We talk a lot about customers who raise almonds, apples, grapes, pecans, hops, and other tree fruits and nuts, and how Smart Apply is impacting their operations. But did you know that the Smart Apply® Intelligent Spray Control System™ is also a valuable tool for nurseries. We recently chatted with Deon Dekkers, whose parents Deon and Lorraine, founded a tree nursery in Texas in 1991 after emigrating from South Africa. The Dekkers and Twin Lakes Nursery are early adopters of the Smart Apply System and were kind enough to share their incredible story of creating a now multi-generation ag operation with us.
SA: The story behind Twin Lakes Nursery is fascinating. Your family nursery literally started from ground zero and is now among the nation’s premier growers of large trees.
DD: Our family is originally from South Africa. When I was about 10, my parents realized there was no future for us there because of the political situation and decided to emigrate. The question was: where? In the span of three weeks, our family—parents, older sister, brother and I—visited three continents to determine where to go. At the end of the trip, we agreed the United States was the land of opportunity.
We spoke Afrikaans in South Africa, so learning English was a top priority before we moved. I watched a fair amount of Sesame Street to learn English. Later, television shows like the A-Team and Night Rider further developed my language skills. In 1984, our family moved to Houston, Texas, and then to Dallas two years later. My father had a small construction company and started saving to start a tree nursery. His dream was finally realized in 1991, when he purchased 55 acres in Canton, Texas. The Dekker family was officially in the tree business.
SA: You started with just 55 acres and now Twin Lakes Nursery has 2,000 acres and includes the tree farm and other ag ventures. Tell us about that.
DD: My father’s passion and our focus was originally trees, large trees, a very good business. Twin Lakes grew pretty quickly and we were fortunate to have the cash flow to purchase more land from neighbors willing to sell. While it was a challenge, the good Lord provided the opportunities at the right times. After college, I joined my father on the production side while my brother Andre took over sales.
And yes, we kind of deviated from our original plan of being tree growers. My father and my sister were national champions in cross country. In South Africa, you don’t wear shoes for athletics, so they ran barefoot. They would try to sneak onto golf courses to run and got kicked off. So we decided to build our own golf course. Two years later, it opened to the public and to the runners in my family. We had the golf course for 18 years and were successful but decided to close in 2017 after extensive tornado damage and concentrate on building back the nursery.
SA: And then you went full-on Texan?
DD: (Laughs) You could call it that! We always wanted to raise cattle and when the golf course closed, we saw it as the perfect opportunity to add cattle. We started with five Herefords, but after some research, we chose to go with Brangus, a cross between Brahman and Angus cattle that do well in our climate. Then we got horses—my wife likes to barrel race. We also grow hay for our animals and sell the excess when we have it.
SA: What makes Twin Lakes Nursery unique? Something about things being bigger in Texas?
DD:Most nurseries in Texas grow smaller trees in-ground balled and burlapped. We’re unique in that we raise large container-grown trees in five, six, eight and 10-foot wooden boxes. We saw a need for larger trees and were in a position with the land and plenty of quality trees to be able to shift to larger sizes instead of selling them at a smaller size for less. We like the larger trees because they require less labor and care, and we can use machinery to handle them at that size. It’s also unique in that these trees are not a product that happens overnight. Our larger trees have been on the farm for 10 to 18 years.
We sell to landscape architects, developers, re-wholesalers, high-end residential customers, and commercial landscapers who want big elms, cypress, oaks, magnolias, hollies, and crapes. Not only are the trees the size they want for their projects, but we provide a large number of uniform trees to cover large projects.
SA: Let’s discuss spraying. Is it mainly pesticides? Do the different varieties of trees require different chemicals?
DD: Most of the varieties we grow are treated with insecticides and fungicides in a uniform way. Some trees are less susceptible in certain times of the year to disease and pests compared to other trees.We do most of the spraying in the morning in the spring and fall. We use a Kubota tractor with a Jacto Valencia air blast sprayer.
SA: How did you hear about the Smart Apply Intelligent Spray Control System? What caught your interest?
DD: Kirk Bailey from Smart Apply introduced us to the Intelligent spray system. We were excited to discover your technology could make it possible to use less chemicals yet get the same protection we need and protect the land from excess chemicals. The cost savings on chemicals was appealing, but labor is our primary cost. Kirk’s persistence made us realize the savings on labor, and Smart Apply’s customer testimonials verified this.
SA: How many Smart Apply Systems did you purchase?
DD:We purchased one system for our existing air blast sprayer and started using it March 6, 2023, immediately after the installation. The first chemical application was done throughout the entire nursery.
SA: We know it’s early, but what benefits have you experienced with Smart Apply?
DD: We’ve already noticed chemical savings. We’re using fewer tanks for our applications and each tank lasts longer, therefore there are fewer times needed to refill the tank. These savings also help with labor costs. We can now spray the entire nursery with just one trained person.
Another benefit is using the Smart Apply System’s GPS data to check which sections of the nursery the operator has sprayed and what sections still need to be sprayed. This ensures that all the crops receive exactly what they need.
SA: Is sustainability an issue for the Dekker Family, the nursery and for your customers?
DD: Sustainability is always at the forefront as a company and as a family. Our families live on the nursery, and we want to be respectful of our impact on the environment. We try our best to ensure the nursery and the ranch endure over time for our kids and future generations. We want to make responsible decisions regarding the inputs we use and the products leaving the farm so that everything is produced environmentally friendly and under great working conditions for our employees. We are constantly trying to use less chemicals and less commercial fertilizers.
We take into consideration organic options, tree container re-usability, and solar and electrification of certain pieces of equipment in our fleet. Some of these changes are cost prohibitive for now but hopefully will become more affordable going forward. Our future goal is to be energy independent on the farm or at least return to the electric grid what we use. Hopefully, with technology and time, future generations will continue the stewardship of the land and make refinements where the first-generation immigrants left off.
SA: Any advice for other growers looking at the Smart Apply System?
DD: So far, this system has not disappointed. We’re not the most technologically savvy but once you get the hang of things, the system is simple to use. The Smart Apply System only applies chemical spray where it is needed. Empty space will shut off spray nozzles where there are no trees therefore saving you money. I feel the more space you have in between the trees or crop rows, the more the savings will be. Also, the Smart Apply staff and installer were very helpful and easy to work with. They have addressed questions and small issues in a very prompt manner. We are happy with the system.
SA: Is it time for some of that Texas barbecue?
DD: Are you buying?