Seeds of Growth

Seeds of Growth

URBANA — Shane Cultra has been on a domain-name buying binge, partly in hopes of taking Country Arbors Nursery to a national stage.

He already has claimed, which redirects users to the Urbana-based nursery's website.

But he has also developed, and as informational websites for fans of those plants, in hopes of gaining them as customers.

This is the Cultra family's 150th year in the nursery business, and Shane Cultra, chief operating officer for Country Arbors, hopes to bring not only virtual — but physical — change to the firm.

The nursery plans to put in a new parking lot this spring at its site 11/2 miles east of Illinois 130 on Windsor Road (County Road 1400 E). The business also is considering expanding or rebuilding its offices in Urbana and perhaps starting another garden center in the Charleston area.

Country Arbors has operated at the Urbana site since 1987, when the Onarga Nursery Co. acquired it from Wandell's Nursery. Three years later, Shane's father, Terence Cultra, acquired the Urbana nursery, and today it's operated by Terence; his wife, Donna; and his sons, Shane and Joe.

Shane, 45, of Urbana oversees the business. Joe, 44, of Champaign heads up production on the nursery's 50 acres in Urbana. Terence, 72, of Paxton runs production on the nursery's 60 acres in Onarga, and Donna oversees Country Arbors' landscape division in Urbana.

Onarga Nursery Co. — a separate company that today is operated by Shane's uncle, former state Sen. Shane Cultra, and his daughter Lindsey Ishmiel — is a wholesale nursery in Onarga serving commercial customers, including landscapers and communities.

Country Arbors supplies annual flowers for the University of Illinois and most area country clubs, as well as supplying 50,000 perennials, Cultra said. The nursery continues to grow trees and shrubs, but today "we grow a lot more color" than in the past, he said.

The business has about $3 million in annual sales, with trees accounting for roughly half the sales volume and the remainder split evenly among shrubs, perennials and annuals, he said.

"In the past 20 years, annuals have really taken off," Cultra said, referring to plants only around for one growing season. "That's a big change."

Cultra attributes the trend to customers' desire for immediate beauty.

"People are more instant. They want color now, pretty now," he said. "They want trees that get big and bloom quick."

That immediacy is also reflected in their choice of perennials, plants that produce flowers and seed year after year.

"Perennials that bloom in the spring sell three times as well as perennials that bloom in the summer," Cultra said.

Cultra said about one-third of Country Arbors' business is retail, another third is wholesale (serving other landscapers), and another third is landscaping for residential customers.

But Cultra, who earned a bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Alabama before working as a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, has been watching how the retail market is changing.

More consumers are buying online and getting product information online, he said. So it makes sense for Country Arbors to move in that direction too, taking orders over the Internet and shipping product out.

Even so, Country Arbors realizes its business is "all about growing plants," not buying and reselling them, he added.

The nursery uses its Onarga acreage to produce plants that like sandier soil, such as yews, Cultra said. By contrast, maples and oaks do better in heavier soil, such as that on the Urbana acres.

Cultra said one of the most popular products in Urbana is probably the Autumn Brilliance serviceberry tree developed by Willet Wandell and still grown there.

Country Arbors recently acquired 7 acres along Illinois 130 north of Charleston. The land hasn't been developed yet, but Cultra said it would be nice to have another garden center there. The presence of a college campus makes Charleston attractive for such a business, he added.

Cultra said the Urbana offices are too crowded and something needs done to free up space. But it's too soon to say whether Country Arbors will expand the existing building or tear it down and build new.

About 30 people work full time in Urbana from March through Christmas, and about eight work through the winter, Cultra said.

Four people are employed at the Country Arbors site in Onarga, he added.

All in the family for 150 years

1865 — Robert Blaine Cultra founds Onarga Nursery Co. Its products include fruit trees and strawberry and raspberry plants.

1895 — Robert's two sons, Archie J. and Harry Blaine Cultra, enter the business.

1934 — Onarga Nursery Co. is third-largest nursery in U.S. Harry Cultra sells his interest to Archie Cultra.

1947 — With Archie's death, the business passes to a third generation — his sons, R.R. Cultra and Duane B. Cultra.

1952 — R.R. Cultra sells his interest to brother Duane B. Cultra.

1971 — Duane's sons, Shane and P. Terence Cultra, enter business, giving company a fourth generation.

1975 — P. Terence Cultra leaves Onarga Nursery Co.

1987 — Onarga Nursery Co. establishes Country Arbors Nursery in Urbana.

1992 — P. Terence Cultra buys Country Arbors from brother Shane.

1994 — Donna Cultra joins husband P. Terence Cultra in Country Arbors as secretary-treasurer.

1995 — P. Terence Cultra's son, T. Shane Cultra, joins him in business as fifth generation.

2004 — Another son, Josef C. Cultra, enters the business.

2005 — T. Shane Cultra named chief operating officer of Country Arbors.

2009 — Family opens Cultra Nurseries in Onarga to give wholesale customers wider product selection. The operation specializes in field- and container-grown products for landscape contractors. A wholesale distribution center and retail garden center are opened the following year.

2010 — Josef C. Cultra named chief operating manager for Cultra Nurseries.


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