FROM SWINE TO SHRUBS: SHELBY COUNTY FARMER BUILDS SUCCESSFUL NURSERY
Lance Byrd knows the meaning of hard work. At just 30 years of age, he has been earning his own money for more than two decades. But if you ask Lance how his family's small Shelby County greenhouse and nursery operation grew into a million-dollar business, his answer might surprise you.
"A lot of people try to be successful by working hard, but I believe the key to success is working smart," Lance said.
For the Byrds, working smart has meant being willing to adapt to Alabama's changing agricultural economy. A third-generation farmer, Lance recalled that his grandfather, Robert Byrd Sr., started farming in 1950 with just a few cows and a commercial egg business. But, when large-scale integrators began to dominate the poultry business, the Byrds signed a contract to produce hatching eggs for Purina. About the same time, Lance's father, Robert Jr., returned home from a five-year stint as an electrical engineer in Louisiana. And in 1966, the Byrds got into the hog business. Over the next 30 years, the pork industry served the Byrds well, but by the early '80s marketing concerns and mounting environmental pressures forced the Byrds to diversify yet again. This time, Robert Jr. ventured into the sod and nursery business.
Lance's career plans, however, were not limited to cutting sod and feeding livestock. He wanted to be a firefighter. So after graduating from Montevallo High School, Lance set about making his dream a reality. He earned the top score out of about 500 applicants on a civil service exam in Shelby County and was hired by the Pelham Fire Department.
For the next 8 years, Lance worked a 24-on / 48-off schedule at the fire department and continued to help his father on the farm. He was even named Shelby County Paramedic of the Year in 1997. But as the sod and nursery business grew, the Byrds realized Robert Jr. couldn't manage both operations alone, and in 1998 Lance returned home to stay.
Today, the Byrds have about 90 acres of sod, and the nursery has sales of more than $1.2 million a year. Lance credits the nursery's 18 employees for the success of the family business, but he said some early management decisions also have paid dividends.
"I told my father when we started that I couldn't learn how to grow plants, unless I had a consistent (potting) mix," Lance said. "We decided to invest in a bark mixer, and I think we have one of the best mixes around."
The Byrds' nursery, Green Valley Farms Inc., currently has more than 40,000 trees and shrubs in inventory. Lance said he purchases most of the plants in small containers and then transfers them to larger pots using an automated potting machine. The potted trees are then moved to fields where they are fitted into buried containers and watered using drip irrigation. This system--known as pot-in-pot--has definite advantages over field-grown nurseries, Lance said.
"Container trees are worth more than those actually planted in the ground because when you dig planted trees, you cut off 50 percent of the roots," Lance said. "We also can harvest our trees 365 days a year. If you dig your trees, you can only harvest them certain times of the year."
The Byrds sell the majority of their plants to landscapers in the Birmingham area, and they have recently expanded their inventory to include other landscaping supplies.
Of course, owning a full-service nursery can be confining, Lance said. But having his family nearby makes the seven-day-a-week job more rewarding.
Lance's wife, Dana, 32, put her career as a police officer on hold to stay home with the couple's sons, Robert William (Beaux), 8, and Patrick (Tyler), 3. Nowadays, she enjoys cutting grass at the nursery and working on topiaries when she's not busy with the boys.
As for the future, the Byrds are continuing to expand the nursery. Lance is careful, however, to temper his optimism with caution, noting that rising interest rates could curb new construction and hurt sales.
Meanwhile, the Byrds are becoming more active in the Alabama Farmers Federation after winning the Outstanding Young Farm Family award for horticulture earlier this year.
"I like being associated with the Farmers Federation because its an organization I can take to church and proudly sell to people," Lance said. "It's an honest organization where what you see is what you get. And I really believe it's working to help farmers."