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Roger Sharpe: A niche among the trees

Roger Sharpe: A niche among the trees

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John F. Kennedy, our 35th president, inspired millions of young people to public service. Before his untimely death on Nov. 22, 1963, he often retold this favorite account from his reading:

The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The marshal replied: In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon.

During this time of coronavirus pandemic, what better way for a family to spend quality time outdoors than in planting a tree? And perhaps, teach a younger generation about life and being good stewards of the Earth and our environment? “Especially a tree whose origin is dated by fossils to have survived millions of years — the Ginkgo biloba tree,” Kevin H. Campbell, proprietor of Campbell Family Nursery, would argue by his example.

For more than a dozen years now, each Saturday between April and November before Thanksgiving, the horticulturist has carried a selection of container plants he has cultivated by seed or rooted from cuttings in his Harmony-based nursery to the Surry County Farmer's Market in Elkin. Between 20 and 30 vendors bring agriculture and garden produce of meat and poultry, vegetables and sourwood honey to market, and yes, container-grown seedlings of Ginkgo trees. All vendors practice prescribed measures of mask-wearing, hand-washing and safe-distancing for customers coming from as far as Winston-Salem to Boone and from Charlotte and Hickory to Aarat, Va.

Campbell, age 57, represents the second generation of his family to propagate and grow nursery plants. His late father, Brice Campbell, started his nursery and landscaping business in Elkin while working as a third-shift employee of Chatham Blanket Manufacturing Co. In late spring 1963, Brice and Hazel Proctor Campbell bought the property of the old Trivett Hospital in Houstonville to provide a home to their family and to grow their nursery on the hospital grounds and nearby fields. They did so for more than 25 years. Kevin, the second youngest of the Campbell children, took most after his father's calling to grow plants.

In the 15 years since he first ventured out to commence his own nursery, Kevin Campbell specialized in propagating nursery crops in containers that discerning consumers would find convenient to transport and provide facility for replanting their selections in their home landscapes and gardens. His specialties have included half a dozen varieties of milkweed for butterfly gardens, cold-hardy cactus, elderberry, laurel and other popular native plants, and of course the Ginkgo tree. In the process of his specializations, Campbell has become listed as a recommended source of native plants by The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and a source for native plants by UNC's Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. Scott L. Wing, research scientist and curator of fossil plants for The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, invited Campbell in January to serve as a resource person on the culture of the Ginkgo tree.

Working with the Northwestern Piedmont area's county horticultural extension agents, with crop specialists through the state and federal agriculture extension service, and the state's land grant universities cooperating, N.C. State University in Raleigh and N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, nursery growers typically have some of the best scientific knowledge available with respect to culture of plants. The information may include light, temperature, fertilizer and water requirements, and effective and environmentally safe practices dealing with insect and disease infestation of plants. But more than this, the explosion of information technology now allows those like Campbell, who seek the best of scientific research and culture in the nursery industry, to access specialists throughout the world.

The secret to a successful business practice in the nursery industry is to specialize in the crops where changing values and consumer expectations demand it. Finding one's own niche in the market-driven industry, as it were.

Nursery crops in North Carolina account for roughly a billion-dollar portion of the state's $11 billion agricultural economy annually.

The Annual Harvest Market at Elkin will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. today, the last farmer's market for this season.

Roger Sharpe is a former state senator.

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