The Comox Valley Farmers’ Institute is proud to profile Comox Valley
farmers and showcase the value of local agriculture. This is the
second in a series of such profiles.
Eleven years ago, when the Willems family began clearing six heavily
treed acres on Headquarters Road, the work was hard, the money was
scarce and the days stretched from dawn to dusk.
Despite the challenges, the Willems’ labour of love quickly evolved
into Outback Nursery, today one of Comox Valley’s leading growers of
plants, shrubs and trees. Though the family now has customers across
Vancouver Island and as far away as Saskatoon, it wasn’t always that
“We were a big secret for a long time,” says Michelle Willems, who
married into the family business in 2009. “But all of a sudden people
are coming in because their friend or neighbour told them about us.
We’ve developed a bit of a reputation for our knowledgeable staff and
our unique selection of plants.”
Though no one will hazard a guess at exactly how many species Outback
Nursery grows, they boast more than 50 varieties of Japanese maple
alone, and just as many grafted conifers.
Grafted trees, especially Japanese maples, have become Outback
Nursery’s specialty. Roger Willems, his sister Annette and her son
Cody have all become adept at the delicate art of grafting, fusing the
shoot of one plant to a hardy rootstock in order to instill more
desirable qualities in the resulting plant.
“It’s a bit like science fiction,” says Michelle.
Quantity of plants and quality of techniques notwithstanding, a key
ingredient of the family’s success, says Michelle, has been their
continual re-investment of profits. One of their largest and most
recent investments, an industrial potting machine imported from
Holland, has enabled the family to plant 800 one-gallon pots per hour
on its slowest setting.
“It’s a vast improvement from the days when Dad and I potted by hand,”
says Annette. “I think this was my brother’s best idea yet!”
Strip away the modern technology and botanical “science fiction,”
however, and you’re left with a hardworking family that simply loves
to work the land.
“We’re farmers,” says Michelle. “We’re not growing potatoes or corn,
but we’re working in dirt to grow things bigger and better. At the end
of the day, we’ve created jobs for ourselves doing something we love.”
“Like many farming operations, we’re all about family,” adds Roger.
“We owe everything to our parents. It was their hard work that
supported us and it was their land on which we started the nursery.
Without them we’d be nothing.
“We’re caretakers of the planet’s botanical assets,” he adds in a rare
profound moment. “On a local level, we keep money circulating within
the community. Local people buy from us, we buy equipment from local
companies and they employ local people. It all snowballs.”
Outback Nursery is located at 6016 Headquarters Road. For more
information, call 250-703-0723.
— Comox Valley Farmers’ Institute