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Visalia wholesale nursery laying off 278

November 7,2017

The 2018 spring season will be the last for a well-known Visalia wholesale grower. After nearly 75 years of supplying trees and shrubs for the horticulture industry, the L.E. Cooke Co is closing its bare root nursery division its owner announced recently.

Company president Ron Ludekens and CEO and general manager David H. Cox recently published a blog post offering some of the details.

“The end of an era is coming… the L.E. Cooke Co Bare Root Nursery Division will cease operations after the 2018 spring shipping season.” says the blog.

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The closure is confirmed by a state required WARN notice published on the web November 27. The notice says some 278 workers will permanently lose their jobs by mid-January.

L.E. Cooke Co is a wholesale nursery specializing in growing deciduous trees and shrubs with over 1250 acres in production. As a wholesale only nursery, the do not sell directly to the public but product is sold throughout the U.S. and Canada in leading nurseries and gardens center.

In their blog Ludekens and Cox cited various factors in the decision to shut down including the recession, the drought, uncertain market factors as well as regulation.

Not mentioned is the fact that Ron Ludekens father,Bob is now in his late 80s, a time of retirement for even the hardest working farmer. Bob was part-time with the L.E. Cooke Co. in 1946, bought into the business in 1959, became manager in 1962 and became owner of the company in 1965.

But the blog describes macro issues, not personal.

As for the drought “Not only did (Brown’s) new water use limitations hurt our sales in our largest markets of the West, but we spent over a million dollars in lowering wells, drilling new wells and tying them together. The bank we work with has been wonderful and if we felt we could work off the new debt over time with profits, we would have done it.”

The Visalia wholesale nursery supplies independent retail nurseries that in recent years have been shutting their own doors at a good clip.

“The Independent Nursery market keeps shrinking. Not many years ago, we had over 1700 active nurseries buying from us. Today, the number of active accounts has dropped to under 500 and declining almost weekly.

10-15 years ago over 70% of our volume was going direct to retail markets. The year-to-year stability in orders was nice – even when recessions came and went. Today over 60% of our volume is going to wholesale growers. There are huge fluctuations in demand from year to year. Now we grow large numbers of trees for 2 and 3 years and then shred them into mulch for a total loss at the end of harvest simply because the wholesalers have swings in inventory or found the items elsewhere for a few pennies a tree cheaper.”

Then there is state regulation that comes in for criticism.

“California is not friendly to businesses. Especially ones like ours that are labor intensive. 60-65% of our cost is labor. We have always tried to pay our year round employees as best we could afford even while competing in a nationwide market. California minimum starting wages will be $11.00 January 1 and will rise to $15 per hour over the next few years. Approximately half of our labor cost comes during harvest and shipping season and 60% of that labor are temporaries that earn minimum wage. The escalating minimum wage also puts upward pressure on wages for all our other year round employees. This is competing against labor in other grower nursery states at $7.25 an hour (less than half the cost of our future minimum wage) and Worker’s Compensation is only a suggestion in some states, or not fully mandated as it is in California.”

Ron Ludekens adds the last straw was California’s decision to change overtime rules for the state this year.

The closure will be particularly hard on L.E Cooke’s long time employees.

“Clearly we weep for our employees. Many have been with us for 20, 30 and even 40 years. The office and sales staff feels more like a family than employees and they treat each other that way. When we advised them last fall (2016) of the tough decisions made, they continued to stick with us all the way to the end. There are no words that can take away the pain felt for the disruptions of their lives this event is causing. Most have said, “I expected to go through to retirement with L.E. Cooke.” That said, we have great people that would be an asset to other companies and letters of recommendation are being written.”

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