Cotton, corn and rice along with oil are backbones for the county’s economy, but who knew Wharton County was No. 1 in trees and grass?
“In the 2012 Ag Census, nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod are all grouped together,” County Ag Agent Corrie Bowen said. “Wharton County ranks No. 1 in the state and 30 in the nation. That’s combining all the turf in with Tree Town, Greenleaf Nursery and probably even Glen Flora Farms.”
Headquartered in Houston, Tree Town USA boasts to be America’s largest tree farm with nurseries in Glen Flora, East Texas and Florida.
Founder David Saperstein started the business in 1998 when he purchased about 30 acres from his dentist.
The business grew rapidly, according to son and now owner and chief executive officer Jonathan Saperstein.
“It grew to 4,000 acres basically overnight,” Saperstein said. “It took a lot of planting and a ton of capital. We built out in a hurry, as fast as trees could grow.”
More growth came in 2000, he said, and additional farms were purchased in 2004 and 2005.
Saperstein and two sisters took over the business in January 2015, when their father retired.
Today, there are five locations in Texas and Florida, producing more than 200 varieties of trees from one gallon to 670 gallons in size.
Unlike traditional farming, which produces a crop in one year, trees have a much longer life cycle.
“It’s years before you get any return,” Saperstein said.
Seven workers were busy preparing cuttings at one of the four propagation ranges Thursday.
“We started next year’s propagation yesterday,” Propagation Manager Brent Reeves said in the Glen Flora facility. “We’re four months ahead of the rest of the farm.”
Annually, those seven workers plant more than 1.2 million cells, each about one by one inch in size.
“They’re extremely efficient,” Reeves said, adding 80 percent of all production starts in the propagation ranges.
By self-propagating, the farm is better able to control the quality and genetics of its trees, Saperstein said.
“Only a handful of nurseries propagate plants themselves,” he added.
From there, the trees are replanted up to six times, depending on variety and demand.
A new potting machine was purchased recently and workers were busy re-potting trees.
“It’s the most advanced in the industry,” Saperstein said.
Dirt was automatically dumped into the bottom of two empty pots, which were then conveyed to a worker who held a tree in each planter where more dirt was dispensed filling the pot. Workers manually patted the dirt down and on it went to its next location.
Depending on the variety of tree, it can stay at one station from three to 18 months. Therefore, replanting is done six days per week, all year.
During the life cycle of a tree, many production expenses are incurred such as dirt, fertilizer, mulch and irrigation. On average, six truckloads of mulch are used per day and the trees are watered four times per day.
Maintenance costs, however, add to those expenses. So far this year, for example, 200 semi truckloads of gravel have been used to fill pot holes on roads around the farm.
Scrap trees, those that don’t meet quality standards, cost the business millions annually, the owner said.
This year has been particularly tough with record rainfall and Tropical Storm Bill.
“It’s been a challenge this year with the storms, “ Saperstein said. “We were under water for a while. It cost over $200,000 in man hours just to have laborers stand up trees.”
There are more good than bad days, though, he said, and he enjoys his job.
“It’s like a game of chess, there’s a lot of long-term planning,” Saperstein said. “I work with a lot of good people, we get to drive fun toys and we’re helping the environment. One tree at a time.”
As for the future, more expansion in its existing locations is planned.
“We’ll expand out from there,” Saperstein said.