Arkansas Forestry Commission’s nursery program fills niche for landowners big and small

Published July 19, 2015 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Allan Murray, left, the manager at the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s Baucum Nursery, discusses with James Shelton, nursery reforestation foreman, a field of seedlings at the facility.

When I heard the conversation among the landowners’ family members, my mind immediately rewound to the 1990s. Then, I was a nontraditional student at Arkansas State University-Beebe, returning to college life after a switch in my major and some time in the real world doing that four-letter word — work.

Now, back to the present, where I am a caretaker on a farm in southeast Arkansas.

That’s where I heard the plight of some of the timber found on the family’s farm.

Standing water in one area of hardwood timber had repeatedly been slow to drain from the landscape and into the borrow ditch adjacent to the wooded ground. The result was oaks, hickories and native pecans suffering from prolonged exposure to high water.

Such hardwood species are common in the bottomlands of the Arkansas Delta and can generally withstand a seasonal period of flooding. However, according to the National Forest Service, “Most trees can withstand only one to four months with water being continuously over the soil surface.”

Since the family was already utilizing the timber for duck hunting each winter, that accounted for a period of around three months of standing water. Repeated heavy-precipitation events in the late winter and early spring, however, had recently inundated the area in several years. Basically, the trees were drowning.

More on that flashback

So why did I think about my three semesters at ASU-Beebe when I heard about this?

During that stint, I was in a course on public speaking taught by the now-retired Rick Chudomelka. For a persuasive speech that he assigned, I turned toward my love of the outdoors for inspiration.

That precipitated a trip to the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s nursery at Baucum, just to the east of North Little Rock. There, the nursery staff fixed me up with a bundle of pine trees and armed me with the information I needed to explain to my class members and the professor why planting trees can be so important to an entire ecosystem — humans included.

Another nursery visit

Years removed from that speech, I Googled the commission’s website and looked for the nursery’s contact information. I initially spoke on the phone with one of the facility’s workers about picking up some trees for the farm.

My first visit ended with me loading a bundle of 100 persimmon trees into my car. My aim was to supplement the existing mast-producing timber with some fast-growing, fast-producing trees that would enhance the value of the farm property for a variety of wildlife — especially deer.

Next, I purchased overcup oak, pecan and sawtooth oak in bundles of 25 trees each. These would serve as new growth that would in five, 10 or maybe 20 years be available as a mast crop for the ducks, deer, squirrels and other wild inhabitants of the farm.

Planting the trees has been a fun project — one that has left me with a sense of pride that I have actually taken action to make a difference, not just for me, but for those still to come.

During those visits to the nursery, though, I also discovered that the AFC and its staff have a great story to tell, particularly about the Baucum Nursery — a great public resource and a hidden gem tucked into a state-highway curve just a stone’s throw from the capital city.

A little AFC history

Much of the Arkansas Forestry Commission story, like how it came into existence, can be unearthed from that same website I visited in the 1990s and again earlier this year:

forestry.arkansas.gov.

Act 234 of the 1931 session of the Arkansas Legislature birthed the AFC.

The first crop of tree seedlings followed in 1935. Nurseries first took root in Conway, then at Bluff City and eventually at Baucum, where the initial crop of trees came along in 1958.

Since the AFC began, more than 1.3 billion trees have been produced. That number, which includes seedlings through the 2015 crop, shows more than 1.1 billion were trees that grew at Baucum.

At Baucum, the nursery covers about 220 acres, with 100 acres being served by an irrigation system. Nursery personnel utilize about 50 acres each year for production, with those growing areas going through a 2-2 rotation that includes two years of production, followed by one year each of lying fallow and being planted with a cover crop.

Tree seedling Q&A

Dave Bowling is the reforestation manager for the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

He knows the mission of the commission is one of importance to landowners of Arkansas and surrounding states.

More particularly, Bowling said, the nursery program exists “for landowners to have a source for reforestation and afforestation.”

Of course, like the growth rings of a tree, there are many layers and specificities to the processes found at the AFC’s Baucum Nursery. Bowling offered the following answers to better explain how a tree grows in Baucum.

Q: What is the basic life cycle of a tree seedling at Baucum?

A: “Seed is planted in the fall or spring, depending on the species. The AFC has orchards that produce genetically improved loblolly and shortleaf pine seed and cherrybark and nuttall oak seed. A long process of breeding and testing has determined which trees are part of the orchards. Seed for all other species are purchased on the open market through contracts,” Bowling said. “Production continues as follows: Seedlings grow for one growing season. Seedlings are fertilized according to soil-test recommendations, sprayed for weeds and/or fungus, irrigated, hand-weeded and top-pruned. In late December or early January, seedlings are harvested and packed into bags of 25, 100 or 200 for hardwoods and boxes of 500 for pines.”

The life cycle for these seedlings at the nursery is shorter than at some of the commercial nursery businesses. That’s because the AFC is working to produce 1-year-old seedlings. Meanwhile, commercial nurseries may offer trees that are 3, 5 or more years old.

