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May. 28, 2022 | Saturday
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Leno Mori: Niagara's Johnny Appleseed
Leno Mori happily spends time in his Mori Nurseries office at age 92. His business has supplied tree stock for almost 70 years. (Tim Taylor/Niagara Now)

Leno Mori smiles at the thought that some people consider him Niagara’s Johnny Appleseed, a fictional 18th-century character who wandered North America, planting apple trees wherever he travelled.

You can tell Mori has heard the comparison before.

The 92-year-old, builder of one of Canadian’s largest and best-known nursery businesses, estimates that almost half of all the fruit trees in Niagara were supplied by his nearly 70-year-old Mori Nurseries.

“I guess a lot of people know me. I still get people from all over dropping in here, who remember me as president of both the Ontario and Canadian
Nurserymen’s Associations.

“I can’t complain.”

Mori’s father arrived from Italy in 1923.

“He came with nothing,” Mori says proudly. “He never borrowed a dollar from anybody.”

“He worked here and there. But then he got a job at Queenston Quarries, farming the hay to feed their horses, and later, after learning tenderfruit farming from the Lowrey family, tending the Quarries’ 25 acres of fruit trees.”

Young Mori worked on the farm as a youngster.

“When I was 13, I started driving the farm truck. I took all the fruit away to the canning factory. We brought a lot down to the dock for the old Cayuga to take to Toronto.”

In his early 20s, Mori wanted to buy some property but found it was just too expensive. Land was $1,000 an acre, wages were just 25 cents an hour.

Mori realized he could make more by converting some of his father’s recently acquired 20 acres on Line 2 Road into a farm for growing fruit tree stock. He added five acres of his own.

A business was born.

“I started out selling peach trees, and then cherries and plums and later apples, largely to local farmers. First, I did a few thousand. Then 50,000. Then 100,000.

“It just grew and grew.”

At one time, his business cultivated over 2,000 acres in Ontario, New York, Mexico and British Columbia.

And while Mori Nurseries didn’t invent new types of trees, it was responsible for helping many nursery industry innovations germinate and grow.

As an example, Mori cites his company’s early leadership in securing royalties from licensing the sale of root stock from Europe.

“I flew to Germany and got the licence to exclusively sell dwarf cherry root stock in North and South America.

“We’d sell them as small shoots (they look like 12-inch pencils) to nurseries everywhere. When they were mature enough for sale to farmers for production, we took a good royalty.”

Mori is proud of his part in the sector’s innovations.

“Take apples. We’ve had dwarf apples for 60 years. And now they’re getting 1,000 trees per acre. Some farmers are working toward 2,000 an acre. A good apple harvest used to be 1,000 bushels an acre. Now they are aiming at 3,000 an acre. Amazing.”

Mori decided to retire in 2015. “I had nobody to take over and I didn’t want to continue on my own.”

Today’s Mori Nurseries is a shadow of its former self. The various businesses are shuttered. All but 100 acres of prime land is sold and that is on the market.

Mori spends a lot of time at the company head office, next to Mori Gardens on Niagara Stone Road. It’s a quiet place. He has trimmed his staff to one part-time bookkeeper and two full-time workers out in the field, doing cleanup to be ready for the sale.

Mori’s daughter-in-law, Toni, will continue to operate the existing Mori Gardens, on leased land next door.

For Leno Mori, the conversation does not dwell long on the past. His observations may be founded on a lifetime of experience, but this is not a retired voice.

“I still have lots to do.”

“I always enjoyed farming,” he says, pondering a lifetime of highlights. “I was born on the farm and from the age of six months watched my mother pick the cherries. My mother took me in a little wicker basket. And I watched her pick cherries.”

Another lifetime highlight was truly embracing his religion.

“I went to church almost every Sunday. But it wasn’t until I went to a special service with my first wife who suffered from cancer that I really became a Christian. The experience changed my life. They prayed for us. I don’t know what happened, but it changed me and gave her another 24 years.”

Eleven years ago, Mori, and his second wife Heidi, responded to a difficult family circumstance by assuming the parenting role for two of Leno’s great-grandchildren — both boys, now 11 and 14.

“It’s a challenge at my age. People say it keeps me young. I guess so. That’s life. Take it as it comes.”

“I can’t complain,” he says again, a little tearfully.

When he gathers himself, he says: “I was born in Niagara. Lived here. Still here.”

There’s no question about that.