By Tim Kalinowski
Rolling with punches and planning for change, that’s what Eagle Lake Nurseries, located near Strathmore, is all about, says the farm’s longtime production manager Erin Mortreuil.
“In our field operations we are looking far in the distance, but in our perennials, flowers and herbs it is kind of a one to two-year crop,” she says. “So we do try to seek out what is desired in the market.
“We have salespeople who go and request from our customers what people are going to be looking for in the next year,” she explains. “Grow-your-own food is becoming a much larger market.
“A lot of people have container gardens, backyard gardens— and local sourcing is very important to people. We try to go where the demand is.”
Eagle Lake Nurseries grows field trees and potted trees; these two product lines represent the majority of its business. But it also uses its seasonal greenhouses to grow Echinacea, and other ornamental plant varieties, for garden centres and big box stores. The varieties they grow are typically based on what might be trending amongst gardeners at the moment.
“We sell to independent garden centres as well as the big box stores like Canadian Tire and Home Hardware,” Mortreuil confirms. “We also sell to municipalities and landscape designers and contractors. “Echinacea, for example, is popular right now, but if there is an older (style) of plant nobody is requesting anymore we will phase it out of our production and phase in the newer plants.”
In the next year, Mortreuil says Eagle Lake Nurseries will also be pushing into a new frontier: Edible herbs.
“In 2019 it is actually going to be the first year we are introducing these newer herbs into our production,” she says. “That was something the customers of our outside sales team had requested of them. That’s why we though we would try them and see if people were interested.”
As with all its moves into various perennials and types of potted trees, Eagle Lake Nurseries is being driven by the trends into the herbal market— in this case, the increasingly popularity of the local food and homegrown food markets.
“Of course these edibles do have ornamental applications,” she adds. “They have really nice foliage. Some have really nice flowers, but there is the added benefit where you can pick some of these leaves and use them in a dish or in a tea. “It does make that plant that much more desirable, I think, because you can have it look pretty in your garden, but you can also use it. It has that dual purpose.”
While much of its business and marketing is done in the Calgary area, Eagle Lake Nurseries has expanded or contracted its market reach as the economics of the tree nursery and greenhouse business changed over time.
“The main part of our customer base is Calgary and area, but we do go up to Banff and Canmore and down to Medicine Hat,” Mortreuil confirms. “We do occasionally go into Saskatchewn.
“We did use to sell quite a bit into the United States in places like Oregon, Montana and even up to Alaska. But with the whole exchange rate on the dollar, it caused us some problems down there. We are working at getting back into those markets.
“It is starting to improve,” she adds. “It has picked up in recent years, but it has been slower to pick up because you have to reintroduce yourself and remind people you are here when it comes to our American customers. We just take baby steps.”
This business, like all forms of agriculture, is subject to the vagaries of market forces and weather events, she says, but with the added uncertainty of the retail sector thrown in for good measure, says Mortreuil.
“When a recession hits, we usually feel it a year after as people stop putting in as much money to landscape their homes,” she says. “But when the market goes back up, it usually takes this industry about another year longer than anyone else to recover.”
Mortreuil credits the steady hands of Eagle Lake Nurseries owners, Terry and Anita Huber, with keeping the farm going year-after-year whatever the challenges they may face.
“We are not just relying on one type of customer or one type of product,” she says. “We have a wide customer base, and a wide product base to offer them.”