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The quieter you become, the more you can hear.
Baba Ram Dass

On site at Sherwood's Forests

Not quite live...

This is a transcription of an interview for a Home Improvement blog. I've fixed it up a bit, straightened out the grammar, put the questions in what seemed to me to be a more sensible order.

We are interviewing Sherwood Botsford, owner and operator of Sherwood's Forests. Good morning, Sherwood.

Good morning.

Sherwood's Forests! That's a great name for a tree nursery. I guess the name is a natural for you.

It is, but it didn't come easily. We tried lots of names on our friends, relatives, anyone who would listen. I was a bit embarrassed to have my name as part of the business name. Seemed too, well, forward. Everyone else thought that Sherwood's Forests was a great name. The web name was harder. Unfortunately apostrophes aren't allowed in domain names, so we had to modify it a bit. In addition there is some confusion because a town called Sherwood Park is on the other side of Edmonton. We counteract this by stressing that we're in the opposite direction from Edmonton.

So where's Sherwood's Forests? I thought that Sherwood Forest was in England.

The original is in England. Botsfords came from England originally. The name probably comes from Abbot's Ford -- a place where the local monastery could charge a toll for people to cross the river. Sherwood has been a family name for generations.

Our place, Sherwood's Forests -- note the s's possessive and plural -- is out by Warburg, some 75 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. It's about an hour's drive.

Why did you start a tree farm?

My first memories of gardening were of helping my mom putting in bedding plants. I must have been four or five at the time. The house was filled with plants. Every windowsill that got sun had plants on it.
I've had two careers already, one as a teacher, and one as a computer geek. I wanted a change, something that would keep me active.

This whole thing started when I was looking for a ponderosa pine to put in my yard. I asked at many garden centres. They either told me that it wouldn't grow here, or that it would get too big for a yard. I knew it would grow here. There are a dozen on the U of A campus in Edmonton. And I have three acres of yard, so room isn't really an issue.

So I decided that if I couldn't find one, that other people must be having the same problem. This would certainly fill my requirements for an active life style. So I started a tree farm.

What are you about? What's your niche?

Trees for rural landscapes. Farms and acreages can use larger trees to match their larger yards. We have trees that grow big. We have trees to slow the wind. We have trees that will survive on the prairie.

Many trees sold locally are brought in from interior BC or even the coast. Poor things, they have never experienced an Alberta Winter. I've been told by professional landscape contractors that they expect a 40% mortality rate on non-local transplants, especially ones that come in from warmer climates.

We also have smaller trees than the ones at the garden centre. Picture this: You have 5 acres in the Glory Hills north of Stony Plain. You have a 300 foot long driveway that you want to line with trees. At 15 foot spacing that's 20 trees on each side. 40 five-six foot spruce trees at your local garden centre will cost you a bundle. And you have to plant a big tree. That's a lot of shovel work. 40 two gallon spruce trees from us will set you back less than $500, and if you are good with a shovel, and don't have too many rocks in your soil, you can get them in over a few evenings. And, here's the clincher: because they come with all their roots, they'll be fully adapted by the end of their first summer. Landscapers figure than a lifted tree takes about a year per inch of trunk diameter to adapt. By the end of three years, your cheap trees will only be a foot shorter than the 'instant forest' trees.

What inspired you to launch your own website?

I'm cheap. Well. I think I'm frugal. Other people tell me I'm cheap. We wanted an inexpensive way to reach people directly. Small garden centres and acreage owners have a tough time finding local suppliers, especially for species that are out of the ordinary. Finding them at reasonable prices is even harder. Our trees retail for a lot less than the price that you will pay at a garden centre, and wholesale for even less than that.

Why a web site for local business? Aren't websites for national or international businesses?

My biggest business problem is letting the customer know I'm here. A web presence has the advantage that when people are looking they have a chance of finding you. In normal media such as newspapers and radio, almost all of the readers are skipping past your tiny ad to find the comics, or listeners who are impatiently waiting for the ad to end so the DJ will introduce the next song. The only other place that has people so ready to buy that they are actively seeking you out is the yellow pages.

Web pages are cheap, especially if you learn to write them yourself. My web hosting package costs me about 100 per year. That's less money that it takes to run a classified ad in 5 local papers for three issues. And it's always there.

