Alabama timberland stretches over 23 million acres, from the hills of Jackson County to the fertile soils of Baldwin and Mobile counties on the Gulf coast.
At ArborGen Inc. SuperTree Nursery and Orchards in Dallas County, workers research tree genetics and produce loblolly pine seedlings with a goal of making Alabama timberland even more productive.
“The tree improvement process started back in the 1950s, and the technology has progressed quite a bit,” said Larry Foster, ArborGen Nursery and Seed Orchard manager. “ArborGen has pioneered a lot of this work. We produce faster-growing, higher-quality trees which results in more wood on less land.”
ArborGen uses numerous methods for improving genetics including grafting, replication and mass control pollination, where pine cones are manually pollinated to know the traits of a seed’s mother and father trees.
The Dallas County nursery was built in 1974 with capacity to grow 15 million seedlings. Since 2008, it has produced about 27 million seedlings a year.
It takes about 30 years for a seedling to reach full maturity and be harvested. Through three generations of timber production, ArborGen has used genetics to promote favorable tree qualities including fast growth, straightness, disease-resistance and lack of forks. Harvested timber is graded, with higher profit potential for trees that can be used as saw logs or poles. A forked tree could downgrade the timber’s worth to pulpwood.
Douglas Ziebach of Monroe County owns 2,800 acres of timberland in the Ziebach and Webb Timber Co., and he manages another 3,000 acres of private timberland. He said he’s been an ArborGen customer for around 20 years.
“The tree quality is probably the best of any trees we look at,” Ziebach said. “The diameter of the tree doesn’t taper much, which means the trees are more likely to be a pole or saw log. You get a lot of yield out of those trees.”
Improving genetics starts by grafting trees with favorable qualities for the seed orchards. Grafted trees are planted, pruned and fertilized in the orchard. It takes six years for a tree to provide a seed crop.
Cones are hand-picked from trees when they are still green; stored to allow for ripening; and sent to a seed extractor. Collected seeds are shipped back to ArborGen for spring planting.
Foster said raising seedlings is similar to raising row crops. The land is prepared and planted with seeds in the spring; the crop is cared for with irrigation, fertilization and weed control through fall; and seedlings are harvested, or lifted, in mid-November through February.
“Lifting is a very gentle process,” Foster said. “We want to preserve as many roots as possible and keep them from drying out.”
Seedlings are boxed and kept in coolers at 34 to 36 F until customers pick them up. ArborGen sells directly to customers ranging from individual landowners to timber investment management organizations.
While Alabama already ranks third in forestland in the U.S. and forestry is the state’s largest agricultural sector, Foster said improved pine genetics will help grow the industry further.
He said he hopes people understand forestry is a renewable resource because landowners replant trees after harvests.
“Not everyone wants to cut trees down, but they’re converted into useful products people need,” he said. “So many people don’t really know where paper and wood products come from. They think paper comes from Office Depot and lumber comes from Lowe’s, but all these things start with trees and seedlings.”
ArborGen Inc. is an international company, headquartered in South Carolina, with other U.S. locations and research and production facilities in Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. For more information, visit ArborGen.com.