Our Assets Go Home at Night – How Jonathan Saperstein is Changing the Green Industry

I have decided that I am, at my core, a bit of a hippie.  While you wouldn’t know it by looking at me, I am a Subaru driving, yoga doing, no sugar eating hippie.  About the only thing I like better than my Birkenstocks and organic garden are the people that try to make the world a better place by taking care of the earth and the people that inhabit it.  My botanical brother Morgan McBride works for one of these people.  Jonathan Saperstein is an outstanding young man that is proving that you can profitably produce high quality landscape products while taking extremely good care of the people that grow them.

Jonathan Saperstein, CEO of Tree Town Enjoys time with his co-workers at an industry trade show

Jonathan Saperstein, CEO of Tree Town, sharing some trade show antics with his wife and a loyal customer at an industry trade show

When Jonathan Saperstein became CEO of Tree Town USA in 2015 he set out to change the way the green industry produces live goods.  In many agricultural entities labor is an input not much different than seed or fertilizer.  It is an expense to be managed.  Jonathan sees his employees as something different.  To him, his employees are the most important link in the entire production chain.  His employees have a direct impact on the quality of his products and they also greatly impacted the cost at which he can sell his product. This understanding that the employees truly are the main asset of his business lead him to coin his company’s motto – “Our assets go home at night”.

Jonathan with some of Tree Town's most valuable assets - its employees!

Jonathan with some of Tree Town’s most valuable assets – its employees!

Today, each of the “assets” at Tree Town USA have access to one of the most progressive benefits packages in the green industry.  In addition to paying the employees at rates well above the industry average, every Tree Town employee is eligible for a comprehensive benefits package that includes medical insurance and access to a 401K.  Agricultural workers are also offered an incentive plan that includes safety goals and team development activities that can give them addition pay bumps every two weeks.  The company offers (and encourages the employees to participate in) free GED classes and free English and Spanish classes.

 

This past summer, Morgan told about one of the more unique things that Jonathan has implemented at Tree Town.   Each day at 7:00 am, every employee that is on site at each of their seven farms lines up and does calisthenics.  This was very interesting to me and I asked Morgan if the employees were embracing it.  He said, oddly enough, they were.  While the time is great for stretching cold muscles it is also time for the teams to come together in a relaxed environment and listen as the supervisors and safety leads lay out the day’s work, provide safety briefings and celebrate safety milestones.

7:00 am is exercise time at all seven of Tree Town's farms

7:00 am is exercise time at all seven of Tree Town’s farms

These morning calisthenics were interesting enough to me that I decided to ask Jonathan if they were making a difference for Tree Town.  Something about the way I asked the question made Jonathan grin.   Jonathan said I was not the first to be skeptical about the benefits of his morning workouts.  However, he informed me that since he implemented his exercise program there has been 39% decrease in incidents rates and the average cost of incident has gone from 34 cents per man hour to 4 cents a man hour.

Agricultural workers historically have low wages and very few benefits. tree Town USA is working to change that.

Agricultural workers historically have low wages and very few benefits. tree Town USA is working to change that.

While Jonathan is excited about the decrease in costs his exercise program is producing, he told me the real proof that his policies are working is the increase in profitability that is allowing him to grow his business.  While many live good producers are struggling to stay open, Tree Town is adding farms, employees and products.  His employee focused policies have attracted (and kept) the best trained employees in the industry.  Since he celebrates and rewards the contribution his employees add to the bottom line, they in turn consistently produce top quality products and provide the superior customer service that has allowed Tree Town to differentiate itself and its products in an industry that is often thought of as a commodity.  In regards to Jonathan’s impact on Tree Town, David Stoeber of SiteOne Landscape supply said “As someone who has done business with Tree Town before and during Jonathan’s leadership, I can see what a huge impact Jonathan has made on Tree Town.  They have gone from being a supplier on the list to The Supplier I judge the others by.”

