by Aliya Hall
When Ed Blatter’s parents asked him and his wife, Deby Barnhart, if they were interested in opening a nursery on their farmland in the 1980s, Deby said they had “no background whatsoever in farming or gardening.”
What started as a small retail stand called The Patio that sold geraniums, fuchsia hanging baskets and cherry tomatoes has grown into the Cornell Farm Nursery and Café, which carries 800 varieties of annuals and perennials. The Portland-based nursery is home to 13 greenhouses and has expanded over the years to include gifts and merchandizing as well as a full café.
The property started as Cornell Jersey Dairy in 1921 with Wilhelm Blatter. The Cornell name was chosen to commemorate his attendance at Cornell Agricultural College (now Cornell University). The dairy was moved in 1926 to where it currently operates, and the property converted to a goat dairy. Ted Blatter, Ed’s father, took over the family business in 1945, and he changed the direction of the enterprise in the mid 1950s to grow strawberries and wholesale trees and shrubs.
Meanwhile, Ed received a degree in journalism and Deby studied urban and regional government city management. Eventually the two started a cultural affairs magazine, but after the recession hit five years into owning it and they closed down, Blatter invited them to build a nursery.
“We had no idea what that would mean or be about, but it seemed like a marvelous thing to do with no deadline,” Deby said. “For me, starting from scratch, not knowing anything, I just took the ‘Sunset Western Garden Book’ and anyone that came in with a question, I looked it up.”
Deby said they wanted their nursery to feel like customers were on their own patio, and even though the nursery has grown, they have kept the elements that elicit a feeling of home. The residence that used to be where Blatter lived was renovated to become the nursery’s café four years ago. The house is the centerpiece of the property and the idea for a café came about when guests asked about refreshments.
“We thought, ‘We could do that,’” Deby said. “It started with coffee and pastries but has branched out through our success to a breakfast/lunch place.” The nursery is also offering a cocktail hour that includes tapas Thursdays through Saturdays from 4 – 7 p.m.
Along with plants, the nursery gradually grew to include fertilizers, mulches, compost and their own potting soil. From there they moved into gift items, like gardening books and décor, as well as a focus on Christmas items. At one point, they showcased 15 different Christmas tree designs, but they have since cut back to two trees that highlight quality ornaments made with natural materials.
Property development is one of the big changes Cornell Farm and Nursery has gone through over the years, as they added 12 more greenhouses and reconstructed platforms for soil out of steel instead of wood. Six years ago, they also struck a deal with their neighbors that resulted with the nursery having terraces built for them to hold nursery stock.
As the nursery facilities expanded, so did the services Cornell Farm and Nursery offered. Around three years ago they implemented landscape services that include garden coaching and planting. In winter, the nursery also offers Christmas tree delivery services. There is an education center that hosts workshops and classes, although with COVID-19, Deby is debating whether to hold in-person classes again. To accommodate, they are posting more how-to videos on their website, such as how to summer prune fruit trees.
The pandemic has also added more changes and challenges to how the nursery operates. Deby said they had to create different access points and re-hire employees during peak season after some had left for fear of contracting the virus from customers.
“It was stressful for everyone,” she said, adding that communication between her employees was another challenge they contended with to make sure everyone was up to date.
Beyond COVID-19, changes in clientele has been another challenge the nursery has had to work with. In adding the café, Cornell Farm and Nursery now sees a wider range of gardening expertise. “It’s interesting the different level of commitment,” Deby said. Often those customers will come back to the nursery after accidentally killing their plants, and Deby said they try their best to help people be successful.
Deby had one customer who came back and blamed the nursery for her plant dying, but after working with the customer on growing tips, she began to pick up on more gardening techniques.
“I get the most pleasure out of helping someone who doesn’t know anything,” Deby said. “There’s so many successful stories like that where we help people get started.”
Family has also continued to play a role in Cornell Farm and Nursery. Deby’s daughter Berkeley runs the gift and indoor pottery department; her son, Zoe, created and manages the business’s website, social media, marketing and IT and works on business development with his father Ed; and their youngest daughter Rannan works as their online order coordinator and catalog description specialist.
Going forward, the nursery is building a larger greenhouse that will replace two of the smaller greenhouses they have on the property. The goal is to give trucks more access to the back part of the property to deliver plants, and help unclog the traffic in their driveway with customers and trucks for the café.
Deby has been told that Cornell Farm and Nursery is a sanctuary for her customers, and that has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the nursery.
“It’s really never been about the money to me. It’s more about the pleasure and really the therapy it provides for everyone, to be able to eat or enjoy the beauty of nature,” she said. “The other aspect of it is learning the whole plant world and all the new things coming out. It’s endless and it’s always interesting.”