JARS v47n1 - Briggs: The Largest Rhody Grower in the World

Briggs: The Largest Rhody Grower in the World
Bob Minnich
Puyallup, Washington

How do you become the world's largest producer of rhododendrons? It wasn't by following convention or complacency. You won't be surprised that it took a progressive outlook, innovation and more than a little daring-do.
From a modest, local 15-acre fruit tree nursery established in 1912, the Briggs enterprise has grown to 160 acres at the original site in Olympia, Wash.: 60 acres of container stock, 25 acres of liners, 35 acres of field product and more than 400 polyethylene houses. A new facility opened in 1990 in Grays Harbor County, providing Briggs with additional acreage to expand their growing operation. From 125 to 225 employees work at the nursery, depending on the season, and the product of their labors are shipped to 38 states and 18 foreign countries.

Briggs Nursery, Olympia, Washington
Briggs Nursery, Olympia, Washington.
Photo courtesy of Briggs Nursery

Briggs grows a full line of broadleaf evergreens, conifers, deciduous shrubs, small trees and some fruits. Last year, several million choice ornamental plants got their start at Briggs Nursery. Rhododendrons are a major specialty!

Briggs Nursery growing field
Rhododendrons and Briggs Nursery headquarters.
Photo courtesy of Briggs Nursery

Bruce Briggs, after service in the medical corps during World War II, returned again to the nursery to help his father, Orson, the firm's founder, and his older brother Harold in the business. Rhododendrons were his favorite flowers, and Bruce, through his membership in numerous associations and close reading of industry literature, kept current on the latest developments.
Bruce first became interested in micropropagation techniques by following the work being done in the orchid industry and by Dr. F.C. Steward on single cell production of vegetables. In the late 1960s, Washington State University recruited Dr. Wilbur Anderson, from a program at the University of California at Riverside, to continue research and development of cold weather vegetable crops at its Experiment Station in Mount Vernon, Wash. Bruce cooperated with Dr. Anderson to research the possibility of micro-propagating woody plants. Funding for this research was achieved through the American Rhododendron Society and other industry and private contributors. By using their "free" weekends and the nursery's kitchen as a laboratory, Dr. Anderson, Bruce and fellow nurserymen Les Clay and Bob Hart began research on micropropagation. The trick would be to develop the ideal growth media, an agar "soup" of inorganic salts, vitamins and hormones, to cause the tiny shoots to multiply and grow. With some anticipated conclusions and a process of trial and error, the secrets were unlocked. By 1985, the process was sufficiently proven to justify the construction of a modern tissue culture laboratory of over 5,000 square feet on the nursery. Using this facility, Briggs Nursery can now grow and introduce several million plants a year using micropropagation techniques.
Another example of the nursery's progressive spirit is in the CIPS (Closed Insulated Pallet System) project developed cooperatively with Dr. James Green of Oregon State University. "The key to the whole system is that it is plant driven," says Dr. James Robbins, Briggs' Research/Education Manager and one of the principal investigators. The plants utilize water and fertilizer as needed without someone determining when this is necessary. "Except for checking for pests on the stems - from the fertilizer and water standpoint, we could leave them for months," he said.
Initial results show up to 80 percent reduction in water usage compared with the commonly used overhead delivery system. And the pallet system holds promise as at least a partial solution to the industry dilemma of possible fertilizer and pesticide contamination of groundwater, as well as its potential to save space and labor time.
Then, there is the attitude towards those that make it all work - The Team! At Briggs they say they don't grow just plants, but employees as well. The "results based management" concept is not new in other industries, but Briggs was one of the first nurseries to employ this method of business. Employee input is actively sought. When possible, students from the local high schools and colleges are given a chance for employment, including those in special education programs. Employees are encouraged to participate in management training programs and self improvement classes. And should you visit during the summer months, you would find that an internship program draws college horticultural students from around the world to be exposed to the methods of an industry leader.
With the spirit of sharing this experience, the Briggs Team has invited those attending the ARS Annual Convention in Tacoma to tour their facility and share thoughts with its members.

Bob Minnich is a member of the Tacoma Chapter and a past contributor to the Journal.