These 670 gallon oaks are indicative of the quality trees that the employees of Tree Town consistently produce

These 670 gallon oaks are indicative of the quality trees that the employees of Tree Town consistently produce

I am very happy that I know Jonathan Saperstein.  As a business man I am excited to watch a new leader in the horticultural industry take chances and implement policies that will positively impact his bottom line and hopefully change the way the green industry operates.  As a humanitarian I am inspired that he is shaking up the green industry by taking care of the workers that produce the trees, shrubs and bedding plants that we use to make our little corner of the world more beautiful.

Celebrating the Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia)

IMG_0043a Sally and I celebrated the Fourth of July with our daughter and son-in-law in Oklahoma City.  While there, we visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.  What a lovely and moving place.  Things like this make me so proud to be an American.  I truly believe that there has never been another group of people that can better come together after a tragedy and turn it into a silver lining.  While there is no doubt that what Timothy McVeigh did on that April day was horrible, the people of Oklahoma rose above it and created a lovely and peaceful place that memorializes those lost and celebrates the sacrifice of the volunteers that turned the horror of that day into a place where all can celebrate the indomitable American Spirit.

Each of these beautiful chairs memorialize on of the victims of this senseless tragedy

Each of these beautiful chairs memorialize one of the victims of this senseless tragedy

Two minutes after Timothy McVeigh lit the fuse of his bomb, 168 men, women and small children were gone; so was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  An additional 300 buildings in the downtown area were damaged.  About the only thing left standing at the blast site was a large American Elm tree that is now called “The Survivor’s Tree”.  This tree is now the center piece of a horticultural tribute to resilience of the American people.

This Elm tree was about the only thing to survive the blast. The "Survivor Tree" is a testamnet to the reseliance of the human spirit.

This Elm tree was about the only thing to survive the blast. The “Survivor Tree” is a testamnet to the reseliance of the human spirit.

Elm trees in general are incredibly hardy trees.  One example in Ontario, Canada grew to 140’ tall. Elms can take extreme cold, extreme heat and endure extreme drought.  At the beginning of the last century they were the most commonly planted tree in America.  However, around 1928, disaster struck in the form of a small black beetle that spread a fungus called “Dutch Elm” disease.  This disease decimated elm populations that had no resistance to this Asian invader.  Dutch Elm Disease is still a serious problem.  However, if you have the money, there are now treatments that can save an infected elm if the infection is caught soon enough.

If you are a Texan and you have an affinity for these hardy trees, you are in luck.  Texas has a native elm that is very resistant to Dutch Elm  Disease.  In fact, the Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) is resistant to most pests.  While its leaves are sometimes nibbled by the Elm Leaf Beetles, there is not much else that bothers it.  This cedar elm makes a great shade tree and it is extremely drought tolerant.

This lovely print is courtesy of the Texas A&M Forsetry Service Tree Planting Guide at: http://texastreeplanting.tamu.edu/Display_Onetree.aspx?tid=100

This lovely print is courtesy of the Texas A&M Forsetry Service Tree Planting Guide at:
http://texastreeplanting.tamu.edu/Display_Onetree.aspx?tid=100

According to my friend Morgan McBride of Tree Town USA, cedar elms are a great choice for most Texas landscapes.  These lovely trees are covered in small, oval, serrated leaves that are rough to the touch and turn yellow in the fall.  They can grow in sandy soils and in thick clay soils.  In fact they can even grow in the highly compacted soils that are common in urban areas.  These adaptable trees have a moderate growth rate and only require a moderate amount of water to thrive.  They can grow to 60’ tall and develop a spread of over 40’.

Cedar elms develop a deep root system that allows them to withstand drought and most windstorms.  If you go to a nursery and ask for an elm for your yard, you need to insist on the cedar elm.  Many nurseries stock the Chinese Lacebark Elm and will often offer it as a substitute.  While the tree does have a lovely rough bark, it develops a shallow root system that makes it easy prey for windstorms.  Also, the Chinese Lacebark is susceptible to cotton root rot.  Because of this, you are taking a risk if you plant it anywhere in our state that once grew cotton (and since most of our state once grew cotton, you really need to think about this when you make your elm choice).

My buddy Morgan is selecting a Cedar Elm for a client.  Notice that he really is touching it with a 10' pole.  Don't know why that is so funny to me but he really does travel around with a 10' pole in his car at all times.

