By Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties
Here is something you should know: Seedlings are in short supply for this winter’s planting season, and the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
So what is up? The seedling situation represents something of a perfect storm, with demand rising just as production is down. This is bad news for the folks who’ve noticed timber prices are up a bit and are thinking of a harvest sometime soon.
But that is part of the problem. We have seen an increase in demand for seedlings in response to an improved timber market which has upped the harvest and replanting activities. The Christmas tree market is also looking up. Then there is the whimsy of Nature. Extreme weather, such as the November 2014 freeze, have been causing significant nursery losses in some areas and for certain species (such as western redcedar right now). The drought and this summer’s massive fires will create new and on-going demand for seedling production across the region. Demand unmet this year adds to the demand next year. Then add to that the news that some large corporate growers are saying they will not be selling to the public any more, and you can see why seedlings are hard to find.
On the production side of the equation, the crash in harvest during the recession led to a dramatic oversupply of seedling, leaving nurseries to absorb the loss. This caused several mid-sized nurseries to go out of business, shrinking current nursery capacity and causing reluctance of many nurseries to “seed an extra bed” to meet some unknown future need. Remember it takes a couple years to grow most seedlings, and nobody has a reliable crystal ball.
Family forest landowners typically get their seedlings from two pools: Seedlings grown on speculation of future need, and production over runs from contracts for large corporate landowners. Both of these pools have declined recently, and are likely to continue to decline.
What makes many people really nervous is that the situation is not likely to be resolved quickly, nor easily. There are many obstacles to a durable solution. These include reduced production capacity, dwindling reserves of harvested seed, increased production costs, low margins and (understandable) reluctance of nurseries to expose themselves to excessive risk. Remember, we are not talking about a single product, but about a very large suite of products: seedlings for over a dozen conifer tree species and many more hardwoods and shrubs, of several distinct stock types, for 10 distinct seed zones, many with multiple elevation bands. These myriad products all result from decisions and a production process triggered two years earlier. It looks like the perfect storm brewing. It is a wonder there are any seedlings available at all.
So what is a person to do?
Plan ahead. We say this all the time, but now we mean it. If you have waited for the rain to fall before making a call, you are likely out of luck this year. Seedlings from many species, stocktypes and seedzones have been sold out since June. But I said “likely”, so get on the phone and call around at least and get on a waiting list. The seedlings have not been lifted and sorted, so supplies are still uncertain. You can get in line for any that show up beyond the current estimate, or if someone backs out of an order. You can find a list of area nurseries to call, along with an idea of what thy typically produce by referring to the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Sources of Native Forest Nursery Seedlings. Another valuable resource to help you locate seedlings is The Forest Seedling Network.
Going forward, plan to order far ahead, before the sawdust flies. Growing seedlings on contract likely takes a larger order and bigger commitment than many family forest landowners want to take on, but getting in line at the start of the production cycle might boost supply as well as secure your piece of it. Expect to see the cost of trees expand as nurseries adopt methods to get the most out of each pound of seed, from each square yard of bed of square foot of bench.
Finally, communicate with and support the efforts of landowner groups such as OSWA or Tree Farm, the Committee for Family Forestry and the Oregon Department of Forestry which are looking for solutions to the problem.
My thanks to Rick Barnes (Barnes and Associates), Kathy LeCompte (Brooks Tree Farm), Dan Kintigh (Kintigh’s Mountain Home Ranch), and Bob McNitt (The Forest Seedling Network) for providing background on this story.