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Award-winning business grows with family tree

Not only is his life fulfilling, but his accomplishments have earned him a national award.

Last week, Dearing's own Don McCorkle was named Grower of The Year by Nursery Management and Production magazine.

"It's a great honor indeed, there's no question about it," Mr. McCorkle said, adding that the award isn't a contest to enter or something that can be applied for. "I never even fathomed that I would win."

Each year, a panel of approximately 15 previous winners selects the next winner. Mr. McCorkle didn't know of any requirements or standards for the award.

"The only other qualification is to just be crazy enough to be in this business," he quipped.

But he doesn't feel the award is his alone. Although Mr. McCorkle serves as chairman of the board of McCorkle Nurseries in Dearing, he runs the business alongside his brother, Jack, and their three children -- Chris and Skeeter McCorkle and Beverly McCorkle-Welch.

"My family was more deserving of that award than I was. We support each other," he said, adding that Skeeter is CEO, Chris is production chief and Beverly is corporate officer/assistant to CEO. "It's real fulfilling to be able to work with your children, and, to be able to give them the business."

Mr. McCorkle solemnly and proudly tells how he and his brother have passed the business to their children "so when death comes, it just passes on with no interruptions." But his practical mood is short lived.

"So, we've told them as long as they keep our salary paid, we'd stay and work for them," he said with a laugh.

Mr. McCorkle's parents started the business in the early 1940s as a small growing operation in Dearing, and a retail and landscape operation in Augusta. When Don McCorkle was a senior in high school, his father developed spinal meningitis.

"And I saw right then and there that if the business was going to survive, that someone was going to have to jump in there, and I chose to do that," Mr. McCorkle said. "And I've been a part of this thing now for over 50 years."

And he's been active in every aspect of the business. When the family sold the retail portion of the business and was transitioning to the exclusively growing/wholesale operation, Don McCorkle kept working the landscape business for 20 years longer to keep up a steady cash flow.

"I guess I've had experience in all facets of this industry --- as a grower, retailer, landscaper and rewholesale department head," he said.

These days, McCorkle Nurseries is one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the Southeast. It encompasses more than 840 acres, with 500 developed acres growing container plants. Employees working in 72 propagation houses prepared 5 million cuttings last year from which the nursery stock is maintained.

McCorkle's ships to garden centers, retailers, landscapers, rewholesalers, large mass merchandisers and big box stores all over the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States.

McCorkles has its own line of plants called Gardeners Confidence which includes mini Razzle Dazzle crepe myrtles, mini Royal Majestics hydrangeas, Heaven Scent gardenias, Hot Lips trumpet vines and BNA azaleas.

"It's quite fulfilling to be a part of a family business," Mr. McCorkle said. "I'm a part of the soil, and a hybrid farmer. But, the biggest reward for me is to see our business grow from a backyard-type of operation to the fairly large corporation that we are today. And it's so fulfilling that my children have decided to go into the business with me."

When they began, Mr. McCorkle remembers the plants had to be grown in the ground, so they could be harvested only twice a year. Today, plants are grown in containers, making them portable at any time. But, they still have to deal with extreme weather conditions, Mr. McCorkle said.

"It's the wonderful thing about nature and growing. There's new problems, but there's new solutions. It keeps you on your toes all the time. You don't just do things the way you did them yesterday. You get out and try new stuff."

The McCorkle's look out for others in their industry, too, in a roundabout way. Approximately 10-12 years ago, they donated property and facilities for a research center, which is located on their nursery. Mr. McCorkle said the University of Georgia's Extension Department operates the research center, which is called Center for Applied Nursery Research (CANR). Mr. McCorkle said the UGA professors bring their students to the nursery in Dearing to run tests and the professors themselves conduct research.

"It's for the industry. It's not for us," he said. "We just did this so the industry in Georgia would have a better situation in research."

He also is on the Board of Trustees for the Horticultural Research Institute, a national organization that funds research at different universities across the nation. "This has been one of the things that I enjoy as much as anything in this industry, is being a part of the cutting edge of research," Mr. McCorkle said.

"Because without research, our industry would dry up. You've just got to stay abreast of how we can control different pathogens and insects. It's a challenge, but it's been a fulfilling thing for me. I enjoy that part of our industry."

Web posted on Thursday, September 09, 2010

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