When Jeff Heppler and John Bush took out their first business loan in 1980 to start one of Mitchell’s longest running nurseries, they were taking on the biggest risk of their lives.
The economy was sluggish, interest rates were high and the risk of starting a business at that time was tremendous.
But over the past 40 years, Heppler and Bush grew James Valley Nursery to become the successful business that it is today. As the two longtime friends celebrate four decades of business at 600 W. Spruce St., they are proud of how far James Valley Nursery has come.
“I still remember signing the loan and all the papers to get started… It was scary,” Bush said.
Today, the local nursery specializes in landscaping installations, maintenance and seasonal gardening. Each year, James Valley Nursery completes around 800 landscape installations for customers in Mitchell and the surrounding area.
Before the nursery and landscaping business took off, Heppler and Bush were fresh out of college and had limited financial resources. With a $20,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, Heppler and Bush began building their business in 1980 on 1.5 acres of land. The loan was just enough for them to purchase a tractor that was equipped with a loader and tiller.
“We didn’t even have a dump truck. All we had was a garage to store our equipment, which was a tractor that had a loader on the front and a tiller, and that was it,” Heppler said.
The first structure that the pair built from scratch in 1980 was the greenhouse, from which James Valley Nursery sold an array of annual plants and succulents. While the garden center and nursery remain an integral part of the business, Bush said landscaping and hardscaping projects have become increasingly popular. Common hardscape projects include concrete patios, paved walkways along gardens and rock walls.
James Valley Nursery has been adapting to industry changes and customer demands. Early on, Bush said landscape and hardscape installations weren’t a common demand. But that all seemed to change in the late 1980s, which is when Bush said James Valley Nursery began seeing an influx in requests for both styles of projects.
“When we first started, landscaping wasn’t at the forefront of people's minds when they bought a house,” Bush said. “Now it’s like putting a dishwasher in your home. It is one of the most important parts for homeowners with lawns. It’s sometimes one of the first things new homeowners do when they buy a house.”
As the company continued to grow through the years, so too did its staff. Since 1980, Heppler and Bush have welcomed over 40 employees to meet the business demands. For Heppler, providing his workers with a stable job that gives them the opportunity to start a family and buy a home has been the most rewarding experience in the 40 years he’s been running the business.
“I always love doing nice landscaping, but watching our workers grow and succeed is the coolest part of my job,” Heppler said. “When we have employee parties and you see all the kids, it’s just awesome to see.”
Among the longtime employees they hired over the years are Andy Jerke and Jon Mentele, who will become the new faces of James Valley Nursery when Heppler and Bush retire. Jerke and Mentele became owners after they bought a minority share of the company several years ago.
A blossoming business
Heppler and Bush’s idea to open a nursery and garden center blossomed while studying landscape and design at South Dakota State University.
While Bush knew he wanted to make a career out of landscaping prior to beginning college, that wasn’t the case for Heppler, who was initially studying civil engineering at SDSU. But that wasn't piquing his interest.
Having spent most of his youth helping his father farm and build homes in Spencer, Iowa, Heppler switched majors to landscape and design, which fit his passion and personality.
“I liked designing and building things, but the intensive math work wasn’t for me,” Heppler said.
For Bush, farming was a way of life that he learned from a young age near Brookings. All of those years on the farm helped Bush become a jack of all trades, like many farmers learn.
“We used to raise cucumbers for a pickle company for quite a few years when I was a kid, so I was exposed to gardening from a really young age,” Bush said.
The pair worked for two separate landscape companies in Brookings while they were finishing college. That experience would prove vital for the future, as Heppler and Bush used the foundation of landscaping skills to open their own company.
As the landscape industry evolved, Heppler and Bush had to change with it. From learning the art of concrete work with the growing demand in hardscape projects to designing and installing irrigation systems, the duo has developed skills to evolve with the landscape industry.
Thanks to the team of dedicated employees, what was once only a greenhouse is now a 35-acre operation adding a garden center, office and a tree farm. Reflecting on their business journey, Heppler and Bush are proud of all they have accomplished.
“It’s amazing to see where the business has gone,” Heppler said. “We are proud of it, and it’s in good hands when we retire.”