‘We go where the seed is’; N.C. Forest Service announces winners of annual seed collection

by | Dec 2, 2022

Employees with the N.C. Forest Service are called upon to perform a plethora of tasks and responsibilities. Identifying invasive insects and tree diseases, responding to wildfires and assisting North Carolina landowners in a variety of ways relative to forestland management are just a few of the common, daily tasks that county staff have their hands in. Probably one of the lesser known and not-so-glamorous efforts they take on is the annual seed collection that assists the Nursery and Tree Improvement Program.

Northern Red Oak collected by Nash County Ranger Seth Bauguess and crew. Once on the sled, N.C. Forest Service personnel remove debris before bagging the seed.

Caleb Garland, assistant county ranger for Buncombe County operates a Bag-A-Nut harvester to gather acorns for the annual seedling collection.

The N.C. Forest Service Nursery and Tree Improvement (N&TI) Program is critical to the success of landowners in North Carolina and is necessary for ensuring they have access to the best genetics available. The N&TI Program is composed of two operations. The first is the Nursery Program, which is responsible for planning, growing, selling and distributing annual seedling crops. The second is the Tree Improvement Program which develops and improves key selections of tree species that are of high economic value to forest landowners. High economic value species include Fraser fir, loblolly, longleaf and shortleaf pine, as well as Eastern white pine and Atlantic white cedar. The long-term efforts of the Tree Improvement Program have resulted in dramatic increases in volume growth, disease resistance and physical properties of these species. The nursery only uses seed sources that are locally adapted, and the annual seed collection efforts conducted at the county level goes a long way in solidifying that element.

The annual seed collection not only provides a valuable service to the N&TI Program and the citizens of North Carolina, but it also allows opportunity for friendly competition among county staff. There are three awards given out each year to the counties that haul in the largest amount of weight for each category and the quantity is determined in pounds. These awards are designed to recognize dedication by the county staff and reward them for their hard work and accomplishments. Without their unsung efforts, producing a diverse field of tree seedlings would not be possible. Each county office can participate in the annual seed collection, with 95% of the seed gathering taking place from September through December. It requires up to two months to compile collection data and the awards are typically announced each February by Nursery and Tree Improvement Program Head Bobby Smith.

“I think the seed collection is just something that they really enjoy,” said Smith. “It’s a break from the daily grind and gets them into the woods and around the great landowners that make up this state. Not only does it really help the nursery and our ability to provide North Carolina landowners with great genetics, but I believe many of the rangers enjoy the competition.”

The first award is the Golden Nut Award, which went to Catawba County for bringing in nearly 21,000 pounds of acorns, hickories, tupelo and cone bearing species. Their 2021 collection was good enough to deem them Golden Nut champions for the third consecutive year. When asked about the seed dominance over the last few years, Catawba County Ranger Jeff Icard said things haven’t always been this way.

“The quantity and quality of the seed relies heavily on the elements surrounding the spring season,” Icard said. “There’s been years in the past where we couldn’t find much at all. If we receive good pollination during the springtime, it usually correlates to good seedling production. If not, the volume is significantly less.”

A truckload of seedlings bagged, tagged and ready to go.

When asked what he enjoys most about the seed collection season, Icard alluded to the opportunity of spending time with county residents and educating the public on the seedling process.

“People will see us out collecting and they don’t hesitate to ask us what we’re doing,” he said. “This opens a window of opportunity to not only spend time visiting with folks, but also teach them about the seed, how we get it, what we do with it and how it’s developed for our nursery’s planting efforts. In turn, a lot of those same people will invite us out to their property to collect seed also.”

A pile of acorns collected using the Bag-A-Nut harvester.

“We go where the seed is,” he added.

North Carolina is home to a very diverse geographical landscape and population, and the methods for collecting seed across the state are just as unique. Nash County claimed the Superior Seed Award when they hauled in a little more than 8,500 pounds of fleshy, fruited species such as blackgum, cedar, plum and wax myrtle, a lot of which was gathered at city parks and road right of ways. According to Nash County Ranger Seth Bauguess, his staff got a little creative with their means of collecting.

“We’re what you would call opportunistic seed collectors. We’ll each tie a couple buckets together and hang them around the backs of our necks almost like we’re out picking berries,” said Bauguess. “When you’re mostly running fires, writing plans and doing cost share, collecting seed offers a nice change of scenery. Seed collection isn’t the highest priority but we like to set aside two mornings every week to get out and collect.”

The last of the awards went to Buncombe County, champions of the Silver Hemlock Award, based on their nine-pound collection of Carolina and Eastern hemlock. Caleb Garland, assistant county ranger with Buncombe County, attributed a lot of his county’s collection success to the willingness of local private landowners allowing them onto their property specifically for seed collection.

“Buncombe County folks love their land, love their trees and want to see their seed produce in the future,” Garland said. “A lot of people want it out of their way, so we’ll have several landowners who call our office to let us know it’s out there and they’re very gracious in allowing us to collect seed from their property.” Garland went on to add that most landowners are pleased to provide seed to and for the state and nursery. “They take pride in knowing their land is valuable enough for us to come and collect seed from it.”

N.C. Forest Service staff in Nash County utilizing a tarp to collect a Eastern red cedar seed.

Since 1924, the N.C. Forest Service has provided native forest tree seedlings of the highest quality for deployment across every region of North Carolina. With the Claridge Nursery located at the Goldsboro Forestry Center, the Linville River Nursery located just outside Crossnore in western North Carolina and an annual tree seedling catalog, they continue to serve as a stable provider in the constantly changing tree seedling market. With an average annual production of 15 million seedlings, the Nursery Program produces enough tree seedlings to plant approximately 30,000 acres of land each year. The N&TI Program is just another element in which the N.C. Forest Service continues to ensure North Carolina’s forestland remains healthy and thriving.

To learn more about the N.C. Forest Service Nursery and Tree Improvement Program, visit https://www.ncforestservice.gov/nursery/NurseryandTreeImprovement.htm. Seedlings may be ordered directly from the nursery by calling 1-888-NCTREES (628-7337) or from the online seedling store. They may also be ordered through any N.C. Forest Service office.