At the time, Stark Bro’s was selling about a million trees each year, but none of them were pomegranate trees. All these potential customers were being turned away.
As interest in pomegranates — which experts describe as a “superfruit” — continued to grow, Stark Bro’s decided to act.
The company assigned a team to research growing and shipping pomegranate trees. Once the kinks were worked out, the first crop of pomegranate trees was grafted and planted. Two years later, they were ready to ship.
“We sold eight of them the first day, without doing anything,” said Ken Lane, chief marketing officer.
The company expects its pomegranate trees to sell out by this fall. Next year, pomegranate sales could be even bigger.
“We’ve got next spring’s crop in with some data that says, ‘Gosh, if we sold this many by accident, how many are we going to sell if we try to sell them?’” Lane said. “We’ll see how the crystal ball works out.”
The pomegranate boom is just one recent example that even in the ancient business of selling fruit trees, it takes constant reinvention to stay on top.
For the last 201 years, Stark Bro’s has been growing trees in Louisiana, Missouri. In its early years, the company became famous for its work to bring Red and Golden Delicious apples to the market.
The company has also been trying to stay on top of a rising demand for antique and heirloom apples that are used for making cider.
“We have seen in our sales data a resurgence in all things heirloom. An antique variety apple tree, which would have sold 300-400 trees a year suddenly is trending to 3,000 or 4,000 trees a year,” Lane said. “If you didn’t plan for that, you won’t have the trees and we won’t get the sales.”
Historically, Stark Bro’s has been a mail-order business, and the company still ships 60-page catalogs to customers across the country. But today, 75 percent of the company’s orders are made online.
The move to online sales has allowed the company to streamline some aspects of its operations. The call center here had 120 agents in 2000. Now only 20 are needed.
The company’s web strategy is successful, in part, because it emphasizes information and education over making the sale.
“There’s no ‘buy now!’-type thing,” Lane said. “The sale is almost passive.”
Instead, the website explains the differences between fruit varieties and tree sizes. It instructs growers on whether they need to buy a second tree to act as a pollinator. It guides visitors toward plants that are suited to their climate. It also shows what tools people might want to use during the planting process.
“I think part of the challenge in our industry today is that people think that if they plant something and it doesn’t grow, it’s their fault. They’re not successful, and then they hate gardening. They’ll never do this again,” Lane said. “There’s a knowledge barrier for newcomers to become successful growers. Our job is to make sure they’re successful.”
Up until just a few years ago, Missouri residents were receiving more of those packages than residents of any other state. Company leaders realized this actually reflected a missed opportunity — populous states like New York and California should be higher than in-state sales.
The company plotted a strategy to grow its market share in the country’s largest markets. The biggest move happened in 2013 when Stark Bro’s acquired J.E. Miller Nurseries in New York.
Combining the companies made Stark Bro’s the world’s largest direct-to-consumer nursery. It also gave the company a big presence in New York.
Post-acquisition, New York is now the top state driving sales at Stark Bro’s. Missouri comes in fourth, behind Pennsylvania and Illinois.
However, growth elsewhere is good for the home state. Stark Bro’s employs 250 people in Missouri, with most in the small town of Louisiana, where it is a major employer. Generations of community members here have worked at the company.
“You drive through this town and pass this Stark house, and then that’s a Stark house, and that’s a Stark house,” Lane said. “There’s a kind of magic in that.”
But it can also be a limiting factor. The company has its sights set on growth. The problem is there’s not enough labor to expand.
“We have to figure out the labor. Every year, we get into April and we’re already sold out of this. Then you get into May, and we’re sold out of that. We know we’re leaving money on the table,” Lane said. “But if we were to try to grow another 100,000 trees, we wouldn’t have time to do it because we don’t have enough people to do it.”
The company is also challenged by climate change and is investing heavily to combat the threat of more severe weather.
Stark Bro’s plans to expand its greenhouse capacity by two-thirds over the next two years. The company is bringing in national consultants to help it be successful as more growing moves indoors, where their product is sheltered from harsh storms.
“Climate change – regardless of the source – is real, and it’s really not going to get better. That’s going to affect flooding. That’s going to affect heat. That’s going to affect wind, hail and things that damage trees,” Lane said. “So our shift is to say, ‘What can we do indoors, in a protected environment that we control?’”
Even with these challenges, Stark Bro’s benefits from the unique perspective of being a 201-year-old company. Last year, the company published a book of its history titled “200 Years and Growing.”
The story is filled with near misses that could have ended the business. Yet it survived.
“We are fooling ourselves if we don’t think there’s more forks in the road ahead of us,” Lane said. “We say to ourselves — and some people roll their eyes —but we’re planning for the next 200 years: What do we need to do today so that 200 years from now, people will say, ‘It was that generation at Stark Bro’s that hit that fork in the road and was ready for it.’”