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Climate, location help Natchez land orchid grower

NATCHEZ — Most people are probably not great fans of the hot, humid summers of south Mississippi. But it turns out that it is actually a more favorable climate for growing orchids — the superstars of the plant world — than Southern California. South Mississippi is also more centrally located in the U.S. for shipping.

Those were two driving factors behind the relocation of one of the country’s oldest and best-known orchid growers, Stewart Orchids, from its current location 10 miles south of Santa Barbara to a 10-acre site in Natchez.

“We wanted an area more geographically in the center of the country,” said Mary Ann McNerney, who co-owns Stewart Orchids with her husband, Steve McNerney. “We were looking to move somewhere in the middle of the country, and have better distribution of orchids throughout middle America and the Southeast. From California, shipments have to go out across the desert, and that limits the way we can ship plants.”

McNerney is also a native of Natchez, so that was another factor in the selection of Natchez as the new site of Stewart Orchids, which wholesales orchids and has also had a mail order catalog for about 50 years. Stewart Orchids, which is 92 years old, sells orchids to international as well as national customers.

McNerney said her customers in California hate to see them leave because the business has been an institution there for 92 years, so long that the company’s motto is “like an old friend.” But the customers understand the economics of living in Santa Barbara County where land is very expensive.

Although it hasn’t had time to become an old friend yet, Stewart Orchids is being warmly welcomed in Natchez.

“We are really excited they are coming,” said Anne Stowers, president and CEO of Natchez/Adams County Chamber of Commerce. “Agribusiness is an area we really need to grow in.”

Stowers said a number of different organizations were involved in attracting Stewart Orchids to Natchez including the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Administration, the Adams County Board of Supervisors, and the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development.

The Stewart Orchids Web page, www.stewartorchids.com, has a link to “Watch Us Grow” that discusses their move to Natchez.

“Watch Us Grow has been created to give our customers a bird’s-eye view of this momentous event in our company’s history,” the Web page says. “Natchez is the oldest settlement on the Mississippi. In the final days of ‘Big Cotton,’ Natchez was reputed to be home of more millionaires than any other city in the country. Big money meant big houses, and today, the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours of ante-bellum homes draw tourists from all over the country. Choosing adequate words to describe Natchez is not an easy task. Words such as historical, beautiful, mystifying, intriguing, exotic, charming, cosmopolitan and friendly would be some that would immediately come to mind.”

While touting the rich history of its new home, there won’t be anything old fashioned about the Stewart Orchids operation. It will be a completely modern, computerized greenhouse operation that will include a laboratory for cloning plants. Nexus Greenhouse Systems, one of the leading greenhouse companies in the U.S., is building the first phase of Stewart Orchids development which will include 65,000 square feet of growing space under a roof, and another 20,000 square feet under shade cloth.

The greenhouse will be computerized to provide the maximum temperature, moisture and sunlight needed to grow the orchids.

“We won’t have to heat the greenhouses here as much,” McNerney. “Here in California the evening temperatures can get into the 40s and 50s even in the summer. The orchids we specialize in will grow much quicker in Natchez.”

The greenhouse will be naturally ventilated with wind conditions monitored by computer. Vents will be opened and closed depending on the amount of wind. Shade cloths will automatically roll up if more sunlight is needed, and down if less sunlight is needed.

Orchids have been an interest of hobbyists for the past 200 years. But in recent times innovations such as cloning orchids have made them easier and less expensive to propagate. That has resulted in decreased prices and greater availability.

“Interest in orchids has really taken off in the past few years as they have become more available,” she said. “They are a plant that actually a few years ago weren’t broken out for horticultural sales statistics. But recently orchids have been broken out as a separate commodity like soybeans and cotton.”

Ground-breaking ceremonies were held recently at the Natchez site, and greenhouse construction has already begun and is expected to be complete in September. Employment will start out at 15 with plans to increase that to 20 to 25 within the next couple of years.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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