McMinnville, Tenn., sits in the eye of a perfect storm of fortuities, meriting the town of 13,605 — and its contiguous five-county area in central Tennessee — the designation as “Nursery Capital of the World.”
The “concatenation of circumstances,” according to Dr. Nick Gawel, superintendent of the Otis L. Floyd Research Center at Tennessee State University’s McMinnville campus, includes “geographical location, fortuitous environmental diversity and moderate climate.”
McMinnville, the county seat of Warren County, is “within one day of shipping to 80 percent of people east of the Mississippi,” said Gawel. “Most of our product is going north and east.”
By “product” he means the thousands of varieties of trees, bushes, ornamentals, flowers and crops harvested by the 500 state-certified growers in the five-county region.
All told, nurseries cultivate 55,000 acres of fertile Tennessee soil, producing 19 million containers of plants every year.
The central Tennessee climate is ideally suited to sustain the industry. As Philip Pelham, president of Cumberland Valley Nursery, put it, “If you go any further south, the climate is too hot, and if you go north, the growing season is too short.”
Family tradition is also a factor in the area’s success as the “Nursery Capital of the World.” Some nurseries are in their fifth generation of family ownership since the appellation stuck in 1887.
“You’ve got some people who because their parents or grandparents did some of this specialized work back in the early days, they’ve continued it,” said Mike Hobbs of Warren County Nursery.
The abundance and variety of the product paired with marketing and distribution systems streamlined over many decades yields price breaks found almost nowhere else. The economic impact of the nurseries, from mom-and-pop operations to sprawling corporate enterprises, amounts to $400 million annually for Tennessee, with $90 million of that total generated in Warren County alone.
The research center, which Gawel has headed since its inception in 1997, employs about 25 scientists and annually contributes $20 million of know-how and technological benefits for growers around the nation.
The center’s “genesis lies in the nursery industry itself,” remarked Gawel. “Visionary growers knew ‘we have a great thing going here.’ Sales were going great and the growers wanted a facility dedicated to their needs, all summed up in one spot. So they lobbied one of the U.S. senators and got some money appropriated, and they amassed an arsenal of money and resources.”
Gawel was employed as a plant breeder at TSU’s main campus in Nashville when he was tapped to lead the newly established research facility.
He loves his job. “It’s a great industry. It’s a lot of fun being centered around something with aesthetic value,” he said.
The “generally accepted version” of how the area acquired its moniker begins with the mysterious deaths of several cows in 1887. The animals died after seeds of the mountain allspice plants blocked their small intestines.
The farmers enlisted the help of some New York scientists, who, while determining the cause of death, developed a fascination with the allspice plant. They purchased a bushelful of seeds for $5.
The cows’ owner, John Henry Harrison Boyd, offered more of the seeds in a local farm journal and word spread around the world. Boyd began receiving orders from Germany, France, England and Japan, and the industry was born.
Boyd expanded his business to selling trees and other plants. Business mogul George Vanderbilt bought 1 million trees from Boyd to plant on his 146,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
Boyd and subsequent generations never looked back. Gawel has seen a couple notable trends during his two decades at the helm of the research center.
“We’ve seen an increase in attention to environmental concerns,” he said. “Growers are actively trying to reduce pesticides. We are the state’s true green industry and growers understand that as well.”
He noted a “greater attention to scouting insects and disease” and enticing them away from the crops rather than killing them outright. In battling the harmful pests, insecticide sprays tend to also inflict casualties on 90 percent of the innocent bystanders that are beneficial to or benign toward the vegetation.
The other trend is increasing water-use efficiency, said Gawel. “We are very diligent in understanding water is a limited commodity,” even though the area abounds in the natural resource.
“It all comes under the big umbrella of sustainability,” Gawel said.
Sustainability is one of the research center’s seven departments, the others being entomology, genetics, horticulture, pathology, chemical ecology and nursery extension.