We recently caught up with Taylor Starr, co-founder and Executive Director of White Oak Farm & Education Center in Williams, OR. Taylor is one of the growers of the native plants we are currently selling through our RNPP Spring Plant Sale (ending April 16). Before moving to Oregon, Taylor worked as a farmer, landscaper, and teacher in Northern California and Washington State. He has taught children organic gardening, natural history, and life sciences, and taught ecosystemology at UC Berkeley. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Holistic Ecology in 2000. Taylor grew up near the shores of Puget Sound, where he developed a love of the natural world through annual family backpacking trips in the Cascades and Olympics. He currently directs things at White Oak, farms a wide range of fruits and veggies, teaches permaculture and sustainable living skills to kids and adults, and plays as much soccer as he can with his eight-year-old daughter.
Can you tell us a bit about your native plant growing business and how you started out in this line of work?
Taylor: We run White Oak Farm & Education Center in Williams on 62 acres, where we have been for 18 years. We have been organic farming and running an environmental education center, mostly for kids but also for adults, focused on sustainable living skills, growing food and ecology. We’ve always had our own nursery for growing plants for our farm – for propagating fruit trees, berries, and hedgerow plants. But about six or seven years ago we started getting inquiries from people in the community about buying plants from us, so we started to ramp up production for local folks and that was pretty popular and successful, and got us excited about growing more plants. About two and a half years ago we started thinking about how we could make it a bigger part of the financial picture for supporting our organization and the farm, and what that might look like. I started researching around the valley and talking to different folks in the nursery trade, and especially focusing on small nurseries and what the niche was, what markets were underserved and what kind of opportunities existed.
I met James Kramer from Silver Springs Nursery and he really got me excited about focusing on native plants, and specifically focusing on native plants for restoration, which fitted in really well with what we were doing on the land. We were growing native plants for our own restoration projects here on the property for erosion control. Mostly uplands plantings, but some riparian projects as well. So I had a little bit of experience with natives, and a lot of enthusiasm. I’m an avid outdoor person and backpacker, so I was really excited about partnering with James, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years. We are mostly doing wholesale, but also growing for local nurseries and for the local community. We are really pretty new in the world of native plant commercial production, and it’s a really steep learning curve, we’re learning lots, and are excited to just dig in deeper. We’ve been expanding a good bit each year. This year I’ve got about 1600 sq feet of greenhouse space, and that much again of shaded growing space, and trying to grow a wide diversity of native plants and see what does best for us, and what the most demand is for, and go from there.
Speaking of big learning curves, what are some of the biggest challenges you face with growing and selling native plants?
Taylor: The biggest challenges we face in growing native plants is the transition from organic farming – where I have two decades of experience and everything is old hat and basic and simple – to the natives where every species has very specific requirements for germination, and very specific protocols as far as stratification and seed collecting protocols. You can’t just order locally adapted native plant seed from the catalog the way you can with vegetable seed. Every step of the process is much more complex and much more self-reliant. If I want seed for something I pretty much need to go out and find it myself in the wild, or partner with James or Holly Mills, another growing partner we have on these projects.
Everything from seed collection all the way through to germination and growing the plants out is very specific for each species. I like that part of it because it’s a challenge, and it’s fun to have the challenge and feel like the success are bigger successes, but there’s definitely a lack of information about some of the protocols for these species, as well as the challenge of finding the seed and making sure the seed is viable and getting good germination.
On the selling side, I know the Rogue Native Plant Partnership is working on this issue, but being someone new in the world of commercial native plant marketing, it feels like there’s a little bit of a disconnect between the restoration project managers and the native plant growers. It’s going to be at least 12 months from seed collection to having the finished plant, so ideally 12 months ahead of time I would know, ok, there’s this much demand for this species, and this much demand for this other species, and I’m finding it’s a little hard to get that timing and demand information from the local players who implement the restoration projects. So that’s the biggest challenge, just knowing what the market is, and what plants are good to grow because there’s going to be a market for them down the road. There’s a little bit of security in knowing you can just keep watering them and hopefully there’s a demand for them the following year. It’s not like lettuce, where if you don’t sell it that week, it’s gone.
On the flip side, what do you see as some of the biggest benefits to growing native plants as a commercial grower?
Taylor: The fact that within the restoration movement, and even the home gardeners and landscapers, it feels like there’s growing awareness and enthusiasm about the importance of planting drought-tolerant plants, planting to provide habitat for pollinators and other native species. It seems like there’s growing awareness about the importance of that, so it feels like a good time to be growing native plants. There’s only going to be more awareness and more enthusiasm for doing more restoration work. Obviously there’s plenty of landscapes that need restoration, so there’s no lack of demand from a purely restoration standpoint. From an economic standpoint there’s more awareness of how if we don’t take long term care of our riparian areas especially, the economic costs are going to be far greater than the cost of doing this work. I feel like it’s only going to grow over time as people become more educated.
For me – coming from a world of more annuals and food-based crops – I have more flexibility if things don’t sell at a certain time because native plants are still going to maintain their value as long as I can keep them watered and healthy in the pots. It feels like there’s a little more security as far as the value being maintained in the plants over time.
