By Vicky Boyd
Lodi nurseryman Kelton Fleming received the Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award at the recent California Farm Bureau Federation's Annual Meeting in Monterey, much to his surprise.
"I don't think I'm special by any means," said Fleming, who owns the wholesale nursery, Duck Creek of California, with other family members. "I'm just trying to plug along and do my best."
As the top honoree, he received a $4,000 cash prize sponsored by Chevrolet, Farm Credit and Rabobank, as well as 250 hours' use of a Kubota tractor, furnished by Kubota Tractor Corp.
Fleming will now represent California at the American Farm Bureau's Annual Convention, Jan. 6-11, 2017, in Phoenix. Accompanying him will be his parents, his in-laws and his wife, San Joaquin Farm Bureau program director Rachael Fleming.
Kelton Fleming decided to apply for the award in October after reading about it in a weekly YF&R email update. The multi-page application asked several questions about his operation as well as leadership activities. About a week after submitting the document, he was interviewed over the phone as part of the process.
The application for AFBF, which Fleming submitted in mid-December, was more in depth and focused. He sought the guidance of Lindsay Liebig, CFBF coordinator of YF&R, who advised him how to make the submission less commodity focused so the judges could be more objective.
Both exercises prompted Fleming to reflect on subjects he hadn't given much thought to. "You don't really think about all of the things you've done in the past until someone asks you to start telling them about it," he said. Duck Creek sells wholesale plants, shrubs and trees for higher-end commercial and residential projects. With a semi-truck and a couple of smaller, bobtail trucks, the nursery ships plants as far south as Arizona and Southern California and as far north as Canada and Idaho. Among the operation's largest markets are Reno, Tahoe, the Big Bear area and the Los Angeles basin.
Green fences are one of Duck Creek's specialties. In Beverly Hills, for example, homeowners are restricted to fences no taller than 8 feet, which doesn't prevent tour bus riders from spying into the back yard. By planting trees that can grow 18 to 20 feet tall inside the fence, the homeowner creates a living green wall that helps block prying eyes.
When the YF&R application asked Fleming to outline his production challenges, he wrote about labor and the drought.
"Finding good people – that's my biggest challenge, and keeping a work force," he said. "I still haven't found an answer to that."
California's prolonged drought, coupled with the economic downturn that began in 2008, created a double-whammy for Duck Creek.
"That really hurt us," said the 32-year-old Fleming. "We've had to change where our market is so we're not looking at so much at the tract homes but more the high-end residences. It's also pushed us to grow more drought-tolerant plants, and my native plant market has grown because of that. So, there's less plant material I bring down from Oregon."
Fleming was referring to Fleming Nursery Sales, another family-owned nursery operation in Oregon that provides him with various plant materials. In return, he supplies them with selected stock.
Before the economic downturn, Duck Creek had nearly 30 acres of nursery stock plus another 10 to 12 acres in corn, pumpkins and other production. The family was forced to sell that property and relocate to their current location on 17 acres near Lodi.
"The number of plants are about one-third of what they once were," he said. "I'm slowly building it back up. And it's a lot harder to get big plants if no one's been planting for four or five years." Fleming, who's been involved with YF&R for nearly six years, also is a member of the SJFB Rural Health and Safety Committee. In that role, he provides input into programs and assists with training opportunities for fellow Farm Bureau members.