Phillip Rucks Nursery Sets A Standard With Innovation

Phillip Rucks Nursery Sets A Standard With Innovation

A Standard of Innovation

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Hurricanes and disease brought sweeping and devastating change to Florida’s citrus nursery industry. In 2000, there were 70 nurseries in the state, and today there are only 30.

When the state ordered the destruction of 62% of nursery stock during the effort to eradicate canker, many nurserymen got out of the business. Those who rebuilt had to comply with mandates to grow citrus trees in enclosed structures to slow the spread of greening. People who did stay in the game had to innovate, and Phillip Rucks’ nursery exemplifies that change.

Rolling With The Tide

Rucks Nursery, located just outside of Frostproof, employs a Dutch rolling bench system, which has been in use in the foliage industry for years, but never has been tried in citrus. When Rucks announced he planned to try it in his new citrus greenhouse, some folks thought he was crazy.

“When I considered applying a rolling bench system to citrus, it was a bit of a risk, and I had some friends tell me it was too far out of an idea,” says Rucks. “But I was convinced it would work.”

Long-time nurseryman Cliff Gaddis was skeptical at first, but when Rucks showed him a few ornamental greenhouses using the system, Gaddis became a believer and joined the Rucks Nursery team. Another key manager is Abraham Boyzo, who has been with Rucks since 1998 when he struck out on his own in the nursery business, after years of working with several large citrus growers across the state.

“Cliff and I visited a couple of operations with the rolling bench setup, and by the time we were driving back home, he couldn’t wait to help me get this thing started,” says Rucks. “Once you see it at work, you get it.”

Rucks had established a container nursery on his dad’s property in 2000 and had built inventory up to 600,000 trees before the new regulations came along and forced the construction of his new nursery structure on the site, which was completed in early 2007. Those 600,000 trees helped serve as bank collateral to finance the 64-house, 210,125 square-foot greenhouse with a capacity to produce 1.1 million trees annually. Rucks says it is probably the largest citrus greenhouse of its kind in the world.

Model Of Efficiency

“When we decided to build the new nursery, I wanted to build something that was as efficient as possible,” says Rucks. “The rolling bench system helps accomplish this. By using the system, we get 30% more plants per square foot, and with the controlled environment of the greenhouse, we can get trees out 60 days faster than the way we did it before.”

According to Rucks, the biggest benefit of the system is cutting labor requirements in half. “Labor is our biggest cost in producing nursery trees,” he says. “Virtually everything we do is hand-labor dependent. In our old container nursery, one person could take care of 20,000 trees per year. With this rolling bench system, one person can take care of about 40,000 trees per year.”

Budwood Ace In The Hole

Despite all the misfortune that struck Florida’s citrus nursery growers in the early-to-mid 2000s, Phillip Rucks had one turn of good luck that enabled him to get his new nursery up and running more quickly than others.

“Probably one of the smartest or luckiest things I ever did was to build a budwood house on our property in 2002 because I was losing my outdoor budwood trees to tristeza,” he says. “These trees were saved because they were enclosed, while many other budwood sources were destroyed during canker eradication. Those same trees help us create an additional screened budwood-increase house to help supply the nursery.”

Rucks says the loss of mother trees was probably the biggest setback resulting from canker eradication. Nearly 8,000 budwood trees were lost to eradication. The mother trees planted after the destruction will take five to six years before they can be of benefit to the industry. Currently, Rucks’ budwood source is the largest in the state.

“I planted those 70 mother trees in a greenhouse in 2002 and now they have matured and enabled me to support our new nursery greenhouse’s capacity of 1.1 million trees.”

Comfort Is Key

Keeping workers comfortable is another key innovation employed by Rucks at his new nursery. Between the greenhouse structures is a 19,200 square-foot metal building called the “head house.” This is where the hand labor takes place in a comfortable 75°F rather than the 100°F maintained in the greenhouses.

“We roll the benches into the head house via tunnels, and all the staking, budding, tying, and other work is done there in a comfortable environment for the workers.”

Dream Team

In April, the first trees produced in the new nursery were delivered to growers. Rucks says it was a proud moment and fulfillment of a dream for him and his team of dedicated employees.

“I’ve been in the nursery business for 25 years and this is the best team I’ve ever seen assembled,” he says. “I put a lot of thought in the design of this nursery. I’ve been involved with the construction of two large nurseries, and each time, I learned a lesson of how to do things a little better. I am proud to see those lessons put to work in this new nursery facility with a great team of people.

Although the industry has faced some challenges, I believe in the long-term resilience of citrus nurserymen and growers in Florida.”