Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Agri Leader

Nurseryman adapts through hardships


Published:

"Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative."

President and co-owner of Hidden Acres Nursery, Wes Fisher, has experienced the brunt of H.G. Wells' famous quote firsthand.

For Fisher, business hasn't always gone smoothly. In the early 1980s, he and business partner James DuBose started Hidden Acres Nursery in south Sebring, growing plants and selling them to retailers, landscapers and garden centers, most of whom were outside of the county.

Business started booming in the late '80s, said the nurseryman. "At one time we dealt with 480 Wal-Marts in nine states."

Then the hard times began to hit. First, there was an economic downturn in the late 1980s. Then a major drought hit the Atlanta area in 2007. When droughts hit, retailers and homeowners are placed on water restrictions. No one buys plants because they can't keep them alive without water.

"We ended up losing about $2 million worth of product that didn't ship due to the drought," said Fisher. Then when the economy crashed immediately afterward, insult was added to injury.

"In two years we lost about 95% of our business," Fisher stated.

But he doesn't sound down and out when he talks about the struggles of the business. Like many people in the agriculture industry, Fisher knows the importance of diversifying and finding other ways to bring in money when Mother Nature's fury and other unforeseeable circumstances hit.

Before the disasters, Fisher had begun to specialize in certain types of plants with desirable characteristics that landscapers and homeowners look for. In 2000, he discovered a variety of mandevilla, a pretty flowering shrub, on the 75-acre nursery that was a little different from the others. It had prolific, beautiful red flowers and shiny leaves and proved itself to be cold-hardy. Fisher named it "Red Fury."

A big mandevilla producer took an interest in the plant, and Fisher was able to get the patent on it. Since then, they have found other varieties of mandevilla, including "Pink Fury," "Fancy Pink," "Fancy Red," and a new plant they have named "Fury Fire and Ice."

Fisher is especially excited about the potential for "Fury Fire and Ice." It won the Cool Products Award at the Tropical Plants International Expo in 2013 and has a number of desirable traits, especially its variegated leaf pattern as opposed to a flat green color.

"To this point there is no other variegated mandevilla with a red flower," Fisher said. The plant is also cold-hardy, grows in sun and shade, has a low fertilizer requirement, handles wet or dry conditions relatively well and blooms from mid March all the way until Thanksgiving, Fisher added.

He's hoping the new plant will bring big business, but he doesn't have all his eggs in one basket, either. Hidden Acres Nursery also specializes in growing landscape grasses through tissue cultures.

In a sterile lab on the property, a tiny group of plant cells the size of a pencil tip is taken from a parent plant, treated with a special solution and grown into an entirely new plant identical to the parent plant.

"In human beings they have stem cell research. In plants it's meristem cells," Fisher explained. "When you find a plant that has a particular characteristic that you think is gorgeous, you can start to propagate it," he went on. "From that tiny tip every plant will be genetically identical from that point forward."

Fisher said they started the tissue culture lab in 2004, and it's one of very few of its kind. "I'm going to guess that there's probably outside of the universities in this country less than 20 tissue labs functioning in the U.S.," he said.

The tissue culture lab right now is busy producing petri dish after petri dish of Red Fountain grass, native to Ethiopia. Once the plants are mature enough, they are moved out of the lab and into greenhouses. "We grow it in trays, 200 plugs a tray and send those all around the country," Fisher said. He thinks they have probably produced 150 million plants.

Fisher was born in Coral Gables and moved to Highlands County with his family when he was just an infant. His brother married into the Robbins family of Robbins Nursery, and Fisher began working landscaping with his brother as a teen. He attended the University of Central Florida on a golf scholarship, but quickly realized he wanted to go into agriculture, and UCF didn't have an ag program.

It was propagation that interested him most. "I was intrigued the way you could take cuttings off a plant and make money," Fisher said.

He ended up transferring to then South Florida Junior College and finished up with a degree in ornamental horticulture at Florida Southern.

Being able to quickly respond to change and regroup has been key to his success. Fisher said he has probably had seven different business model in 30 years, responding to changes in the industry.

"You had better be ready to pick up and do something else," Fisher warned, adding, "We've had to do a lot of different things to stay in business. If I had stayed with any one, I don't think we would have survived 35 years."

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