By Tacy Callies
Before they were married, Nate and Anna Jameson vowed they would one day farm for themselves. They met while attending the University of Florida. Nate graduated with a Bachelor of Science in ag operations management, while Anna earned her degree in animal science. After graduation, Anna worked for Lykes Meat Group and Nate for Ben Hill Griffin Inc. Nate’s experience also includes managing the bareroot citrus nursery at Holmberg Farms and working for Plants of Ruskin, a greenhouse vegetable operation.
In 1998, the couple took the first step to make their dream of starting their own business come true. They began Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery as a backyard greenhouse behind their home in Balm, Florida.
Their sons, Nathan and William, were just babies at the time. “After working our day jobs, we’d put the kids to bed, strap on the baby monitor and go take care of trees in the greenhouse with lights to see the crop,” recalls Anna.
“Starting the nursery was a way for me to pursue my love of citrus, and we didn’t need a lot of acres or money to start,” says Nate.
It wasn’t long before citrus diseases and hurricanes changed the rules for citrus nursery production in Florida, requiring screened-in facilities and stricter regulations. In 2006, the Jamesons relocated their business to Lake Panasoffkee, away from citrus diseases. They purchased 50 acres of land that has been in Anna’s mother’s family for more than 100 years.
While Brite Leaf was founded as a commercial citrus nursery and continues to supply growers with trees, the operation has expanded over the years to include sales to homeowners and retail garden centers. In 2019, a separate rooted-cuttings facility was added to accommodate the growing retail market.
Anna manages the administrative side of the company, handling contracts, bills and production planning for orders. Nate focuses on managing the commercial citrus nursery facility and the people. He makes production decisions, oversees planting and irrigation, and helps to manage equipment and electronics. Son Nathan also has production responsibilities while managing the rooted-cuttings facility and staff. Anna’s mother, Susan, handles inventory.
“This nursery runs on girl power. It’s 90% women who work here,” says Nate.
Brite Leaf currently has 22 employees and is now utilizing some H-2A workers. Nate says it’s too early to tell how or if Florida’s new immigration policy will affect his business.
ENVIRONMENTAL EFFORTS HONORED
The team at Brite Leaf was recognized this year with Florida’s Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award. Presented by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the award spotlights environmentally innovative growers and ranchers committed to protecting and preserving the state’s resources. The nursery is also a recipient of a 2019 Florida Farm Bureau County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship Award.
By transitioning from overhead to drip irrigation, Brite Leaf reduced water use from 24,000 gallons to less than 10,000 gallons per day. The nursery’s high-tech water silo systems automatically filter and balance the pH of irrigation water. The silos store two days’ worth of irrigation water. “So, if a well needs repair, we have time to fix it,” says Nate.
The nursery is using less fertilizer and saving money by converting from slow-release material to making its own blend from dry material. “Through fertigation, we’ve eliminated the labor costs of applying fertilizer,” explains Nate. “And since any liquid can go in the system, we can also apply something like imidacloprid, while avoiding hand labor.”
Brite Leaf uses coconut coir, a sustainable byproduct of the coconut oil industry, as a potting medium due to its sanitation properties and compatibility with the liquid fertigation system.
TRYING NEW THINGS
The use of sustainable pots is another environmentally friendly and innovative practice the nursery employs. Ellepots, paper sleeves that eliminate the use of conventional plastic pots, have been used by ornamental plant nurseries for years. However, in 2020, Brite Leaf was one of the first citrus nurseries in the country (and the first in Florida) to use 100-millimeter Ellepots for commercial citrus trees.
The nursery has realized several advantages by switching from plastic to paper pots for commercial trees. Chief among the benefits is better, more fully developed root systems because plants don’t become root-bound. The cost of the paper pot is about one-third of the cost of plastic pots. Because the Ellepots are made of biodegradable paper, no plastic is going into landfills. And with no plastic pot to remove, growers can more easily plant trees in the field. The change to paper pots has allowed the nursery to manage rising supply costs in addition to being more environmentally friendly.
Mark Beck, grower with Beck Bros. Citrus and long-time Brite Leaf customer, says the Jamesons “do the best job they can to grow a quality citrus tree. They are always trying to grow a better tree with cost in mind. They probably grow the best tree of all our sources and are very hard-working and conscientious.”
The Jamesons’ continuing efforts to reduce costs while growing better trees led them to another production innovation. While visiting the International Plant Marketing Show in Germany, they found a staking solution they had been seeking — small black clips that hold stakes to trees and automatically pop off once the trees grow large enough to not need the stakes. The clips eliminate the problem of tape or staples traditionally used in staking that grow into trees and girdle them. Brite Leaf is the first citrus nursery to use the clips.
“Nate and Anna are progressive in thought, not confined by ‘the box,’” says Fred Gmitter, a University of Florida (UF) citrus breeder who has worked closely with the couple on research trials.
FLORIDA CITRUS AMBASSADOR
While it may be unusual for a Florida nursery grower to travel to a plant show in Germany, it’s par for the course for Nate. His quest for knowledge on all aspects of citrus growing has led him around the world. Much of his international travel has been in conjunction with his role as president of the International Society of Citrus Nurserymen, which consists of several hundred members from approximately 15 countries. Nate has given a presentation to a citrus association in Australia and has taken five trips to China as a consultant for a nursery construction project. He has taken fact-finding trips to Brazil’s citrus industry and has visited numerous other citrus-production regions throughout the world.
“Nate has served on many industry committees within Florida, but he also is a champion of learning through engagement with nurseries and growers outside of Florida,” says Gmitter. “With Anna’s kind support and encouragement, Nate indeed has been an international ambassador for Florida citrus and nurseries, through his active participation in the International Society of Citrus Nurserymen. He is one of the very few from Florida citrus that I have seen at national and international meetings, always there with eyes, ears and mind open, to learn what others are doing, to ever improve the products from their nursery and the outcomes for Florida citrus. He is a positive contributor to all discussions, sharing what he knows.”
In 2022, Nate and fellow U.S. nurserymen founded the National Citrus Nursery Association, consisting of members from all citrus-producing states. Nate currently serves as the group’s president. The association’s goals are to:
- Improve interstate shipping protocols for citrus plants
- Lobby for an insurance program for nursery structures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency
- Lobby for increased funding for citrus nursery research
“The group was formed to have a seat at the table because citrus nurseries are over-governed. They are inspected every 30 days by the Florida Department of Agriculture, and the USDA rules are challenging,” says Nate.
RELIABLE RESEARCH PARTNER
A love of learning makes Brite Leaf a natural partner to assist with research conducted by the USDA and UF. The nursery donates time, space and materials for experimental trials of new varieties and rootstocks.
“Brite Leaf Nursery has always been willing to step up to the plate to assist the breeding program,” says Gmitter. “The concept of giving seems to be central to their core principles. One of the virtues of Nate and Anna is their ability to remain calm, pay attention to the close details, and provide exactly the trees we need. They know that our research is important for the industry and that the quality of the research is dependent on the plantings having the materials properly identified. They have done such work for us on more than one occasion, which speaks volumes about their dedication to and support of research on behalf of the industry.”
In addition to working with researchers, Brite Leaf is participating in the Program for Expedited Plant Propagation to ramp up production of varieties that have shown tolerance to HLB, including Donaldson, Carney, Roble and Parson Brown.
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