Nurseries cope with heightened demand due to fires and other market pressures, not to mention labor and supply troubles
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic fueled unprecedented demand for all kinds of plants, from tomato seeds to tree saplings. The availability of tree seedlings has suffered additional challenges since then, however.
Sweeping wildfires that summer leveled over one million acres in Oregon, which was more than twice the 10-year average. This prompted the need for reforestation and heightened the demand for tree seedlings.
As growers and wholesalers adapt to find creative solutions to meet their clients’ needs, they are sparring with rising fuel costs, labor shortages, and more. At Brooks Tree Farm in Salem, Oregon, co-owner Kathy LeCompte saw waves of change rippling through the industry at all levels. The fires led to “way bigger demand,” she said.
“It’s obvious no nursery could have known in advance what to have,” LeCompte said. “That first year there was just nothing to work with.”
Shifting resources into forestry
LeCompte’s answer was to weigh the production mix temporarily toward forestry, approximately tripling its forestry production.
“We’ve always had multiple legs – forestry, Christmas trees, and wholesale nursery production and about 15 years ago we added wetland native shrubs,” she said. “So in order to increase forestry, we had to look harder at each individual item without hurting the others. We know this is a temporary situation, so we are trying to meet the other responsibilities with an alternate until we can get the timber people back in business and get those lands replanted.”
After that, she said, Brooks ordered as much extra seed as it could source and allocated more greenhouse space for timber seedlings. Greenhouse-grown seedlings are market-ready in a year, while field-grown ones take two. The accelerated production was worth the extra cost and use of space, she said.
Another major issue is the skyrocketing cost of certain seed sources lost in the fire.
“It is normal for conifers to have irregular seed crops,” LeCompte said. “In the case of Douglas firs, the cycle can be up to 10 years and occasionally even longer. We were in one of those long cycles when the fires came along, and there was a cone crop that year that hadn’t been collected, so there’s a serious lack of seeds.”
Although there are some private orchards, and timber company orchards, “Those are not large enough to supply the whole state or the whole Cascade Range,” she said. “I used to pay $150 per pound of seed, and now some of that seed is selling for $2,000–3,000 a pound.”
It’s even harder to find seed appropriate to the field’s local growing conditions, she said. Typically, customers look for seed sourced as locally and site-specific as possible, but customers may have to broaden their search to find seed collected from a forest across the state.
As shortages drive up consumer pricing, LeCompte is seeing customers plant less densely than usual. “Typical planting rates are 400 per acre. I’m seeing people stretch it to 300 per acre because of the cost,” she said.
LeCompte is concerned that each decrease in forest density means that much fewer carbon is sequestered. Because newly established trees store more carbon, a 25% density dip could create a 30% loss of carbon in that forest.
Reforestation proves challenging
For a multitude of reasons, many of the forests razed in 2020 have yet to be replanted – and that is a major problem, says Glenn Ahrens, forester at Oregon State University Extension. Ahrens works mainly helping smaller landowners learn how to manage their forests.
Even in a normal market, private woodland owners are at the end of the line when placing seed and seedling orders. They don’t have the purchasing power to meet minimums or have large standing orders year to year. Likewise, it can be hard to find labor, especially to take on small planting jobs.
In 2020 there was an estimated 100 million extra trees needed, said Ahrens. “The nurseries have responded, but the nurseries need bulk orders [to make their budgets]. It’s hard to connect the dots.”
Ahrens said approximately 5,000 small woodland owners were affected by the fires. If they were lucky, they may have been able to recoup some losses by selling some scorched timber for salvage. Many, however, who may have been dealing with the fallout of home and property damage and relocation, missed the harvesting window. They now might have weeds reclaiming the forest. Planting now could require mechanical clearing.
A scorched landscape is already a challenging place to establish seedlings, but “It’s a lot harder to plant into three-year regrowth,” Ahrens said.
It’s also less safe for the workers, as burnt trees become brittle. He recommends small forest owners seek help from a forestry professional who can assess current conditions and make a plan matching their financial goals.
Allen Terlecki, of PRT USA in Hubbard, supplies timber companies and has been consistently selling out. “We are still thankful and grateful we are usually full,” he said. “I’m going to be shipping about 12½ million out of my nursery.” PRT overall will ship about 330 million, he said. After the fires, the nursery upped the seedling count for affected timber companies and was able to meet the demand for the next two years, Terlecki said.
Needing labor and equipment
Like most businesses, PRT is adjusting to shifting circumstances arising from labor and supply shortages.
Under these conditions, something as small as a broken tractor can become a protracted issue. “I had a tractor in for repair at a local dealership — it was there for eight months because they couldn’t get parts,” Terlecki said. Proactive ordering became important. “We ship our seedlings in boxes, and we typically don’t get them until October, so we ordered them early this year. It takes a lot more planning with the way the world is right now you have to be on top of it.”
Salem-based JLPN, a deciduous tree wholesale producer, also found labor had the biggest impact among the recent upheavals.
“For JLPN, labor costs went up 30% in the last two years,” president and owner John Lewis stated in an email. “Labor being our biggest single expense, created a huge impact on our ability to stay profitable. Stating the obvious for every industry, labor was short in supply, and more expensive. The increase in labor costs outpaced the price increase of our products. In addition, inflation has been a financial wrecking ball for businesses. Our employees feel the increase of all goods at home, so to help ease the burden on our employees, we gave a larger annual pay raise than we typically do.”
Rising supply costs hurt as well. “Our plastic container costs went up 40% on the raw materials alone,” Lewis stated. “Then the shipping costs were up another 45-50%. It’s a bad year when you are happy that your taxes were the least volatile financial aspect of your business.”
The most impactful change JLPN has made, Lewis wrote, is in waste reduction by joining the Oregon Nursery Lean Consortium. “We have utilized LEAN (sic) Production methodology to eliminate waste in labor, supplies, overproduction, and over processing.” Lean methods are also called the Toyota Production System.
“With labor and over production being the two biggest factors that determine profitability, we focus on eliminating waste in those areas,” he wrote. “In the future, I see more and more LEAN methods being utilized due to it being the single largest factor in creating successes in our production in a business environment that is more challenging every year. “
Demand for shade trees continues to be high, according to Lewis. In shortest supply, he explained, are trees like European beech (Fagus), Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) cultivars, which are field-budded and grafted onto a seedling. It’s easier to bolster tissue-cultured product.
Mark Krautmann, owner of Heritage Seedlings and Liners, said his nursery found ways to offer alternatives when shortages hit.
“As COVID issues abated, we had 15-25% shortages in many items last spring, more than spring ’21,” he stated in an email. “Fortunately, our short crop cycle, 1–2 years on most liners, allows us to pivot in just a year or a bit more. So we’re able to offer most clients the sizes and essential varieties and rootstocks they need. Many see the benefits of early and standing orders.”
Heritage honed its offerings to meet demand, or to offer product faster. The company doubled propagation of grafted columnar beech, various magnolias, and popular Japanese maples like ‘Bloodgood’ and ‘Sango Kaku’, Krautmann stated.
“We adjusted our production plan to grow more of items such as grafted liners, and cut back on many items that clients are less familiar with,” he stated. “Although our brand is new and unusual woody species and varieties, we have to aggressively fine-tune our choices to grow what sells in the face of unprecedented ag labor wage pressures, fertilizer and fuel prices, and even inability to get our full allotment of pre-ordered slow release[sic]fertilizers.”
Additionally, Heritage “doubled down on containers, especially #1 pots and large plugs that finish fast for clients,” Krautmann stated. “Container production is more labor efficient with investments in equipment to mechanize and to employ staff in higher-skilled positions.