Also I really like it because, labor-wise, there’s a lot of seeding work and seed collecting work in the fall, and through the winter there’s work with cuttings, and in the early spring there’s more seeding and greenhouse work. So it balances out really well with the annual vegetable and perennial fruit-producing season, which is busier in the spring and summer and the early fall. It works really well for me in terms of keeping folks on the farm employed throughout the season and having some income-producing projects happening on the farm during the winter months. It pairs really nicely for us with the farming.
I know we’re not meant to have favorites, but do you have any native plants that you particularly love growing?
Taylor: I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to have favorites! It’s funny because I was thinking about that, and it really depends on the day, you know? I get a lot of satisfaction from growing big trees. We named our farm White Oak Farm because we have a couple of grandmother oaks on the property that are just super inspiring because I know they have been there for hundreds of years. The oak tree is such a keystone species in Southern Oregon, for food production for animals and habitat, and a food source for humans over the centuries. So I love planting oaks and acorns. Last year we did a big acorn collection project with some school kids who came out to the farm and collected thousands of acorns from two of our biggest acorn producing oaks. Unfortunately, we were going to plant them with the kids this spring during spring school visits, but of course like everyone else right now, our lives are a little bit topsy turvy so there’s no kids here to plant the acorns with us. So we’re planting them ourselves.
I love to grow oaks and all the other big trees – our maple seedlings are two inches tall right now in their little pots and that’s super satisfying. I’ve also been really enjoying some of the shrubby species, the dogwoods and willows this winter have been great to work with. I love elderberry, so experimenting with seedlings and cuttings with elderberries is really satisfying. So a wide range are favorites depending on the day and what I’m working on.
Gardeners sometimes look to native plants as more likely to be deer-proof, but I’ve certainly discovered that’s not always the case. Have you discovered any native plants that you think are truly, really, actually, 100% deer-proof?
Taylor: One of my first jobs, when I was in high school in the summer time, was working for a local nursery and landscaper up in Washington, and one of the first things he said was, “Never tell a customer that something is 100% deer-proof because I can guarantee the deer will eat that plant the first week it goes in the ground.” I think deer have been eating native plants for as long as there’s been deer, so I don’t know that there’s anything specific to native plants that makes them less likely to be popular with the deer. I’ve seen deer eat almost anything, I think it just depends on the time of year.
In the summer, when it’s so dry up in the hills and the deer come down to the irrigated yards and the edges of the irrigated zones, they are just so hungry for anything that’s got moisture in it. I would say that the less irrigated the area, I’ve noticed the deer are less likely to browse. They really smell the water, so the faster growing, the more well-watered and fertilized the plant, the more likely they are to eat it, as far as I’ve been able to notice.
When talking to gardeners and land stewards, what do you most often find yourself saying to encourage them to purchase and grow native plants?
Taylor: I’m a terrible marketer so I don’t know if I necessarily say anything to anybody to try and encourage them to do anything! People are just going to do what they are going to do. I take the approach that, hey, I’m here growing these things, if you want them that’s great. I’d love to sell them to you. There’s so many benefits that are so obvious, from drought-tolerant to habitat creation. I feel like the pollinator angle has gained a lot more awareness over the last few years, and it’s been cool to see customers ask about that and think about that more. But I’m a big fan of hedgerows in general, and trying to encourage people to plant hedgerows for privacy, for shade, for habitat, for the pollinators, for hopefully some products that people can harvest as well. Maybe berries for medicine, maybe basketry materials, or browse for animals. There’s just so many benefits to planting natives, and I feel like the people I usually find myself talking to about this stuff already know it’s a good idea, and it’s more about helping them to get what’s the right thing for their site. I think that there’s definitely growing enthusiasm for planting natives and I think that’s really exciting.
Do you have any tips for people that want to propagate native plants for their own use? Or as a business?
Taylor: I would probably say the same advice for both situations, which is just to start experimenting. That’s how we started doing the nursery on a commercial basis. It was just years of experimenting and growing plants for ourselves to plant out on the farm and seeing what we enjoyed growing without having to invest a lot of money or a lot of time into infrastructure. Playing around with different species and experimenting, and then seeing if it’s something you like to do and something you can see having economic potential. I think just starting out by diving in and doing things on a small scale, and not being afraid to fail.
Going out and seeing what kind of seeds you can collect in your neighborhood or on your own land, and playing around with it, seems like the best way to approach it from the small scale home nursery perspective. But even if you’re thinking about doing something commercial, I think messing around with it on a small scale makes a lot of sense before diving in and spending a bunch of money on infrastructure. Because it does take having the greenhouse space and having the controlled environment to work with, and having the irrigation, and having the pots or the soil. For us, because we were coming from farming, we already had a lot of those things in place and we were able to repurpose this corner of the greenhouse or repurpose pots, and slowly build up the infrastructure to run the nursery as its own little business. At least for me, that was a good way to do it because it lessened the risk of tackling something that could prove to not be successful, and made it easier to slowly get going. I would just experiment, I think that’s the best way to get into nearly any new activity.
Learn more about White Oak Farm & Education Center on their website and Facebook page