Filling a need for seed

By Bill Rautenstrauch, for The Observer October 16, 2013 09:10 am

Jamie Knight, Oregon Department of Forestry
Jamie Knight, Oregon Department of Forestry

Local orchard to alleviate shortage of Western larch seeds for area timber growers 

The Blue Mountain Western Larch Co-Op’s orchard on the Glen McKenzie farm near Summerville is thriving these days, though there’s still some time to go before it starts producing much-coveted seeds.

Jamie Knight, the Oregon Department of Forestry forester who manages the orchard, said some 850 trees planted since 2011 are healthy and on track to start producing seeds in another three or four years.

Knight said the wait will be worth it, because there are never enough larch seeds to go around.

 “We figure we can produce about a million seeds a year. It will significantly reduce the shortage in Northeast Oregon,” Knight said.

Western Larch, commonly called tamarack, grows well in Northeast Oregon and its wood is highly prized.

Straight-grained, knot-free, tough, durable and waterproof, the wood is used extensively in the building of yachts and boats. It’s also considered ideal for the exteriors of buildings, and for posts sunk in the ground.

For producers, supply is always an issue. Under normal circumstances, obtaining seed cones for planting is a time-consuming and chancy process. Hazards like frost and insect infestation impact cone production. The trees produce seeds about every seven to 11 years.

 A work crew plants larch grafts at the Blue Mountain Western Larch Co-Operative orchard near Summerville in 2012. A host of public and private partners started the orchard to increase the availability of larch seed in Northeast Oregon.
A work crew plants larch grafts at the Blue Mountain Western Larch Co-Operative orchard near Summerville in 2012. A host of public and private partners started the orchard to increase the availability of larch seed in Northeast Oregon.
 

A first for the region

Larch seed orchards are common enough in the Pacific Northwest, but not in Northeast Oregon. The orchard in Union County, in fact, is a first for the region. Its beginnings go back to 2008, when Knight and the ODF opened talks with some potential local partners about starting an orchard. Knight said Larry Miller, an ODF geneticist, played a key role getting the project going.

Hancock Forest Management, then known as Forest Capital Partners, was an enthusiastic backer from the beginning. Others who joined in included Lava Nursery in Parkdale, IFA Nursery in Portland and the Private Lands Forest Network, a private, non-profit organization based in La Grande.

The venture included partners from the public sector as well. One is the state forestry department’s Oregon Seed Bank, and others are the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Union County and the U.S. Forest Service.

“All have put in money or in-kind services,” Knight said. Hancock is the major contributor, paying 51 percent of the project costs. 

Hancock, which owns timberlands throughout the region, will get 51 percent of the yield. Knight said the project partners looked at several potential sites before deciding to lease eight acres of ground at the McKenzie farm, which is managed by the Oregon Agricultural Foundation.

Orchard fits McKenzie mission

The farm is a legacy from Glen and Jean McKenzie, lifetime Union County residents who had a passion both for agriculture and for education and hoped for their land to be of
lasting benefit to the local
 community.

“The Foundation believes Glen would have been very supportive of forestry. The orchard fits right into the mission,” Knight said.

By 2009, Knight and others were scouting regional forests for parent trees. They picked 66 of the best trees they could find, and from them harvested scion, new growth at the end of tree branches. At the nurseries, the scion was grafted on to root stock. Planting began in 2012.

Because they are young and vulnerable, the trees have been whitewashed to protect them from sun damage. Knight said upkeep of the orchard has been labor intensive, though many maintenance issues will disappear over time. 

“We hope when the trees get big enough we won’t have to do as much irrigating,” Knight said.

Knight said a grant from the Wildhorse Foundation has helped with maintenance costs. She also said crews from the Oregon Youth Authority’s RiverBend correctional facility have played a huge part in the project.

This past summer, Knight was gone much of the time spotting forest fires from the air, but knew the RiverBend youths were taking good care of the young trees.

“They kept the orchard up and going, weeding and putting down weed mats. I can’t say enough about them,” she said.