the company at age 13, carrying water to employees working in the field.

``Anybody who could bud, budded. In 30-some years of employment here, I remember it like no other.″

By fall 2001, new owners from Illinois emerged to take over Stark Brothers and brought in new ideas: a venture to grow landscape roses for Jackson & Perkins, the world’s largest grower of premium roses. And they want Stark Brothers to compete for the growing garden center market.

Cameron Brown said he and his partner Tim Abair consider themselves ``shepherds of the Stark name.″

Brown grew up in a neighboring Illinois county, the son of a plant pathologist who propagated plants for his own nursery. For 20 years, Stark Brothers leased part of his family’s farm, just over the Mississippi River bridge from Louisiana, to grow Stark trees. His family got a check for the lease every year.

Brown said he learned Stark Brothers was in financial trouble when he received a bankruptcy judge’s notice to creditors of likely nonpayment of debt.

A little more than a year after he and Abair bought the nursery’s assets, two-thirds of the lost jobs have been restored and workers are revving up for spring catalog shipments of 2,000 trees a day.

Stark Brothers’ story traces to James Hart Stark, a pioneer and entrepreneur who made camp in the wilds here along the Mississippi River with a saddle bag of apple-tree shoots cut for grafting from his father’s farm.

Abe Lincoln hadn’t grown his first whisker when that Kentucky pioneer in 1816 planted the first fruit trees of what would become Stark Brothers Nursery.

Statehood for the Missouri territory was still five years in the future. Thomas Jefferson was enjoying retirement in Monticello.

Stark Brothers Nursery made a name for itself in part by developing the Red Delicious apple in 1893 and, in 1914, the Golden Delicious.

Such history made the nursery’s abrupt closing in June 2001 especially painful.

Workers describe the day the nursery closed as one of the darkest of their lives.

``It was doomsday in Louisiana, Missouri,″ recalled Walt Gilbert, publisher of the Louisiana Press-Journal.

Consider 67-year-old Vera Murr, who had graduated from high school to her life’s work at Stark Brothers, a familiar path for many generations of intensely loyal Pike County families.

As it turned out, Murr never left her job although the business closed down around her. A switchboard operator, Murr answered a deluge of phone calls from confused and concerned customers.

Some inquired about the status of their order. Others simply wanted to lament the nursery’s closing. ``I had one Oklahoma gentleman call me twice a month″ to feed his hope that Stark Brothers would reopen, Murr said.


On the Net:

Stark Brothers Nursery: http://www.starkbros.com

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