My buddy Morgan is selecting a Cedar Elm for a client. Notice that he really is touching it with a 10′ pole. Don’t know why that is so funny to me but he really does travel around with a 10′ pole in his car at all times.

Like the people of Oklahoma, elm trees were attacked and decimated by an unexpected enemy.  However, they survived.  Now this American classic is making a comeback.  I love elm trees and I am so glad that the people of Oklahoma saved their “The Survivor Tree”.  This deep rooted, dependable and resilient tree is the perfect centerpiece for a memorial that is dedicated to faith, healing and the resilience of the American spirit.

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop and the Homestead Barn Hop.  These hops are great way to gather information from some of the best bloggers on the web.  Be sure to check it out!

This is a detail of a large statue that stands on the site of the old rectory of St. Joseph Catholic Church.  the rectory was destroyed in the blast.  This statue is called "Jesus Wept" and it based on the shortest verse in the bible; John 11:35

This is a detail of a large statue that stands on the site of the old rectory of St. Joseph Catholic Church in OKC. The rectory was destroyed by the April 19 bombing. This statue is called “Jesus Wept” and it is based on the shortest verse in the bible; John 11:35

The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

 

Image from the Texas A&M Tree Selector website at http://texastreeplanting.tamu.edu/Display_Onetree.aspx?tid=80

Image from the Texas A&M Tree Selector website at
http://texastreeplanting.tamu.edu/Display_Onetree.aspx?tid=80

I am often asked “What is the fastest growing shade tree for my yard?”  When I recommend the bur oak I am often met with skepticism.  A lot of people initially argue with me about my suggestion (which always makes me wonder why they asked for my opinion if they didn’t want it).  They are quick to bring up all of the common issues associated with oaks (in general).  We’ve all heard them.  Oaks are slow growing.  Their roots grow on top of the soil and damage your slab or your sidewalks.  They get oak wilt.  While each of those statements are true in some measure in certain oak species, none of them apply to the bur oak.

The bur oak is one of the fastest growing and the largest of all of the oaks in Texas.  With normal water, you can expect the tree to grow a minimum of one foot per year.  With ample water and a little fertilizer it is not uncommon to get two or three feet of growth per year out of your bur oak. 

This 95 gallon Bur oak is about 5 years old and is already 14' tall.  Photo by Morgan McBride

This 95 gallon Bur oak is about 5 years old and is already 14′ tall. Photo by Morgan McBride

Bur oaks are truly impressive specimens. Besides cottonwoods, they are the only deciduous tree in Texas that can get over 100’ tall.  Plus, they can develop a canopy that spreads to 80’.  There are not many trees that can support a canopy that is 80’.  The bur oak can do this because it is an amazingly well built tree.  It develops a thick trunk and an intertwining mass of heavy branches that are seldom affected by winds or ice storms.  This structure is very pretty and can be appreciated when it drops its yellow leaves in the fall.

The bur oak has lovely, deeply lobed leaves that turn yellow in the fall

The bur oak has lovely, deeply lobed leaves that turn yellow in the fall

Another reason I love the bur oak is the fact that it is native to most of Texas.  This tree has been adapting to our soils and our climate for thousands and thousands of years.  Because of its adaptability, you can be pretty certain that the bur oak will thrive for you whether you live in the deep, rich alluvial bottom lands of Texas’ river basins or if you live in the Hill Country that is famous for its the thin, alkaline  soils that cover a limestone pan. 

Because it is native, the bur oak also takes the extremes of our climate in stride.  The drought of 2011 killed many, many live oaks.  The live oaks died because they have a shallow root system that grows right at the soil line (and breaks slabs and sidewalks).  The bur oak survived the worst drought in our history because it develops a deep tap root that can find the underground moisture needed to sustain it when the rains fail us.  This deep rooting structure not only keeps it alive in low water situations but also makes it a great choice for the landscape.  Deep roots do not break slab and sidewalks.

buroak3 As much as I love this tree, it does have one little problem – it produces golf ball sized acorns.  I have to admit, that since the acorns are large enough to interfere with mowing or heavy enough to ding a new car, you should think long and hard about where you plant it.  The good news is, it doesn’t produce a ton of acorns.  And, since they don’t fall but once a year in autumn, they can be managed by setting your mower a little higher or picking them up (they look great in a bowl on a table) before you mow.  Besides, since the squirrels and the deer love them you will have a little help getting them out of your yard.