I've learned a lot from searching the web. Part of my site is payback: I feel an obligation to provide information that is useful far outside our general market area. It has worked better than I expected. Last year I got a request from a landscape centre in Montana who wanted a flatbed of 20 foot spruce. I had to pass the lead on to another local business that had trees that big in stock. I received another request from someone who wanted 100 4" European White Oaks shipped to China. I'm guessing for the Olympic Games. I tried to convince them that they wouldn't be likely to survive the trip at that size. (They weren't willing to fly them.) Eventually they found another supplier.

You have a lot of stuff on your site not directly related to trees. Stuff like D-I-Y drip irrigation, landscape design, personal views on a lot of things.

It's not as indirect as you think. Wal-Mart wants to sell you a tree. They pressure their suppliers for the cheapest tree they can get. They send it out the door. They don't support that sale with advice. Go into any of the big box stores and ask them why your juniper has brown tips. You will get new blank looks for your collection. Some days I think that they hope it will die so that you will come back next year and buy a replacement.

I don't like that business model. I grow trees. I want people to come back because the tree they bought here is doing so well that they want another one to keep it company. Part of that is giving them the best information I can on how to care for it, how to use them in the landscape. I tell my customers a lot of this when they come by or talk on the phone, but having it on my site gives them a place to come back to.

I talk about planting and watering and fertilizing so that their tree grows fast and adapts to it's new home. A healthy ponderosa or white pine in someone's yard is free advertising.

We live in a society of instant everything. Trees aren't instant.

I talk about landscape design to get users to think not only about the present yard, but how that yard will change over the decades. Not to think of landscape like a paint job -- do it once then forget -- but think of it as performance art. If I can convince someone to plant spruce 16 feet apart instead of 5 feet apart, I don't sell as many trees this year. But I may be able to sell them a second row of trees to put behind the first ones, and a mess of shrubs to put between the trees for interest while the trees grow. If it works, and they are enthusiastic, they become proponents for trees.

They also learn to take the long view, think in years, not just "Now". Way too many people in our culture are 'instant everything' oriented. Fast food, sound byte news, grow up too soon.

Some of the stuff on the web site is there just because I can. I'm creating a place filled with beauty and magic. The web gives me a way to share some of the highlights of my world.

You even have advice for people who want to become tree farmers. Aren't you worried about competition?

Not really. If you read those sections, you'll see that it's an awful lot of hard work, especially if you do it my way, and don't run up any debt. The people who do it using a conventional business model find that they need astute financial ability, and deep pockets. It's easy to spend a million dollars on equipment. Then you need to hire a mob of people to keep that equipment busy for you making money so that you can pay the loans off to the bank. Soon you're spending all your time running a business, and never getting your hands in the dirt.

A lot of the tree farmer advice is equally good advice for anyone who is dealing with hundreds of trees instead of dozens. It's mostly there for the few who like my lifestyle and want to emulate it. I welcome them, but I want them to come into it with their eyes open.

What are your long term goals?

For the farm? I'd like to get to the point of selling a few thousand trees per year. I don't want to get big. If I get big, then I'm spending all my time managing a business. The business is a necessary evil that gets in my way of growing the trees that I love.

At its biggest, I'd be willing to hire a few students part time during the spring for the busy planting season, and perhaps a summer employee to help with the watering and mowing.

For the website? Two fold: 1. Use this as a venue for selling our trees, not directly, but by raising interest in what we have. 2. Provide advice and information for people to use to grow and care for trees, and to help them to select which trees are right for their yard.

If your web site becomes popular would you sell it?

I don't see the site as having a lot of value other than as a communication device for the farm. The web site will be sold when we sell the tree farm. It will be part and parcel of the good will and reputation that makes us who we are. Doubtless when that happens, the new owner will make changes in the site, but I'm optimistic that its primary goal will remain providing information about trees.

How do you feel about advertising on your site?

I have mixed feelings about web advertising. A lot of ads are obnoxious. On the other hand I've found a lot of good information from Google's targeted ads. Maybe I should say that I strongly prefer info-tising to adver-tising. If someone offered me an ad contract for the site, it would be conditional on my having veto power on the ads, and that the ads had to be relevant to the general theme of the site. E.g. Ads for garden stuff, irrigation, horticulture books.

