Life in our Foothills November 2021 – Adaptability and Resilience at Jones Gap Tree Farm
Published 1:30 pm Thursday, November 4, 2021
Adaptability and Resilience
A 4th Generation Farm – Jones Gap Tree Farm, Landscaping and Nursery
Story by Erin Boggs
Photos courtesy of the Jones Family Archives
It is a beautiful and peaceful experience to walk the lands of the Jones Gap Tree Farm and Nursery. Just six miles south of Flat Rock in Zirconia, the mountain views and fields of trees and plants offer a peaceful escape from our often-hectic world.
Mitchell Jones took over the current iteration of the family business beginning in 2005, when a lot of family and financial transitions took place. The business name changed at that time to Jones Gap Tree Farm.
The family-owned tree farm business has changed drastically, especially in the last 20 years, due to changes in the labor force, the cost of equipment and fuel, and price pressures from big-investor tree farms. The economic hardships during this time caused declines in the tree farm business. Much like trees themselves, such big changes require adaptability and resilience.
“Now I’m the lone ranger. We’re working off about a hundred acres now. I’m not saying that’s not still a lot of work and maintenance! Lots of nurseries got investment groups that were funding the farms. Investors with deep pockets, where they can turn into a big business,” says Jones. But Mitchell decided that was not the direction he wanted for himself and the family business.
Mitchell says “The garden center and nursery yard, it was always up and running when I was a kid and my whole life on the property.” So now, they are focusing on smaller scale growing, wholesale container sales to contractors and the public, as well as landscaping services, basing operations out of the on-site garden center. “As far as the homeowners, that’s where we are trying to let everybody know that we are here and we’re stocked.”
Mitchell’s ancestor Solomon Jones was the original builder of the unpaved Jones Gap Road. This road was the only direct route between Greenville County, SC to Transylvania County, NC. Legend has it he followed a great razor-backed sow, holding its tail, while cutting down the trees and plants with a hatchet to form the roadway. Mitchell says Solomon then put all cuttings in the creeks and replanted the trees along the roadway and his pathways to protect against erosion. Tree planting, replenishing and always leaving things better than he found them, Solomon was the true progenitor of the family’s future business.
After his Grandfather Ray came home from WWII, he starting digging white pines out of the woods and selling them on the side of the road to make a living. Mitchell says, “There wasn’t really anyone else doing it. And he was like, ‘man, there’s a market for this!’ Then they would get the landscaping jobs, the planting jobs, people would buy them and not be able to plant them, and it just kind of sprung on from there. The business grew and grew.” At the height of the business, they had 1,500 acres of growing trees, shrubs, bushes and other plants, managed by his Father Leland, Grandfather Ray and Uncle Dan. Because of how labor-intensive tree farming is, they employed about sixty men during this time. But Mitchell says it was barely enough, so everyone worked very hard back then, every day from dawn until night.
“My Grandmother Sarah, she used to stay at the office,” Mitchell says. “She loved talking to everybody and she’d been in it since my grandfather Ray started. She was key, and anyone who would come there knew, and they would come back there because of her. She cooked breakfast for 50 or 60 guys every day. I mean, every morning she’d be up cooking for hours before anybody got there. And if you were there for lunch too, you were getting fed.”
During this time, Mitchell says, “She worked at a textile mill, JP Stevens in Tuxedo. My Grandfather worked there for a little bit when he came out of service, and then he started doing this. He always caught so much flack about ‘Your wife is working and you ain’t doing nothing but sitting on the side of the road talking to people!’ and he was like ‘I make as much in three hours as she did all week. Ray said ‘I never said nothing to nobody. I just said ‘Yeah, just living off my old lady.’ He just played it off, but he got the last laugh,” says Mitchell.
“Later on, she ran the office at Berkeley Mills. She worked third shift. She’d come in and sleep and get up, run the office here all day and then go to work every night. My grandmother was bad to the bone. She was tough! Then after she retired from the mill, she was there at our office all the time. She ran the show. She made it happen. It’s very interesting looking back on it, the drive that they had. They were tunnel vision – work, work, work. And it paid off for them,” says Mitchell.
“They really truly were pioneers, my whole family, starting up this business. That was unheard of. They started something that wasn’t a thing, and it’s quite the blessing that it turned in to what it is,” Mitchell says.
Today, when you visit the office and nursery yard of the Tree Farm, you’ll first meet Smokey the Cat. She keeps watch over all the day to day operations. She adopted the family about two months ago. Some say Smokey may have been sent by Sarah herself, to keep watch over the family business.
Through his vast knowledge of propagation, passed down through generations, Mitchell’s knowledge of cultivation and tree farming has enabled him to become a skillful landscape designer as well. Mitchell says, “By the time I got my hands on the reins, they saved me a lot of time as far as the knowledge of trial and error over three generations.” Indeed, many of his classmates who studied with Mitchell at NC State still call him for advice about planting and growing. He provides not only the plants but also the services of design and installation.
The latest landscaping projects are in Flat Rock, restoring the historic homes’ landscaping to the original state of when they were built. “I’m an old soul and I love to get it back like it was. There are so many new varieties of plants and they don’t fit in with the houses from the 1860’s,” says Mitchell. They are excited and ready to take on additional landscaping projects for home owners in our area.
The next time you’re planning a day trip near the Hendersonville area, or just taking a beautiful drive up the mountainside, be sure to stop by the Jones Gap Tree Farm and Nursery. Just a short hop over the state line from both Spartanburg and Greenville Counties, they are located at 68 Kingdom Place, Zirconia, NC 28790, (828) 243-2693 and online at website: jonesgaptreefarmandlandscaping.com