By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties
Recent posts on this blog have examined the problem of forest seedling supplies for small woodland owners, and the compromises that sometimes come with limited seedling choices. While the situation has gotten worse in the last couple of years, it is not a new dilemma. Cooperative seedling buying programs, where a group of landowners collectively contract with a nursery for their seedling needs, are one way that small woodland owners have worked to ensure a reliable seedling supply for themselves and their neighbors.
Both the Columbia and Washington County chapters of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association (CCSWA and WCSWA, respectively) have organized annual seedling programs for their members for the last 15+ years. The two programs have much in common, with a few differences. They each sell about 50,000-70,000 seedlings/year, distributed among dozens of members. Paul Nys (CCSWA) and Bob Shumaker (WCSWA) have been organizing forces behind these programs since their outset. I talked with Paul and Bob to shed some light on the benefits and challenges of keeping these programs going for the benefit of groups in other areas that may want to consider this approach.
Why did you start the seedling program?
Bob: We started this as a service to our members. We wanted to provide good stock at a reasonable price and make it easier for people that needed only a few bags of trees to get them. Importantly, the sale is also a revenue source for our chapter. A small markup on the trees provides several thousand dollars each year that we can spend on chapter activities and community service.
Paul: Same here, although in our case the service to our membership has taken a priority over revenue generation. We keep the margin on our seedlings as small as possible for members, and we sell at a higher price to non-members. Access to improved planting stock is also really important for our members, which is why buying seed from ODF’s Schroeder Seed Orchard and contract growing is so critical. We used to buy seedlings from various suppliers and found that that the quality was inconsistent.
Take us through the process from start to finish.
Bob: It is a two year process. Seed is purchased from the Schroeder Seed Orchard and delivered to the nursery that we contract with. The nursery stratifies and sows the seed, and then cultivates the seedlings for two growing seasons. During that second year, we send out order forms and collect orders and deposits. The following winter, volunteers pick up the seedlings at the nursery and transport them to a cooler owned by one of our members. The seedling chairperson then coordinates with member buyers for pickup from the cooler.
Paul: It’s important to emphasize that we must decide how many seedlings to grow for our members two years before they are sold; thus we are assuming any risk of unsold seedlings or not having enough to meet demand as in the last couple of years. We (the association) are also outlaying the capital for those two years. We handle distribution a little differently. Our buyers must come get their trees at one of two Columbia County locations the day after we pick them up from the nursery. It’s more efficient for us, but puts the burden on the buyers to either get their seedlings in the ground right away or find their own cold storage.
What are some of the challenges to this model?
Paul: We could not do it without our volunteers. We have a coordinator to work with the nursery and to handle all the member orders, and then several people with trailers need to go pick up the seedlings and handle distribution. Also, Mother Nature always has her own game plan, which complicates nursery operations and affects our supply. One year, lifting the seedlings had to be delayed due to the weather and we had to re-organize all of our pickup and deliveries. Other years, there has been freeze damage or low germination, and the nursery hasn’t been able to fulfill our order.
Bob: Like Paul said, it’s a 100% volunteer effort. I calculated that it took 80 volunteer hours in one year, with most of that on the shoulders of 1-2 people. We used to supply a wider variety of seedlings, but it was too difficult to manage. Now we only sell Douglas-fir and western redcedar of a single stock type, but these seem to work for the majority of our members.
Any advice for those considering starting up their own cooperative effort?
Paul: Don’t reinvent the wheel! Model an existing program. Find a nursery that is willing to work with you. Recognize that you’ll have to put up the cash for two years until you start selling your trees. Good communication with your members about the ordering and delivery process is very important: it will streamline your workload; and they are your customers.
Bob: Maintaining good relations with the nursery is critical. Realize that you are in it together. Be sure to pay them on time and be flexible. You are not their biggest customer. Having access to a cooler has really helped us. If you don’t have one, consider renting commercial cooler space and factoring that into your seedling cost. Cultivate volunteers within your organization so that the seedling program can be sustained over time without reliance on any one person.
Many thanks to Bob and Paul, and to the many other volunteers that have made these programs work for small woodland owners. Those wishing to dig deeper into what it takes to pull off a cooperative seedling program will benefit from Bob Shumaker’s detailed writeup that was published in the WCSWA newsletter a few years ago.