Minnesota's two tree nurseries are preparing to phase out much of their seedling production, work they've been doing since the Great Depression.
Although the state nurseries run by the Department of Natural Resources recently celebrated their billionth tree planted, the Legislature directed them to stop selling to private buyers. That worries customers, who fear that private nurseries may not step up to fill the void.
The General C.C. Andrews tree nursery near Willow River, Minn., and the Bedoura nursery near Akeley, Minn., produce dozens of varieties of trees, among them walnut, white and red pine, oak, butternuts and spruce. Walnut seeds they plant in the fall germinate in the spring and grow into seedlings during the summer. In the fall, they're packed in plastic-lined bins and placed in a warehouse's refrigerated room.
In the spring, workers plant the seedlings on state and county forest land, wildlife management areas, retiring farm fields, shelter belts, and small woodlots all over the state. About 60 percent will go to public land, 40-percent to private land.
The General CC. Andrews nursery uses native seeds collected around the state, and it keeps careful track of the origin of each tree. But after planting trees for more than 70 years, the nursery will probably close in a couple of years, even though it sold seven million trees last year.
The state's other nursery will pick up some of the slack, but overall the department's plantings will drop by nearly half. Last year the legislature directed the state to quit selling to private buyers. Starting in 2013 they can only sell to state, county, federal, and tribal governments.
For years, legislators have tried to close the nurseries entirely, arguing that the state shouldn't be in the business of raising trees. State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, is among the nurseries' biggest critics. He said if the state wants to subsidize tree-planting, it should pay landowners, not run a nursery.
"Call it what it is, we're going to pay people to plant windbreaks on their property, and we're going to offer you a subsidy to do that," said McNamara, a retired landscaper and nurseryman. "Let the market decide how that's going to be, but don't subsidize an operation that arguably they're not doing a good job at."
McNamara said his business, now run by his son, won't benefit from the change because it only raises bigger trees, not the kind planted in forests.
The state nurseries are self-supporting, but McNamara said they've been badly managed in recent years and their reserve fund has declined from nearly $2 million to $1 million.
Olin Phillips, forest protection section manager for the Department of Natural Resources, said the department recently had to buy a lot of trees following a major disease outbreak. He also said sales have declined because of the poor economy and reduced government support for conservation plantings.
All over the state, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts buy large quantities of seedlings from the state nurseries -- and from private nurseries -- and bundle them into smaller packages suitable for farmers and homeowners to plant.
Mark Thell, a supervisor of the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the state tree nurseries are a steady source of trees and shrubs well-adapted to thrive in the various sub-climates of Minnesota. He worries about whether private nurseries will be so committed to supplying locally appropriate stock.
Thell said trying to plant trees from southwest Minnesota in a northern climate might be a mistake.
"Probably those trees propagated down there when we move them this far north are not going to survive well here," he said.
Thell also questions whether private nurseries are ready to fill the need -- because it takes several years for most trees to be ready to transplant.
Bob Fitch, executive director of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, said there's no need to worry. He said existing nurseries can comfortably boost production and supply from seed sources just as local as the state nurseries can.
"If the customer says we want trees grown from seeds within 50 or 15 miles of this site, our growers will meet the specifications," Fitch said. "They'll meet the demand.
A team from Minnesota Management and Budget is studying whether the nurseries can remain viable once the law takes effect.
All parties agree the nurseries should continue their seed collecting and tree improvement work.
State nurseries timeline:
1931: The Badoura State Forest Nursery is established when the legislature authorizes the state to produce tree planting stock, limited to native coniferous trees for planting on only state-owned lands.
1939: The General C. C. Andrews State Forest Nursery is established near Willow River. 1947: The Division of Forestry is authorized to produce planting stock of all species for use on private lands, causing tree production to skyrocket.
1950s-1980s: At their peak, state nurseries sell approximately 40 million seedlings each year. 1997: Legislature imposes cap: State nurseries can no longer sell more than 10 million seedlings.
2009: Sales slump due to poor economy and declining federal cost-share for conservation programs; 5.2 million seedlings sold.
2011: In special session, Gov. Mark Dayton signs bill restricting state nurseries to sell seedlings only to government entities after 2013. They will continue to provide native seeds to private nurseries and to work on tree improvement program.
Expected production in coming years: approximately 4 million seedlings.