Branching out to the web has been fruitful work

Branching out to the web has been fruitful work

Nik Magnus prepares the ground at Cygnet for its new job of growing rootstock.The prospect of having too many customers is an annual certainty for nurseryman Nik Magnus.

While many businesses would regard it as a good problem to have, the seasonal spike in sales and the unpredictable popularity of some products present challenges for the fruit tree nursery he runs with his brother-in-law, Steve Kingston.

But a transactional website developed entirely by Dr Magnus, who also works in surgery and emergency for a hospital in Hobart, has helped to reduce mismatches between stock and customer orders for Woodbridge Fruit Trees, located south of Hobart.

Dr Magnus, who contemplated studying computer science before opting for medical school, has taught himself web programming.

Five years ago, the nursery mailed out its heritage fruit varieties catalogue and took orders only by post.

In May, the nursery emailed more than 4000 people alerting them to the beginning of the 2012 orders, and only 10 hard-copy catalogues were dispatched.

The site was launched with extensive propagation, pruning and planting advice from Nik’s father, Bob Magnus. He founded the nursery more than 30 years ago, but retired to let his sons and daughter take over different aspects of the nursery business.

Nik’s brother, Daniel, runs a perennial and herb nursery, for which Nik also developed a website last summer, and sister Lisa, is a florist, selling blooms grown on the family property.

The Woodbridge Fruit Trees website needed to be resilient enough so it wouldn’t crash under the heavy traffic and easy enough to change to reflect sales as they progressed. Last month, after website orders opened for the year, 25 per cent of stock sold in the first three days.

”Our website gets hammered in the first two weeks every year,” Dr Magnus says.

Years ago, there was some concern with the interim website, given that a few rival nurseries appeared to be copying their business model. They suspected that one mainland nursery was even copying the photographs and product descriptions directly from its catalogues.

So, instead of locking down the online catalogue using a ”captcha” puzzle or allowing only password-protected access, they took more photographs, watermarked the images and emphasised the text of the locally written articles under the Woodbridge Fruit Trees letterhead.

The nursery dispatches heritage fruit tree varieties, all grafted on dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstock, including apples, pears, plums, cherries, nectarines, quinces, and peaches and medlar.

What sets the nursery apart is its unusual varieties of apple, pear and quince – allowing the home gardener to grow a different variety of fruit to the ones kept in cold storage and released to the local grocer.

Woodbridge Fruit Trees sells more than 75 varieties of apple, including the Golden Grimes, believed by some in the US to be a genuine Johnny Appleseed seedling discovered on the banks of the Ohio River. Dr Magnus says they have been overwhelmed by orders.

”It’s a phenomenon we see each year – people are disappointed to not get something and wait six months until we reopen,” he says.

”Then there is a rush. Even now we have sold out in the first day of varieties we didn’t have many of – pears, plums and quinces. Some people will try again next year, others send us frustrated letters saying it’s unfair.”

There are unexplained spikes of popularity for certain items, such as Fuller’s quince, which may have been featured in recipe books from celebrity cookbook authors. ”Hopefully, we’ll get a trickle through for the next few months so we can aim to get 90-95 per cent sold,” Dr Magnus says.

Woodbridge Fruit Trees will begin sending out its trees in July. Most of its customers are in New South Wales and Victoria.

As with his website, Dr Magnus has also developed a form of back-up for his fruit tree nursery.

Last year he bought a small farm and former orchard near Cygnet, about 15 kilometres away, where he will replicate the entire range of fruit tree stock. The nursery will have about 3500 trees grown in virgin ground and grafting will begin on the rootstock this winter.

”I’ve never been fully responsible for the whole growing cycle, so it’s been a big learning curve and lots of work,” he says. ”The biggest challenge is weeds and diseases and getting water from the dam in summer.”

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