Ronnie Sexton jokes that he’s been in the rose business since he was a baby. That’s not far from the truth.
Back then, the Sexton family rose business was still in its infancy, just like Ronnie. His parents, now deceased, had started growing roses and vegetables in 1946 and selling the roses, bare-root, through his grandparents’ mail-order business.
Over the years, the operation evolved and expanded into the largest solely owned rose nursery in Tyler — once the self-proclaimed capital of the nation’s rose industry — and it’s still growing. In fact, the company’s sales volume has increased by 50 percent over the last 15 years.
Today, as president of the family-owned Sexton Nurseries, Ronnie oversees the production, processing and marketing of 1.5 million wrapped dormant rose bushes and 600,000 container roses annually. He manages the company’s relations with nearly a dozen nursery retailers throughout the country, and he’s always looking years ahead for new developments that will keep the company on the forefront of the wholesale rose industry.
“We are pretty versatile. We have the growing and marketing background to do whatever we need to do to stay ahead of the competition,” Ronnie says.
An Ever-Changing Business
In an industry that has changed dramatically in his lifetime, change has been a key to Sexton Nurseries’ success.
“Years ago, we grew our own crops. We’d call on customers, then we’d go home and get on the tractor and go to work,” Ronnie says. All that changed in the 1980s, he explains, when the weather became “too sporadic” and was no longer conducive to growing a two-year crop.
To continue to flourish, the Sextons started contracting with growers in Arizona and California to produce their rose stock for them. The move, begun more than 30 years ago, allowed them to reduce field labor and increase production without additional land. It also allowed them to concentrate on processing and marketing.
Now, virtually all of their roses are grown in Arizona and California. The plants are transported to Tyler, beginning in November and continuing through the winter. The roses are then hardened in cold storage to be sold as dormant bushes, or potted and held in the company’s 700,000 square feet of heated greenhouses until they are ready for shipping.
Today, the company markets its roses primarily through national retail and wholesale chains, including three of the largest nursery retailers in the United States. This approach has allowed Sexton Nurseries to nurture relationships with its clients, provide better customer service and cultivate a reputation as the rose specialist.
The Hybrid That’s a Knock Out
Like betting on a racehorse, the management at Sexton Nurseries adds promising new rose varieties to their product line every year, hoping their gamble will pay off. In 2000, when the new cherry-colored Knock Out hybrid rose was released to the public, Sexton Nurseries immediately recognized a winner. Praised for its drought tolerance, disease resistance, cold hardiness, low maintenance requirements, prolific blooms and self-pruning ability, the Knock Out shrub rose was named an All-American Rose Selections winner in 2000. Sales took off immediately, with 250,000 Knock Out bushes sold the first year. Sexton Nurseries immediately signed up to become a Knock Out grower, and today the company is one of the largest wholesale distributors of the Knock Out, which is the most widely sold rose in North America. “It has taken the flower world by storm,” Ronnie Sexton comments. “It’s the only patented rose we’ve seen that’s been this successful.” Over the past decade, six more members of the Knock Out family have been introduced in other colors, and Sexton Nurseries distributes all of them. But before you to rush out to purchase one of these roses, be sure you buy from a reputable retailer, Ronnie advises. If it is sold without the olive green Knock Out–branded tag or it’s not in the branded pot, it is likely a “knock off.”
35 of the Best Varieties
Over the years, there has been a big change in the types of roses and varieties that Sexton Nurseries produces. “We used to grow 80 varieties; now we concentrate on 35 of the best-performing varieties,” Ronnie says. This year, the company has 25 patented varieties and 35 nonpatented varieties in its product line, which includes hanging baskets, climber roses, antique varieties, miniatures, Knock Outs and tree roses.
“Quality is what we’re interested in. We want the plant to sell itself,” Ronnie says.
Sexton Nurseries also has remained on the forefront of changes in the way roses are processed and shipped. Today, the company pots 12,000 to 13,000 roses a day.
Instead of shipping bare-root bushes from the post office, like Billy did in the early years, the company now ships container roses upright on stacked racks, which are built by the nursery staff. This keeps the plants from being crushed during transportation and saves the stores from having to move individual pots. In a typical week during winter and spring, 65,000 potted roses will leave the nursery for destinations all over the United States and Puerto Rico.
Even with contract production and mechanized potting operations, Sexton Nurseries still employs approximately 120 people during the November-to-May peak season, including many employees who have worked for the nursery for a number of years. For instance, Lawrence Valdez, the grower and production manager for Sexton Nurseries, joined the company 25 years ago in the cold storage division. The Sexton team now involves a fourth generation, as well — Ronnie’s son-in-law, Brian Barrett, who works in marketing and business operations.
Six Decades With Farm Credit
One important part of the business that has not changed, however, is the company’s source of credit. AgriLand Farm Credit has financed Sexton Nurseries since 1950, when Billy Sexton took out his first loan with the former Tyler Production Credit Association (PCA), now known as AgriLand. Over the years, PCA stood behind Billy as he developed the nursery. “In this business, you have to have a good, reliable lender,” he told another Farm Credit publication, PCA Today, in 1994. “The people at PCA understand the problems in agribusiness more than a bank that deals with car dealerships and oil and gas businesses.”
The Sexton family has continued the relationship with AgriLand for many of the same reasons. “There are so many companies out there that are not financially secure. It’s critical that we stand behind the deals we make, and thanks to AgriLand we can do that — that’s a large part of our reputation,” Ronnie says.
Looking toward the future, he is optimistic that the company’s versatility and willingness to change will continue to fuel Sexton Nurseries’ success. “We do what we have to do. We’ve done tropicals and hibiscus — we do whatever it takes to be successful,” he says. The bottom line, he stresses, is clear: “In this business, you have to change in a hurry to make things work.”
For more information, visit www.sextonnurseries.com.
Tips for Rose Growers
Although roses are generally considered easy to grow, it pays to follow these tips:
- Plant rose bushes in a location where they will receive at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.
- Don’t water too heavily. One inch of water per day is usually sufficient, depending on locale and variety.
- Fertilize with a 5-10-5 or similar analysis fertilizer three times a year — prior to bud break, during the first flowering period and two months before the first frost.
- Be careful with sprays and chemicals. Identify a problem immediately, and then treat the plant.
- Mulch soil to conserve moisture, control weeds and modify soil temperature.
- Prune every winter, right after the first frost, to control size and shape. Cut and remove one-third of the length of each branch, so that nutrients go to the root and stalk.
- Be prevention-minded. Create healthy conditions for the plant to prevent disease and pest problems from developing.