More seed collectors needed to help reforest Minnesota

a group of people picking up pinecones
Members of the Minnesota Women’s Woodland Network collect Black Spruce cones.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources needs more volunteers to collect seeds used to grow trees to reforest the state.  

Program manager Mike Reinikainen with the DNR Forestry Division said the program has depended on volunteers for more than 50 years, but in the past decade volunteer numbers have dwindled.

“We can't quite bring in what we need just for base level needs,” he said. “It's critical to what we do. It's the primary way that we get seed into the state forest nursery and that supports a large amount of reforestation work that occurs in Minnesota.”

And demand is growing as more people turn to tree planting as a climate change solution.

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“There's a lot of momentum around tree planting, a lot of interest in it that's going to require more seed,” said Reinikainen. “So, it's even more important that we're solving this problem and thinking about how we bring in more seed in the future."

Volunteers get paid a fee when they deliver seeds the DNR needs. Anyone interested should check with the agency about what species are in demand.

This fall Ray Vouk collected five bushels, about 40 gallons, of red oak acorns. He sold them to the DNR for $60 per bushel.

acorns on a lawn
Ray Vouk recently sold five bushels of acorns from his yard to the Department of Natural Resources.
Courtesy of Ray Vouk

He estimates another five bushels of acorns still litter his lawn. Vouk said acorns are often a nuisance on his rural property near St. Stephens, Minn.

“I get so many acorns that it’s unreal,” he said. “Some of my lawn is sloped. It gets so thick, oh man, it’s like walking on marbles. You have to be real careful when you walk so you don’t fall.”

In the past, Vouk would collect the acorns and dump them in a nearby woods. About five years ago he learned the DNR would buy the acorns, so he’s been bringing them to a DNR seed collecting station.  

The 81-year-old Vouk recently went high tech, spending $600 on a device to make the acorn collection easier.

“It’s called a cyclone nut harvester, it's a drum that's 18 inches wide with solid fingers and then it picks them up and puts them into a hopper in front of it,” he explained.

Vouk then dumps the collected acorns in water. Those that float are discarded. The rest are delivered to the DNR.

Vouk expects to keep collecting and selling acorns as long as he’s able, or as long as the big oak dominating his yard keeps producing.

“And that tree, it's a big one,” he said. “And real healthy.”

In many cases a single seed collector will provide much of what the DNR needs for a year. Reinikainen said it’s important to expand collection to more areas. 

“How we do bring in more seed in the future, and not just seeds but a diversity of seed sources,” he said. “Minnesota is a big state. You also need a diversity of genetics.”

One solution might be a new collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota Extension Service to offer seed collecting classes as a way to recruit more seed collectors across the state.

a tub filled with acorns
Ray Vouk spent several days collecting and cleaning acorns this fall.
Courtesy of Ray Vouk