Rural businesses have faced some challenging times since the millennium.
And while the obvious countryside enterprise – farming – is usually the one that steals the headlines, there are plenty of others that have been hit by the likes of foot- and-mouth and dire weather.
Often family-run, the businesses rarely shout about their successes, but this year one of them marks a landmark: 25 years as a plant nursery.
Phil Cook, who started Oaktrees Nurseries in Bolton by Bowland with his dad Michael, who died last year, says that the secret of their success is simple: growing in the area, for the area.
“We still grow in what I would call an old-fashioned way,” says Phil. “The plants are grown cool, not forced under heat.”
This simplicity masks a lot of hard work and some very difficult times, however. The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 had a serious impact on the nursery at a peak time of year for the business.
“There was a cull going on in Bowland around May, a really busy time for us, and it really hit us hard but we carried on,” says Phil, who describes the ideal partnership he had with his dad. “I was always the front-of-house man dealing with customers and my dad grew the plants,” says Phil, who was born and brought up near Whalley.
He laughs as he says that now he does both, but with plenty of help from the extended family, including his uncle, son Liam and his girlfriend Abi Smith, both aged 17, and, of course, his mum, Helen. “Mum likes to give her view on how the nursery should look, and she also likes to help out with potting up,” says Phil. “It really is a family concern.”
The Settle Road business also faced a challenge – albeit one of a more positive nature – last year when the excellent summer weather saw sales soar. “We’d sold out of everything by the end of June,” says Phil. “This year I’ve made sure that we’ve planted more stock.”
Oaktrees Nurseries began life in a field and has grown slowly over the years, adding a greenhouse or poly-tunnel as necessary. “We’ve never been in debt,” says Phil, “We grew with our customers, and 80 per cent of them come back to us year after year.”
The nursery is known for its hanging baskets, selling 800 of them each year across three counties, and also stocks a huge range of fuchsias – 40 varieties in total. But while this and the bedding plants have served the
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business well, Phil is aware of the need to give the customers what they want. “I suppose I’m putting my stamp on the place and introducing shrubs and perennials, which is what our customers want,” says Phil.
His advice to other people who want a rural business that will endure is straight forward: “You’ve got to have a passion,” he says. “Rural business is not about making mega-bucks, it’s a lifestyle choice. I’m living and working in one of the most beautiful parts of England; what more could I want?
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into this place and it was hard starting it up from scratch and getting people through the gate. But the business is built on producing quality plants, that’s what we do, and it’s my life.”