Q: The AFC nursery program boasts improved species of loblolly and shortleaf pine, as well as cherrybark and nuttall oak. What does it mean to have an improved tree species?

A: “Selections are made from the wild or within a breeding program for the desired characteristics. Those selections are then planted in tests and measured over a number of years. The tests are compared to a check lot within the same test, often called woods run trees. Further selections are made from the tests as the best ‘performing’ trees are determined,” Bowling said.

“The concept of improved tree species is then pursued by crossing parents that you know are good performers with each other. Crossing two good parents should theoretically produce good offspring, but the only way we can be sure is further testing and comparing their crosses against each other, as well as a check lot.”

From what I can gather, this is just the tree grower’s proverbial version of attempting to build a better mouse trap. Trees that grow more quickly or fruit more quickly are more tolerant of temperature or precipitation extremes, are more resistant to pests such as insects or fungi, and can prove more desirable for landowners wanting more bang for their buck.

Q: With its years of experience and research, the AFC has learned more and more about tree-seedling production, including what makes a better seedling for consumers. What does the AFC hope to develop in a seedling between the time of planting and purchase?

A: “We want a seedling with a great root system, a good stem diameter and a top no taller than twice the length of the tap root (a 2:1 shoot-to-root ratio),” Bowling said.

“For hardwoods, especially oaks, we want to produce seedlings with a minimum of 1/8-inch diameter at the root collar — the location where the stem of the seedling meets the ground; a minimum of 16 inches above the root collar; a minimum of 8 inches of tap root below the root collars; and a minimum of five first-order lateral roots. For pine, we want a minimum tap root of 5 inches with a minimum of 5 inches of lateral roots on at least two sides.”

Tap roots, as some of the nursery crew explained, are great for getting down into the soil to reach groundwater. However, the aim at Baucum is to have more of the fibrous roots. This desire comes with the knowledge that more fibrous roots means a seedling has greater survivability.

Looking for trees?

If you are like I was last spring, you may be in the market for trees from the AFC. The good news is that the commission’s purchasing season began Wednesday. The seedlings won’t be available for pickup until January, but you can begin the process now.

Before you get on the phone with the nursery or check out the AFC website, keep in mind the following information provided by Adriane Barnes, public information coordinator for the commission.

Q: For a person wanting to plant trees, how important are factors like soil tests, soil types, etc. in the selection process?

A: “Landowners need to match the tree species most appropriate to the site,” Barnes said. “Contact your local AFC county forester (forestry.arkansas.gov/contactUs/Pages/WhoDoICall.aspx) to arrange a site visit to your forest land. Your county forester can also explain the multitude of programs available to help offset the cost of reforestation and forest-management practices.”

Q: When will these seedlings begin to produce mast, whether hard or soft, for species such as persimmon, oaks, pecan, etc.?

A: “This varies greatly with species but is also very dependent on the quality of the site and the species selection for that site. Many species have a wide range of site adaptation but will perform much better on the site best suited for that particular species. Mast production can occur [in trees] as young as 5 years for sawtooth oak, but many other species may take 10 to 30 years to produce,” Barnes said.

Q: As with persimmons needing multiple seedlings planted to ensure fruit, what are some of the most commonly shared pieces of information for AFC nursery tree buyers not in the know?

A: “Every species is different, so it is a good idea to research your species of interest. A good place to start is the AFC Trees of Arkansas book,” Barnes said. “This book has a lot of information about all the seedlings we grow. You can access each species page on the AFC website on the seedling order form. Just click on the species name, and the Trees of Arkansas page will display. You can also print each page for future reference. The book is available for purchase at Baucum Nursery, as well as the AFC district and county offices.”

Q: When is the best time to plant trees in Arkansas?

A: “The best time to plant bare-root seedlings is January through March,” Barnes said.

“The best time to plant containerized seedlings is September through March, providing there is enough soil moisture in September.”

More than seedlings

While those who think they’re familiar with the AFC believe the commission just grows trees, the truth is that there are several facets to the organization.

AFC programs include community, or urban, forestry; forestry management; and forestry protection, as well as rural fire protection and Arkansas Firewise —a program that is more preventive in nature with regard to wildfires.

The AFC also facilitates the Arkansas Champion Trees Program and the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program. Plus, the commission is affiliated with Tree City USA, which was established in 1976 to promote and enhance tree planting, growth and stewardship in communities.

On the horizon

The planting times for tree seedlings will be here before we know it. I know because spring always catches me with Valentine’s Day — a Farmer’s Almanac suggested planting date for potatoes — come and gone and no taters in the ground.

To ready myself for next spring and whatever seedlings are added to the farm, I’ll be getting back in touch with the Baucum Nursery staff and making a couple of orders based on their recommendations.

Those wanting to inquire about the Arkansas Forestry Commission can visit the aforementioned website or call (501) 296-1940. For more information on tree seedlings, visit the AFC website or call the Baucum Nursery at (501) 907-2485.

Staff writer James K. Joslin can be reached at (501) 399-3693 or jjoslin@arkansasonline.com.