Forests Ontario

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Somerville Seedlings: The Business of Growing Trees

Posted: January 23, 2019

Brent Forbes, Propagation Manager of Somerville Seedlings

Somerville Seedlings is the biggest seedling-source for the 50 Million Tree Program (50 MTP). The private business, located in Everett, Ontario, provides a whopping 1.5 million seedlings per year for the program – a tall order to fill for Brent Forbes, the Propagation Manager who oversees it.

“I manage both trees and humans,” says Forbes. Under him work five technicians in addition to a group of seasonal workers that fluctuates in number, growing to 35 people for the spring lift, when the nursery digs up the seedlings for planting. “A lot of my day is spent doing what amounts to quality control. I check the nursery, check to see how the crops are growing, check for weeds, just checking. We have a yearly ship target of 2.5 to 3 million trees, and that means having about 23 million trees in the ground at any given time.”

In addition to growing seedlings for the 50 MTP, Somerville Seedlings stores seeds for the program. “After the Ontario Tree Seed Facility in Angus closed, we invested in building our own storage freezer, big enough for both our own seed and for Forests Ontario’s 50 MTP seed,” Forbes explains.

When the Government of Ontario cancelled funding for the 50 MTP in April of 2019, Forbes was floored. “Needless to say, it was a big shock to us,” he said. “What some people don’t realize is the amount of time we spend planning in the winter months. We go into the springtime with a very intricate plan, a large part of which is meeting our quotas for the 50 MTP. And then this year, it was like everything just got turned on its head.”

Field of seedlings at Somerville.

Concerned citizens flooded Somerville Seedlings with phone calls. The callers wanted to know how they could help. After an article came out in which Ferguson Tree Nursery warned it could be forced to bulldoze its 50 MTP seedlings, callers asked whether they could adopt a tree.

In June Ottawa stepped in to help fund the tree planting program. Co-owner and company president Fred Somerville said he was “ecstatic” when he heard the news.

Somerville Seedlings opened in 1950, but its roots go back about 150 years. “My dad’s grandfather started off in the lumber business,” says Somerville. They then slowly began acquiring land. Then, in the 1950s, they picked up a new gig – selling Christmas trees.

“The Christmas tree business grew, and then we started incorporating landscape trees in the 1970s and 80s. Then, in the 90s, came the provincial nursery system closure. We saw an opportunity and acquired some of the laid off employees. For the last 20 years we’ve been the biggest bare root seed and seedling grower in all of Ontario.”

As for the future, Somerville said he’d like the family business to take on a stewardship role. “You know, in my opinion, we can’t do anything better right now than produce trees,” Somerville explained. “I am satisfied that we are doing something important for the province’s environment. Carbon sequestration comes part and parcel with trees.”