April 01, 2017
By Debra Davis
All the pine straw harvested by Twice The Straw is hand raked, which takes longer but produces the highest quality bale for customers.
Millions of copper-colored needles form nature’s perfect padding beneath longleaf pine trees. Those needles are like gold to a pair of Barbour County brothers who are raking in business thanks to the trees’ castoffs.
“When I graduated from Auburn University (AU) in 2005, I knew I wanted to come home to farm,” said 34-year-old Barret Stephenson of Eufaula. “My dad had a few hundred acres of pine trees. Our land wasn’t really suitable for row crops, so I had to figure out how to make a living with what we had. That’s what put me in the pine straw business.”
Armed with a degree in agribusiness and economics and flanked by his brother, Chance, who has a horticulture degree from AU, Twice The Straw, LLC was formed in 2010.
“I got into the meat goat and sheep business about the same time,” Barret said. “Goats and sheep are browsers, so they eat the weeds and plants. That cuts down on mowing and spraying we have to do to keep the orchards clean.”
Pine straw is a favorite mulch for homeowners and professional landscapers alike, but harvesting it is a challenge, especially how the Stephensons do it.
“All of our straw is raked by hand,” Barret said. “We pick up the sticks and cones and rake only the fresh straw, leaving the old mat on the forest floor. The mat protects the trees and keeps down weeds. Besides, customers don’t want dark, rotten straw.”
Being particular helps their straw fetch a premium price, about $10 for a 45-pound round roll. Compared to some square bales that weigh as little as 8 pounds and cost $4-$7, Barret said his straw is a bargain.
Like most farmers, labor and weather are big challenges for Barret and Chance. Wet straw is heavy and hard to rake, and it can mold, Barret said. Sore arms and backs are just part of the business, he added.
Once it’s raked into windrows, a small baler rolls the straw and ties it with twine. Rolls are loaded on a small trailer that fits between the 12-foot rows of trees, then hauled to a larger trailer in a clearing.
Their first year, the Stephensons baled loblolly pine straw but switched to longleaf when they learned it was better and worth more.
“The waxy coating on longleaf straw makes it brighter and last longer,” Barret said.
Alabama Farmers Federation Forestry Division Director Rick Oates said the Stephensons’ farm is a good example of silvopasture, where forests are used for multiple purposes.
“They’re making the most off their land- — -that’s what makes farmers successful,” Oates said.
Growing from 5,000 rolls the first year to 24,000 last year, Barret said social media and customer recommendations are the best form of advertising. Most retail customers buy the Stephensons’ straw at Auto Pride Self Storage, the family’s business in Eufaula, but they also have a growing wholesale business.
Barret is a Barbour County Farmers Federation director and serves on the Federation’s State Meat Goat & Sheep Committee. He has a commercial hay business and tends to 80 head of hair sheep and 175 meat goats. The married father of two also preaches most Sundays at rural churches.
“The Lord has blessed me, and I take every opportunity to talk about His love and grace,” Barret said. “And one of the most rewarding things about my pine straw business is seeing a little old lady at church and her telling me about how beautiful her yard looks after putting out my straw.”
For a video about the farm, visit tinyurl.com/PineStrawFarmer. Find the Stephensons on Facebook at Twice The Straw or call (334) 687-2094 for more information.