- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

LOUISIANA, Mo. (AP) - In 1816, a young pioneer from Kentucky, James Hart Stark, homesteaded on the western shore of the Mississippi River at the site of what is now Louisiana, Mo.

Stark had brought along a bundle of apple tree scions that he planted in the rich soils he found in the area.

Stark’s efforts that year took root and grew to become Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. - now the oldest fruit-tree nursery in the world and one of America’s oldest businesses.

The Herald-Whig reports (https://bit.ly/20CqNAL ) that as the company begins marking its 200th anniversary this year, its positive impact on the city of Louisiana also is being celebrated.

“We’re lucky to have a company that has the longevity of Stark Bro’s in our community,” said Chris Koetters, director of the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce and the Louisiana Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Koetters said Stark Bro’s is one of the three largest employers in Louisiana, and its national headquarters and garden center have been drawing visitors from around the Midwest for years.

“Many of those people come here just to pick up a tree,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. It honestly is a tourist attraction.”

Stark Bro’s also is a longtime economic engine in the 3,355-population city of Louisiana because it has been a source of employment for generations of local families.

Elmer Kidd, the chief production officer, in May will mark his 50th year with the company. He started at age 13 carrying water to workers in the fields.

“Stark Bro’s grew up with America, and I grew up with Stark Bro’s,” he said.

Kidd’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked for Stark Bro’s at one time or another. Two of Kidd’s children also work for the company.

“This is a special place,” Kidd said. “This company is the fabric of the community. I mean, Stark Bro’s was here before the town was.”

Indeed, the company that James Hart Stark founded was launched two years before Louisiana was formed in 1818 and five years before Missouri became the nation’s 24th state in 1821.

“Businesses come and businesses go,” Kidd said. “For whatever reason, this one stood the test of time.”

Ken Lane, chief marketing officer, acknowledges the firm’s longevity puts it in a unique position as one of the oldest companies in Missouri, if not the oldest.

“It is a significant milestone for a company to survive just one century,” he said. “To reach 200 years in business is almost unheard of.”

Lane said Stark Bro’s has managed to persevere because it continues to offer certain products that can’t be found elsewhere, including certain species of fruit and nut trees developed in test orchards and propagated on the company’s spacious grounds.

Stark Bro’s is perhaps best known for introducing the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious varieties of apples, which, according to Lane, account for 40 percent of all apple sales worldwide. Another popular variety that emerged from Stark Bro’s is the Gala apple, which first appeared in the 1970s.

Lane said the Red Delicious, which came out in 1893, was brought to the attention of the Stark family during a fair.

“Somebody said, ‘Here, taste these.’ And, as the story goes, one of the Stark brothers said, ‘Delicious!’” Lane said.

The company bought the rights to the apple and was soon propagating and selling the fruit trees.

“It wasn’t called the Red Delicious at first because it didn’t need a differentiator,” Lane said. “It was simply the Delicious apple until the Golden Delicious came along. Then they said, ‘This has to be called the Red Delicious.’”

The Golden Delicious was another game-changer for Stark Bro’s because of its intense popularity.

“In 1914, we received samples of what became the Golden Delicious apple,” Lane said.

“People recognized immediately this tastes good. It came out of Virginia. The Stark who was in charge at the time was on a train inside of two days and went there, wrote a $50,000 check for the rights to that, and then they built this fence around it so nobody could come in and take any of the scion wood from it.”

Scion wood is a branch from a living tree. It is essential to the development of fruit trees because it’s used for grafting buds from a preferred species onto another tree to help ensure the right kind of fruit develops - a process known as “budding.”

According to Lane, producing a successful fruit tree is a two-year operation. The first step involves planting the root stock of the fruit tree, which determines how tall the tree will grow and other characteristics. The second step takes place the next year when a bud is taken off a piece of scion wood and spliced onto the root stock.

Stark Bro’s generally sells two-year-old trees that have been carefully propagated by employing essentially the same budding processes used for the last 200 years.

More than a century ago, Stark Bro’s developed an association with Luther Burbank, the famed horticulturist, botanist and pioneer in agricultural science for whom the city of Burbank, Calif., was named. Burbank helped develop many new species of fruit and nut trees that became part of the Stark Bro’s offerings.

In the early 1930s, the company became involved in developing legislation that provided patent protection for fruit and nut trees. As a result, the company came to have exclusive propagation rights to many patented varieties of fruit.

The company has weathered many difficulties over the years, including floods, fires and economic downturns.

One of the roughest periods came following the company’s sale in 1994 to Foster & Gallagher Inc., a large mail-order corporation. Seven years later, Foster & Gallagher filed for bankruptcy, and the company was shut down for several months, throwing more than 600 people out of work.

“There was chagrin all over the place,” Kidd recalled. “There wasn’t anybody unaffected in town.”

The company was ultimately sold in a bankruptcy auction on Sept. 11, 2001 - the same day as the terrorist attacks on America.

The new owners, Cameron Brown and Tim Abair, were determined to bring the company back into good financial health. According to Lane, they introduced a number of efficiencies and technological improvements to aid with production and marketing.

Lane said the company now boasts a “world class” website - starkbros.com - that serves as the conduit for 70 percent of the company’s sales.

The company now has a peak full-time seasonal work force of about 240 people and sells more than 150 varieties of fruit, nut and shade trees and other garden plants and equipment.

It ships more than a million trees and plants to consumers and commercial orchardists in every state except Hawaii.

Lane said the company continues to develop new varieties of tasty fruits in its test orchards while trying to find the next big thing.

“It’s a trial-and-error process,” he said. “There are times when we are eating apples that nobody else in the United States is eating - or can eat - which is kind of neat.”

To celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2016, Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards is planning a range of activities.

The company commissioned the publication of a comprehensive history of the business and the six generations of Starks who have run it - “200 Years and Growing: The Story of Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co.”

In addition, local chef/author Karen Mitcham-Stoeckley has written a fruit-only cookbook, “Fabulous Fruits: Recipes for Every Season,” in connection with the bicentennial.

Both books are available on the company’s website, StarkBros.com.

One of the main attractions will be an extended version of April’s Customer Appreciation Days - an annual event that draws shoppers from around the region.

Featuring music, food and fireworks, a jubilee for current and past employees will be Sept. 24 at Pike County Fairgrounds.

Also planned is a Once-Every-Two-Centuries Sale that will offer catalog and retail customers “antique pricing” of $18.16 on many items, according to Ken Lane, chief marketing officer.


Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://www.whig.com

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