From left, Willowbrook Nurseries' V.P. Chris Langendoen, Mayor Marvin Junkin, Willowbrook Pres. John Langendoen. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Four decades later, Fenwick nursery thrives

Special to the VOICE

Pelham institution Willowbrook Nurseries celebrated its 40th anniversary on Sept. 5 with a customer appreciation day. In addition to welcoming the community and its many out-of-town customers, the landmark celebration was an opportunity for longtime employees to take a step back and appreciate just how far the operation has grown—from very humble beginnings.

“I remember as a child we purchased a mobile home and put the mobile home on the property,” Chris Langendoen, son of founder and president John Langendoen told the Voice. “We lived in that for a number of years. My parents basically invested everything back into the business.”

Chris was born in March 1979—two months before John and wife Jocelyn launched Willowbrook. His parents worked other jobs concurrently at first, including operating a lawn-spray franchise. When the nursery became self-sustainable, it became their sole focus.

It’s only continued to grow since.

In the early 1980s, longtime staffers Jane Broere and Rob Bouwers came aboard.

“They started with 10 acres of rented land and now have about 200 acres,” Broere said.

“I think I was one of the first full-time employees, now we have over 200 employees, full and part-time, in season,” sales manager Bouwers added.

John Langendoen’s goal all those years back was to build a full, container-grown nursery. As a wholesaler, it has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, with clients all over North America. That includes trips around the continent in search of planting products. John spent a chunk of this summer in Oregon.

The success hasn’t come without challenges, however.

“I remember we had an extreme windstorm where the entire roof of a polyhouse ripped off at 11 at night,” Bouwers recalled. “We knew we were going to get frost that night, there was a number of us scrambling in the dark to get the roof back on. In this industry we’re always battling nature, whether it’s too dry of a summer, or windstorms … to heavy snow where the polyhouses are crushed. But we’ve got good, dedicated employees.”

Chris added that being in the environment business comes with a commitment to that very environment.

“The business we’re in, we take pride in the fact that we support our environment … we’re a green business, we’re growing a product to help sustain our future and we do things like partner with the Canadian Wildlife Federation,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in doing that.”

Giving back is nothing new for Willowbrook. The nursery has been involved with the Town of Pelham significantly over the years, donating plantings for various renewal projects, including most recently in downtown Fenwick.

Sadly, Jocelyn Langendoen passed away in 2009. Out of that loss, Willowbrook continues to donate regularly to the Canadian Cancer Society and to Rose City Kids, a Christian charity that provides Welland children with fellowship and instruction.

“Whether it’s the Town with plantings, or the youth of Welland, a lot of employees in the past were students or young people helping to build this company,” said Chris, whose own kids now work at the nursery. “So we give back to things like the cancer society and Rose City Kids. Those are important things for us.”

The customer appreciation day last Thursday was a chance to thank the local clients who have flourished alongside Willowbrook over the last four decades.

“We’ve had a lot of customers with us since day one, they’ve watched us grow, we’ve got to watch them grow,” Chris said. “That’s something to celebrate.”

But above all, Langendoen cites his religious conviction.

“Sometimes we take a lot of credit for it, but we’re a God-fearing company and we owe all our thanks to Him for this.”