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Ore. nursery, grass business greening up
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CARLTON, Ore. (AP) — After getting trampled in the Great Recession, Oregon farmers who produce nursery crops and grass seed finally are seeing better days.

The two sectors were hit hard by the housing bust, which sapped demand for landscape plantings and lawns.

Nursery farmers report recovering sales, and grass farmers are finally clearing out the inventories that have been around up for years, the Capital Press of Salem reported).

But both sectors have shrunk, and rising fuel costs are squeezing profit margins even as sales come out of what veterans say is the deepest slump ever.

"I've been in the business 45 years," said Bob Terry, owner of a 120-acre nursery near Carlton. "This was the worst I've seen. It was a real trough."

He said about a dozen trucks a day are moving through his loading docks, each taking 5,000 to 10,000 plants to retail outlets in the Midwest and East.

That volume is only half that of the industry's peak years of 2006 and 2007, he said, but it's twice as much as a year ago.

Nursery sales dropped from $988 million in 2007 to $676 million in 2010, according to federal data. State data show sales of $662 million in 2011.

Grass seed sales, meanwhile, plummeted from around $468 million in 2008 to around $228 million in 2010, according to the OSU Extension Service.

Acreage in grass seed also dropped, from 528,000 acres in 2005 to 373,000 acres last year.

"The last few years, we've grown a lot of wheat," said Kevin Doerfler, whose Aumsville operation is one of Oregon's leading grass seed growers. "That seems to have helped the situation. We're trying to keep the wheat acres steady."

In 2008, 4,323 licensed nurseries operated in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Today there are 3,872 as the industry lost hundreds of smaller operations, and several large ones, along with thousands of employees.

Terry operates Fisher Farms out of three locations and says he's cut employee numbers in half, to about 90.

Even with the strong spring movement, nursery and grass seed growers say margins aren't what they once were.

Growers, anxious to move nursery product, are willing to take lower prices, Terry said, and increases in the cost of fuel have raised the cost of production and transportation.

"In 2006, we were getting some decent margins," Terry said. "This year, the dollars aren't there."