Growing up in the nursery industry has given me a unique perspective as a woman in the business world. My name is Annie, a proud fourth generation family member of Al’s Garden & Home. During Women's History Month, I took time to reflect on the women in my life and the examples I have been lucky enough to learn from and to aspire. As I transitioned into college, I learned how some industries and companies' undervalued women in general. I learned about wage gaps, being passed over for promotions, and women not viewed as business leaders. These instances helped me realize how fortunate I am to experience a vastly different culture within the family business. My personal experience is equality on every level, with women holding influential roles in leadership, business practices, and advancement opportunities. This may not account for the entire horticulture industry, but I have observed first-hand the leverage my female family members and employees have cultivated.
I consulted my mother, aunts, and grandmother about their experiences and thoughts of being instrumental in the success of a 75-year-old business. According to Aunt Dody, (Dorothy Russo, Al's Third generation and Chief Growing Officer) "We all did the same jobs depending on our age, not our gender". Wage gaps and un-level playing fields, when it comes to women versus men in business, is non-existent. The people that I admire and mentor me encourage me to learn all aspects of the business, be undeterred, and visionary.
My grandma (Dee Bigej, Al's second generation) wrote me a beautiful letter describing what it was like raising kids in the nursery. You will see handwritten quotes from her to me about what it was like and experiences she had in the nursery. As I was reading the letter, I could recall some of the stories I heard, and have had the opportunities to experience similar things with my cousins.
I had the unique experience of working with my mom, cousins, aunts, and brother during summers and school breaks. There are memories that I will cherish forever! My favorite memory is going to my grandparents' house and eating lunch after working on the family farm. Every day we would enjoy what Grandma Dee calls "lunch fixings" already prepared. We made our own lunch and washed our own dishes. It was first come, first serve. Grandpa Jack was always first because his stomach dictates his schedule :) Those were the moments where we would sit down and listen to stories about the importance of rows being straight, weeds being pulled, and getting along with each other.
In the earlier years of working summers and breaks, my mom and aunts would alternate “kid-directing duty.” One of them would line us up with tasks and often work alongside us, despite what other work they might need to do. Often, they would be working later into the evenings to finish their work. Whenever my mom and Aunt Dody would work with us, we were told the importance of straight rows was emphasized. Because their mom, my grandma, taught them that "the rows need to be straight so when airplanes fly over, they see neat lines."
Aunt Amy was always the peacekeeper displaying immense patience when cousins, that were more like siblings, fought over the aux control. Occasionally, we got to work with the blueberries. Aunt Amy kept the blueberry throwing to a minimum. When we ate blueberries right off the bush, we were reminded to check for worm holes because of grandma's story about her and my mom eating peas! (See quote below).
The examples I saw makes me strive to be just like that these amazing women in my life. I saw my mom, aunts, grandma, great grandma, family friends in horticulture. All women in key rolls of horticulture businesses working alongside the men, taking a huge part in expanding businesses to where they are now.
I saw my Great Grandma Ann continue coming into Al's of Woodburn every day to check in after she had retired from running the business for over 50 years. Aunt Dody recalls "My Grandma Bigej, (Ann Bigej, Al's co-founder) was my grandfather’s right-hand woman in life and business. She was always working in some capacity at Al’s for as long as I can remember. She taught me the value of working hard and being “paid” for working. On Sundays we would visit Al’s after we went to church. We would pick up my dad from work and drop him off afterward to do our produce shopping. Every time I would walk in and go straight to the back to grab a broom to sweep around the check-out counter while my mom gathered her produce for the week. When I swept, I got to keep anything I found on the ground. I always found change that careless people dropped, usually enough for a comic book at the grocery store, our next scheduled stop. It was not until years later that I figured out that my grandmother has been “salting” the floor with her extra change so that I could find it. She never “gave” us money, she had us “work” and earn it."
I saw my Grandma Dee working out in her garden and around the nursery making sure everything was spotless, weed free and all the rows of plants placed straight. All while getting our "lunch fixings" ready for us.
I saw my mom (Darcy Ruef, Al's granddaughter, Chief Financial Officer) serve on hospital boards, volunteering, running a business alongside my aunts, uncle, grandma, and grandpa. Making financial decisions for the company, carefully considering the outcomes with the utmost care and consideration.
I saw my Aunt Dody (Dorothy, Al's granddaughter) running green houses that supply 80% of the plants we grow to our retail locations and wholesale across the nation. School teacher by trade, but as she says, "While it may have been Dad that coaxed me back into the family business, it was Mom who taught me how to juggle many roles at one time. I try to follow her example and by doing so, it has allowed me to be a positive / productive part of Al’s and a wife and a mother of two."
I saw my Aunt Amy (married to Mark Bigej, Al's grandson) run our popular Kid’s Club, our fundraiser programs, and community hanging basket business. All while raising five amazing kids (plus a few more cousins that were always tagging along) and transporting them all to sporting events, dance recitals, school events, and the list goes on. Aunt Amy is always running and doing everything she can for the people she loves!
I saw Judy Alleruzzo (a 25-year employee and gardening expert) on the show Garden Time, paving the way to educate people about gardening and at the same time buying for Al's Perennial and Houseplant departments. She ensures all the plants are out and ready for customers to enjoy. She never slows down, traveling the world and partaking in amazing things in the garden industry!
I saw Barb Florig for the last 20 years as Al's Visual Director creating and planning beautiful and show stopping displays at Al's. Displays that make you want to stop and admire the piece of art that can be made with anything that she could find, and of course plants! It is amazing to see her take what some people might consider junk and revamp it into something that you would want at your home and inspires you to reuse and recycle.
I saw wives of the nurserymen working just as hard, right alongside them (most of the time the woman telling the man where to dig), then returning home and cooking, cleaning, wrangling all the kids. Because you know the more kids you have the more there are to work at the nursery.
I observed and continue to see all the wonderful women that are a part of our Al's family. Most of the time when I am looking around the room I am a part of the gender side that is the majority.
I continue to see amazing women in the horticulture industry, setting examples for the next generation to inspire and cultivate success.
With three generations of some pretty amazing women in my family by blood but also in my Al's family, I would like to think my experience is not unique. I hope everyone has women in their lives they strive to emulate, but maybe everyone's goal should be to set a great example for future generations to come!
If you would like more inspiration here are some current women in Horticulture that have been inspiring me lately!
Wonderfully written! This will be part of the Bigej Heritage album that Aunt Beth started.
Annie – this is so beautiful. Thank you for writing such a wonderful testament to your family. I love the part about the straight rows. Keep on being a strong woman – we need more like you and those who have taught you.
So enjoyed reading all the accomplishments of Al’s woman! Every chance I had to seek a new or different flowering plant, it was always Al’s. We moved to southern Oregon to be closer to our sons and I greatly miss your Sheridan garden. I look forward to your emails and hope someday you could open a nursery in Coos Bay!!
Annie, what an interesting article about the many generations of female family contributors to the success of Al’s Garden Center. I’ll fondly remember that bit of history on future visits to your store. Thank you for sharing!
What a delightful article! Lucky you, to have so many wonderful role models in your family and nursery. Al’s is an icon in the garden center world for good reason. Your family is special, and Oregon is special. There have been excellent opportunities for women in horticulture in the Northwest for a long time. May that tradition continue. Best wishes to you as you continue your horticulture career.
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