Between the evenly spaced rows of plants that stretch away from Back Neck Road in Fairfield Township, workers at Halka Nurseries uprooted old trees, pushed them into piles and set them on fire.
Halka Nurseries is one of many companies with huge fields of trees and shrubs in Cumberland County, a place where more plant nursery products are produced than in most states.
Since the housing and construction market collapsed, nursery wholesalers such as the Halka family have struggled. Burning heaps of trees that would have been used for landscaping is just one indication of their troubles as they make room for new growth by removing what’s gone unsold.
“Before the economy dropped, we were buying land every year in order to replant,” said Jamie Halka, vice president of Halka Nurseries. “But now we’ve figured 2,600 acres is enough.”
The greenhouse and nursery industry produces a very broad range of plants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines nursery stock as deciduous and evergreen trees, fruit and nut trees, shrubs, bushes, ground covers and vines, excluding all kinds of flowers, garden plants and grasses.
Based on that definition, New Jersey’s nursery stock sales totaled $147 million in 2009, the sixth-highest value among states in the country, according to USDA’s most recent Census of Horticultural Specialties.
That number is even more dramatic when comparing geographic areas among states. Tennessee and North Carolina, which both sold an amount of nursery stock similar to New Jersey’s in 2009, are both five times larger in size.
Despite the fame that Jersey Fresh produce receives, the greenhouse and nursery industry is the state’s largest area of agriculture by a wide margin.
In 2010, sales of all nursery and greenhouse products accounted for 43 percent of agricultural sales in the state. Blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, peaches and cranberries accounted for just 18 percent of total sales.
When talking strictly about trees, bushes and other nursery stock, half of the state’s total sales come from Cumberland County, where more than 5 million square feet of greenhouse space and 7,500 acres of fields are dedicated to nursery use.
Those numbers rose dramatically in recent decades, but growers say their expansion stopped when housing and construction demand dried up.
Halka Nurseries owns 1,300 acres of land in Fairfield, where it grows about 200 varieties of deciduous and evergreen trees that are sold primarily along the East Coast.
Their products mainly go to contractors for high-end residential developments, but they have also supplied plants for the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the Statue of Liberty, the Comcast Center in Philadelphia and several universities.
Besides developers, nursery companies also sell to retail garden centers, landscaping companies and directly to consumers.
Halka, 28, represents the family’s third generation in the business, along with her 26-year-old sister, Kate. Their grandfather, Chester Halka Sr., started the company in 1954, and their father, Chet Halka Jr., is currently president.
The family is from Millstone Township, Monmouth County, where they have another 1,300 acres of land. Jamie Halka moved to nearby Hopewell Township four years ago to help run the southern operation.
In recent years, she said, the company has had to lay off employees because sales have slumped. Last year was one of the worst years in the company’s history.
“It’s hard with no houses going up,” said Halka as she drove her SUV between rows of holly and weeping Norway spruce trees.
Estimates of how much the industry has declined are all anecdotal. Experts say that individual businesses have seen their sales decline by 10 to 40 percent.
“The industry is not super-happy right at the moment,” said Jim Johnson, agricultural agent at the Rutgers University co-operative extension of Cumberland County.
Johnson said he has seen some companies expand while others have gone out of business, but almost all have tried to reduce their size.
Robert Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association, placed the average decline in sales between 10 and 15 percent.
“There’s no question that the industry is plateauing,” he said.
Johnson Farms is another major nursery operation in southern Cumberland County, with about 1,000 acres of field plants and another 1,000 acres of sod growing in Deerfield Township.
Sales manager Keith MacIndoe said the company was also expanding its acreage until 2008, but has held its ground over the last three years.
While companies have slowed growth, their plants have not. If trees, shrubs and bushes sit in the ground too long, they become too big for the pots they’re growing in or too wide to fit on a flatbed truck for transport.
MacIndoe said he still has reasons for optimism. This time of year he is taking sales orders for spring deliveries, which he said are up from last year.
Dominick Mondi, executive director of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association, said he has been hearing from his group’s 350 member businesses that their sales to garden centers are slightly increasing as it seems homeowners are looking to re-invest in their properties instead of selling their homes and moving away.
“Housing is definitely not getting a lot better, but it seems that consumer spending is,” he said.
Dolibois said there also remains a longer-term demographic issue as they wait and see where the so-called millennial generation chooses to live.
“Will they be dense communities, or will they be suburban sprawl?” he said.
At Halka Nurseries, Jamie Halka said she is focusing right now on this year’s sales, as well as planting trees for the future.
“My dad always says he’s not planting new trees for him, but he’s planting them for us,” she said. “I think he wants to be retired by the time they grow.”
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