How does your investment of time and money balance against your success?

So far this is an expensive hobby. We've been growing trees for 5 years now. Two years ago we sold $1500 worth of trees. Last year we doubled that to $3000. However each year we have sunk 4-10 thousand dollars into the farm. About 1/3 of our customers have found out about us through our website.

How are you financing your growth?

My wife and I decided at the beginning that we wouldn't borrow money for this venture. In the worst case, we can walk away and not owe anyone anything. This has meant a lot of pondering before investing in machinery. We now have a 50 hp utility tractor that can haul, dig, and mow, a smaller garden tractor with a rototiller for preparing soil, and a riding lawnmower to handle the 5 acres of grass between pot pens. Specialized equipment that needs to be run for weeks every year has no place: It means that I'd have to hire someone to run it. So I do a lot of work with a shovel, with a grain scoop.

A person is the ultimate general purpose tool. I've got 4000 seedlings coming in this spring. It will take me 20 seconds each to plant them. About two weeks at a few hours per day. I could buy a $15,000 dollar machine, and with two or three people I could do it all in a day. That machine would have its own engine, and would make a racket and require maintenance. No thanks. I'll take the time, and be able to stare at the sky watching the hawks hunting field mice while my hands do their work.

Sounds like you're in love with the land.

Aren't all farmers? Lord knows they make little enough doing it. I think that it's a more general than that: If you don't love what you do then look for something else if you can. Some people are trapped -- by their education, by their family commitments. They can't casually change their lives. I'm lucky.

Tell me: Do you like what you do?

Well, let's see... I guess so. Sure. I meet all sorts of interesting people. I don't think I ever thought about it. Hey, I'm supposed to be interviewing you.

laughter

Think about it. You'll either get more satisfaction than ever in doing your job, or you'll get the courage to quit and find something else. We're all work for about 70,000 hours. Why spend them doing something you hate?

If your site got really big, really quickly, would you be able to keep up with the demand?

You're not hearing what I'm saying about size. The primary goal of the web site is to provide information about trees and about our operation. My web package allows me something like 50 gazillabytes of traffic per month. I've yet to hit a gigabyte.

What unexpected costs and headaches have you had to deal with?

Writing web pages isn't easy. Writing web pages that present in a consistent manner on different browsers is harder. I'm still learning. My latest trick is a package called TTree, which allows me to create page fragments, such as a menu bar, then assemble the page automatically from the fragments. This means that when I change a menu, I only have to change it in the fragment, and not in every page on the site.

On the farm side, water is a problem: getting it to the trees in sufficient quantity. This spring I'm faced with upgrading our water system with a larger pump, and replacing a thousand feet of 1.5" water line with 2" water line.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Learning how to take care of trees in containers. Because the roots are confined to a smaller volume, they can dry out very fast. In hot weather they need to be watered every two days. With 10,000 trees that's a lot of sprinkler moving. The difference between enough fertilizer for good growth and too much can be a fine line too.

What method has been most successful for promoting your website? How are you continuing?

Getting indexed by Google. Getting listed on the Alberta Roundup government agriculture information site.

I've just recognized the importance of getting into local directories. There is lots of information on the net. Finding stuff that is local to your own region is a lot harder. Not all things ship well. So far there is no overall recognized search engine for local results, so I'm spending my winter working on the web site, and trying to get us into all the local directories that I can.

How has running your website differed from your expectations?

It's a lot harder. Just trying to add stuff to it to make it interesting and new is much more work that I expected. There are always other things to do.

How long do you expect it to take for the farm to pay?

It's been 5 years. We've started making sales. I expect that 2009 will see us make a bit over expenses, and that 2011 will see us making more than minimum wage for our efforts.

Well, it's been a nice chat. Good luck on your endeavour.

Thanks.


Got something to say? Email me: sfinfo@sherwoods-forests.com

Want to talk right now? Talk to me: (8 am to 9 pm only, please) 1-780-848-2548


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Copyright © 2008 - 2016 S. G. Botsford

Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.