I truly believe the bur oak is the best choice for a fast growing Texas shade tree.  Even though my friends are often skeptical, my buddy Morgan McBride is not.  Morgan is a salesman for Tree Town USA and a bona fide tree expert.  Tree Town produces many varieties of trees that Morgan can recommend to his many customers.  However he always recommends the bur oak first.  Despite the large acorns, this Texas native is almost entirely pest free and its roots grow down instead of out.  With its beautiful foliage and growth rate of 1 to 2 feet per year, the bur oak really is hard to beat.

Tree Town USA Supports Relay For Life

I work for the MD Anderson Cancer Center.  It is the finest cancer hospital in the world and I am proud to work there.  However, I hope I never have to come to the campus for any reason other than work.  I just cannot imagine what it would feel like to hear someone say “You have cancer”.  Unfortunately, a whole bunch of people hear those very words each and every day.

My friend and cancer survivor Janice McBride stands with the trees donated for gifts to survivors by my friends at Tree Town USA

A few years ago one of my oldest friends (not in age, in length of time we have known each other), heard those words.  Like 226,000 other women that year, Janice had her world rocked by a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer.  Now Janice was lucky.  She was young and healthy and she caught it fairly early.  However, it was a very aggressive type of cancer and there were times when she didn’t think she would make our 30th Class Reunion.  Janice persevered.  Thanks to great treatment, a positive attitude and the support of her loving family, Janice is now a survivor.  And because she is a survivor, she is honored to be able to participate in “Relay for Life” each and every year. 

A very happy survivor and caregiver pick their tree

This year, thanks to the generosity of Tree Town USA, Janice and her husband Morgan (my botanical brother) got to do a whole lot more than walk at the Grand Praire Relay for Life event.  Tree Town USA donated a variety of very nice trees as gifts for the survivors.   Morgan and Janice had so much fun distributing the trees.  They got to meet and share experiences with several wonderful people who had all gone through cancer treatment and lived to tell the tale.  They were moved by those stories and humbled to meet people that were enduring things that no one should ever have to endure.

Go to the Relay For Life website and find out how you can help.

If you would like to take part in a fun and healthy activity that raises money to cure a disease that will eventually effect one in three of us, consider participating in a local Relay for Life event.  Relay for Life events happen all over the country in the spring.  Groups of people agree to walk all night (because cancer never sleeps) to raise funds for the American Cancer Society.  My wife does one in Brenham each year and the girls all dress up in theme costumes and have a ton of fun raising money and honoring all that have struggled with cancer.

MD Anderson has a new president.  His name is Dr. Ronald DePhino and it is his strong belief and goal that during his tenure, MD Anderson will finally be able to cure several types of cancer.  Research and science have now progressed to a point that his dream is actually possible.  However, all of that research and science costs money.  Generous donors like Tree Town USA, great organizations like Relay for Life and scores of volunteers are all helping Dr. DePhino and MD Anderson “Make Cancer History”.   Thanks to all of you that do so much to help us fight this deadly disease!

Tree Town USA

Have you ever wondered what $100K worth of trees looked like? These trees are in 670 gallon containers and have been container grown their entire life.

Last week, I got to spend two very enjoyable days at a 1200 acre tree farm south of Houston.  This farm is owned and operated by Tree Town USA.  Tree Town USA is the largest tree farm in the US.  They have several farms and sales offices all over the country.  This one is located just south of Wharton in beautiful Glen Flora, Texas (Click on the link and you can see the farm from the air, pretty amazing).

