Forest products added $3.24 billion to the state economy in 2012, supporting nearly 25,000 jobs with $1.41 billion in wages. That adult impact starts with baby trees.
“You need forest seedling nurseries to plant and replant the forests,” says Dave Bowling, Arkansas Forestry Commission reforestation manager, and director of Baucum Nursery in North Little Rock.
In the last decade, Baucum has averaged more than 6 million hardwood and 5 million pine seedlings per year. The nursery sources its pine seed exclusively from Bluff City Tree Improvement Complex and Seed Orchard, near Camden.
“Seedlings are specifically bred and selected for Arkansas forests, meaning they will have the best opportunity to survive and grow,” says Bowling.
All In The Genes
The first tests of pine in the early 1970s ranked adult trees from best to worst.
“Before any crosses were actually done, we were able to increase genetic gain by 18 percent through the elimination of lowest performers,” says Bowling.
Those selections were then crossed in specially designed patterns.
“That allows you to evaluate improvements in the second generation, along with the best first-generation parents and use the best of those trees for third-generation crosses,” he says.
Tree breeding is nearly identical to the 1970s process, save for improvements in statistics (think: computer programs) that make it easier to identify tree traits and design plantings for the next generation. Every tree is evaluated visually.
“We also manually drill core samples to evaluate the wood quality of all candidates,” says Bowling.
The Hard Work Of Seedling Harvest
Planting and harvesting millions of seedlings involves a lot of elbow grease. A machine first lifts seedlings out of the ground before Baucum Nursery’s 15-person harvest crew gathers, grades and packs the seedlings.
Hardwood seedlings are packed directly into bags of 100 to 200 and get a gel spray that raises water-holding capacity and helps roots absorb more moisture. Bare root pine seedlings are also sprayed with the gel and packed into wax-coated cardboard boxes holding at least 500 healthy seedlings.
Some pine seedlings are “containerized,” shipped with soil and roots in a 5- by 1-inch plug. A commercial nursery grows the Forestry Commission’s containerized pines using seed from Bluff City. Containerized pines may be shipped for fall planting, as they do not need the winter chilling period required by bare root seedlings.
“Containers also give you a better survival rate on marginal land,” says Bowling.
The Forestry Commission has 13 coolers around Arkansas, keeping seedlings at 34 degrees Fahrenheit until picked up by regional landowners.
Orders for pine and hardwood range from hundreds of thousands to a few dozen for smaller land parcels. Tree seedling orders are taken via an online ordering system.
Arkansas has the only breeding and testing program in the country for shortleaf pine, as well as the country’s only improved nuttall oak orchard.
“Our long range goal is to establish improved hardwood orchards for all species that we grow at Baucum Nursery,” says Bowling.
Joe Fox, state forester, says that tree seedling nurseries are vital.
“I am very proud of our Baucum Nursery and Bluff City Tree Improvement Program. Together, they produce high-quality hardwood and pine seedlings for forest landowners,” he says. “We do this for small and large landowners alike, and in small or large quantities, concentrating on native tree species that promote a healthy wildlife habitat. It’s a one-stop shop for those looking for a large variety of trees that are sustainable, hardy and adaptable to Arkansas ecosystems. Through the provision of native trees, we are underwriting Arkansas’s future as the Natural State.”