LOWELL - Amelie Aust, of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, admits it's bittersweet to sell a line of dwarf berry plants that she helped bring to market four years ago to another horticultural company.
The major supplier of blueberry plants to commercial growers had developed the line of dwarf berry plants with high hopes of branching into the mass consumer market in a big way. The plants, called "BrazelBerries," were developed for home gardeners, including those with limited space.
But, Aust said, the Brazel Berry initiative took time and attention away from Fall Creek's main commercial blueberry business, and for relatively little revenue.
"I'm very proud of what we have been able to do with our BrazelBerry program," she said. "But it is not our speciality, our core business."
Fall Creek earlier this month announced that it will sell its BrazelBerry business to Star Roses and Plants of West Grove, Pa.
Sale terms were not disclosed. The asset purchase agreement is expected to close by June 3.
Star Roses and Plants, a 119-year-old company, is known in the nursery industry as a developer of roses, including the Knock Out and Drift roses. The firm says it has "evolved from a wholesale container nursery to a leading genetics company involved directly in breeding roses, perennials and woody plants, and introducing plants from other breeders around the world."
Fall Creek Farm & Nursery provides blueberry nursery stock, blueberry breeding and grower support to commercial fruit growers, nurseries and wholesale plant growers in North, Central and South America, and South Africa and Europe.
The business has three large nurseries and a research facility near Lowell and Pleasant Hill, southeast of Springfield. It also has nurseries in three other countries.
Because of the reach of Fall Creek's plants and its worldwide customers, company executives say it's highly likely that most of the blueberries sold in stores or those used in juices or food products in the United States and other countries came from plants produced at its nurseries.
BrazelBerries are much smaller than typical blueberry and raspberry plants, which can grow more than 5 feet tall.
The dwarf berry plants grow to 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. They can fit in patio pots or in other small areas.
The varieties include a thornless dwarf raspberry plant called Raspberry Shortcake; a four-season compact blueberry named Peach Sorbet; and Jelly Bean, a dwarf blueberry plant. A new variety, a dwarf blackberry, called Baby Cakes, will be introduced next year.
Fall Creek Farm & Nursery is led by President Dave Brazelton, who started the nursery, with his wife Barbara, in 1978.
Their son, Cort Brazelton, and daughter, Aust, have assumed leadership roles in the company. Aust is the firm's new business development manager. Cort Brazelton oversees international business development.
Aust's husband, Boris Aust, is the chief financial officer.
Fall Creek executives say that widespread publicity about blueberries' health benefits during the last two decades have helped the company regularly achieve double digit revenue growth.
"We are now selling more than 30 million plants worldwide and sales have grown more than four times from 2011, especially due to our international expansion," Boris Aust said.
In the early 1990s, the company began collaborating with third-party research programs to develop plant characteristics through breeding. In 1998, Fall Creek Farm & Nursery started breeding its own berries using traditional crossing and selecting. The first products of that breeding program came out a few years ago, including Brazel Berries.
Aust said the idea to focus on dwarf berry plants came from her father, who thought home gardeners would appreciate plant features that were developed by breeding commercial plants. "He kept seeing all these characteristics pop up that he thought would be perfect for home gardeners," she said. "Thornless raspberries, blueberries for pots, lots of cool leaves and colors. And he thought, 'What if we bred them for home gardeners?' "
Aust said she will never forget seeing dwarf berry plants for the first time, in 2008.
In contrast to tall, lanky blueberry plants, she saw short, ball-shaped berry plants with brightly colored leaves. "We invented a completely new category," Aust said.
Fall Creek Farm & Nursery launched Brazel Berries with the hope that a line of plants for home gardeners would help diversify the company.
The nursery began selling BrazelBerries in 2012. The line began to break even in 2014, Aust said, and to turn a profit in 2015.
The dwarf berry plants can be purchased locally at Gray's Garden Centers, Jerry's Home Improvement Centers and Down to Earth.
About a year ago, Mark Frandsen and Ulrich Pilz, Portland businessmen who are the two non-Brazeltons on Fall Creek's four- member board of directors, made a cogent observation about Brazel Berries, Aust said.
While the berries gave the firm something that competitors didn't have, they accounted for a small part of the firm's revenue, she said.
Kevin Adams, a Camp Sherman- based business consultant and non-voting adviser to the board, made the same point, Aust said.
"They said, 'Hey, the Brazel Berry business is unique but it's less than 3 percent of your business and takes your best people,' " she said. " 'And it's very different than our core (business). If you want to grow (the company) at the world level, shouldn't you find someone to take (Brazel Berries) forward?' "
"The decision to look at selling it came from an examination of how can we grow exponentially in serving the commercial growers around the world," she said.
"I have to hand it to our team of board members who saw this early on," Aust added. "The most important thing that we can do for a healthy company is to be willing to make hard decisions and see that there is never one path."
Finding a buyer
Fall Creek's owners last year spent several months looking for a buyer. They found Star Roses and Plants by the end of the year. Negotiations took a few more months.
Under the deal, Star Roses and Plants is purchasing the entire BrazelBerry program, including management of its nursery grower network and all sales and distribution responsibilities. Star Roses and Plants also is buying the BrazelBerry patents, trademarks, graphic materials and its retail website.
Fall Creek Farm & Nursery will retain its connection to BrazelBerries for three years, possibly longer, by producing young BrazelBerry plants for Star Roses and Plants.
Aust estimated that Fall Creek will produce between 800,000 and 1.3 million plants for Star Roses and Plants in each of the next three years.
"We will stay involved and grow little plants for them," she said. "If they want us to keep growing for them, we probably will because it's simple for us.
"We also have set up a long-term collaboration with Star so they get access to our best varieties during the next five years that we will continue to breed in our breeding program," Aust said. "We have really neat varieties coming down the pipeline."
Baby Cakes, a dwarf blackberry, will be available at retailers next spring.
Aust acknowledged that some Oregonians may wonder why they should buy a blackberry plant, given the proliferation of Himalayan blackberries in much of the state.
"The fun thing about (Baby Cakes) is that you plant it in a pot so it doesn't take over your yard," she said.
The thornless, dwarf blackberry can be picked without pain, Aust said. The berries are large and delicious, she said.
"The flavor is better than anything that you would get from a Himalayan in the grocery store," she said. "It's just incredible."
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