A shipment of high quality oak trees leaving Tree Town USA

I was the guest of one of their salesmen named Morgan McBride.  Morgan and I have been friends for most of our lives.  He and I share a great sense of humor and a deep love of all things horticultural.  Morgan has worked in the green industry his entire life.  He is a Texas Certified Nursery Professional and a true master of horticulture.  Since I had never visited a tree farm of this magnitude, he thought I might enjoy getting up close and personal with the inner workings.  He was right.

To say I was amazed is an understatement.  Until you see a working 1200 acre tree farm you just cannot grasp the amount and the scale of the work that it encompasses.  To support this much intensive agricultural production, Tree Town USA employs a huge amount of infrastructure.  The watering system was truly an engineering marvel.

The water for all of the trees comes from a 1600' well. The well is that deep so that the water contains no salts or other minerals. The water is pumped into retaining tanks where it settles and then leaves through a 10" main. That main is then tapped by 4" irrigation tubes. Drip systems are then attached to the 4" lines.

Morgan and the other sales people regularly visit the farm to pick the best inventory for their top customers.  On this trip, He needed to pull several small quantities of oaks and then 120 30 gallon yaupons.  Helping him was going to be a very pleasant way to spend a Friday away from the office.  I arrived late Thursday afternoon.  He had just finished a lot of his work so he took me on a tour of the place.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the tree business.  This farm employs between 200 and 250 workers.  It takes all of their efforts, seven days a week, to keep an operation of this size moving.

Since it takes so long to grow a tree, tree farms are much different than a traditional nursery.  Their quickest crops typically take three years to develop.  Some of their larger trees have been grown for 3, 5 and even ten years before it is ready for sale.  I cannot even begin to imagine the management required to keep a plant alive for 3 to 10 years in a pot in the wildly variable Texas climate.

45 gallon Nellie R. Stevens hollies before the storm

This past month, Morgan was the top salesman in the company.  While I was happy for him I was a little confused.  I asked how he could sell so many trees in the middle of the worst drought in history.  Many of his biggest customers are landscape architects.  In order to get paid for a large commercial project, everything has to be complete.  That includes the landscape.  So, even though this has been the hottest AND driest year on record, these firms still have to install trees, shrubs, ground cover and turf.  Since there is a lot of building going on in the DFW metroplex, Morgan has been selling a lot of trees and shrubs.  He did tell me that the cities of Austin and San Antonio have been making some concessions to the builders because of the drought.  Trees and shrubs still have to be planted, but they are amending the contracts to allow the firms to come back later and plant the water sucking ground cover and turf.

These crepe myrtles are typical of how the winds affected much of the stock

Another very interesting thing happened on my trip.  Around 6:30 pm on Thursday night, a MASSIVE thunderstorm blew in.  This storm brought some much needed rain.  However, it was accompanied by 60 mph winds.  High winds are not the friend of a tree farm.  These high winds blew over an INCREDIBLE amount of stock.  Even though they were all well anchored, the wind pulled the anchors up.  Friday morning was a very sad day on the tree farm.  All 200 employees had to stop what they were doing and walk the property and stand up and re-anchor the stock.  The blow down was so massive that at the end of the day, 200 people did not finish standing everything back up.

The blow down caused problems for Morgan and I as well.  We still had 120 30 gallon yaupons to find and tag.  What was supposed to be a very enjoyable learning experience for me turned into an awful lot of work.  These yaupons were all six to eight feet tall and had a spread of six to eight feet as well.  Before we could find the best ones, we had to stand up a whole bunch of very heavy shrubs.  I do not know how many 30 gallon yaupons are on a two acre pad, but it is a bunch!

My friend Morgan tagging yaupons for his customer

Despite the hard work, this was truly the most enjoyable “field trip” that I have ever been on.  Thanks a ton to my buddy Morgan and to Tree Town USA for allowing me to visit.  Tree Town USA only sells to the trade.  So, while I wish I could make a product placement plug for them, you can’t buy from them directly.  However, you can request Tree Town USA trees from your local Home Depot or your independently owned nursery.  Since I have had this experience, I can tell you that if you buy Tree Town trees you will be getting a very high quality product that was grown with the best science possible by a whole lot of people who truly love trees!

Very interesting berry arrangement on one the yaupons we tagged