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Made in Minnesota: Badoura State Tree Nursery helps grow future forests

“Some seedlings are root-pruned. It actually makes it a little bit easier to plant,” explains Kristina Somes, Badoura's supervisor. Cheryl Carter of Park Rapids has been a root pruner for five years. "You kind of develop a rhythm after awhile," she said. Carter is retired, but was looking for something to do. "You work five, six weeks in the spring and the fall," she said.1 / 8
"I like seeing people every year, the smell of the trees," says Deb Tangeman of Nevis. This is her third year at Badoura State Tree Nursery. 2 / 8
Every summer, Minnesota DNR Forestry offices throughout the state are given a list of which cone species the Badoura State Tree Nursery is collecting. Private landowners and groups pick the cones, like the black spruce shown here, and bring them to local forestry offices for reimbursement.3 / 8
Ruth Horton, 77, gently pulls apart tangled white pine seedlings. "The roots are really tangled, so you really have to pull," she said. Horton has worked at the tree nursery since 2006.4 / 8
Jeff Etter of Menahga loads up a trailer of seedlings to take to the packing shed, where they'll be sorted and counted. 5 / 8
Steve Kako and John Murphy, both of the Menahga area, pull freshly lifted seedlings off the conveyor belt and packs them into tubs. Kako enjoys working outdoors in the springtime. 6 / 8
Badoura State Tree Nursery is bustling with activity this time of year. Seasonal workers are lifting, sorting, counting and shipping millions of tree seedlings across Minnesota. (Photos by Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)7 / 8
Specialized heavy equipment raises seedlings out of the bed.8 / 8

Badoura State Tree Nursery is abuzz.

Founded in 1931 and located 10 miles south of Akeley, the nursery is home to roughly 50 million deciduous and conifer seedlings and shrubs.

Each spring, seasonal workers are hired to sow and harvest the seedlings at Minnesota's only state tree nursery.

"Generally, throughout the year, we'll lift, sort, count and grade four to six million trees based on tree sales and seedling availability," said officer manager Wendy Hine.

Many area residents work during the peak season, roughly April through mid-May.

"We have some staff that have been coming back for 30-plus seasons," Hine said. "A lot of our crew is like that. They're outdoor people. They know this is a good thing to be doing. They're really just a wonderful group of people."

On its 140 cultivated acres, the nursery produces red pine, jack pine, white pine, white spruce, black spruce, black walnut, green ash, red oak, silver maple, cedar and more. They are all species native to Minnesota and they may only be planted in Minnesota.

The tree seedlings are destined for federal, state, county or tribal governments as well as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD).

Private landowners may also purchase them to reforest property.

The minimum order is 500 seedlings, which can be a combination of different species in increments of 100. Customized orders are placed by mail, phone or fax.

Kristina Somes is the nursery's new DNR Forestry supervisor, taking the helm a mere two months ago.

"It's such a neat, unique place. It's a privilege to work here," Somes said.

A former Peace Corps volunteer, she has a masters in forestry from Michigan Tech. Prior to Badoura, Somes managed a SWCD in Michigan.

Seed extraction

All of the seedlings are grown from cones collected in Minnesota.

"In late July and early August, we have cone pickers. So it all really starts with our cone pickers. They gather cones and acorns for us. We buy them from them, then we do our own seed extracting here," Hine explained. "The extracting process happens all winter. That runs from November through March."

Typically, the landowners or groups gather cones and deliver them to their local DNR Forestry office. The regional location and species of each cone harvest is tracked so seeds can be matched with future planting locations. For example, white pine cones collected in Itasca State Park will be identified and kept separate from other species or sites.

Once at Badoura, cones are placed in ovens and toasted at around 150 degrees, depending on the species. The heat simulates Mother Nature and the cones open.

"From the time in to the time out is roughly an hour," explains Ron Hamilton, a forestry technician for 33 years. He worked at Badoura from 1990-94 and returned again last spring.

The cones are tumbled to loosen and separate the tiny seeds.

"A good yield would be 11 to 12 ounces of seed per bushel of cones. You can sometimes see four or five ounces," Hamilton said. "In all my time here, I've never seen a pound of seed per bushel."

"It takes a lot of cones to get seed," Somes said.

The nursery saves most of its "spent" cones.

"There's a company in Wisconsin that buys them for ornaments," Hamilton noted.

Each seed has a papery thin "wing," which is removed through another tumbling process. The de-winged seeds are then sorted by size. After passing a germination test, they are stored in a cooler.

Hamilton points to a metal tub filled with black spruce seeds.

"There are approximately 350,000 seeds per pound. Give or take 20,000," he says. The quantity per pound varies by species and seed size.

Badoura State Tree Nursery sells both seeds and seedlings.

The state, for instance, has an aerial seeding program for areas that are inaccessible for planting. In these cases, seeds are dispersed by helicopter.

Into the field

Seeding is performed both spring and fall.

"We have trees anywhere from 1 to four years old in the nursery," Somes said. "Almost all the fields in production at some level."

Seedlings are kept in the ground long enough to develop solid root systems and strong stems. Depending on species, coniferous seedlings are between 2 to 4 years of age and deciduous seedlings are between 1 to 3 years of age when sold.

Logistically, they try to lift trees at a pace acceptable to the tree sorters, "so we don't overwhelm the packing shed," Somes explains.

"Different species lift at different rates," she noted. "So some comes out of the ground easily, some take awhile."

They also don't want to leave seedlings sitting in the trailer for half a day, getting dried up in the sun.

Mike Hamp has worked at Badoura for 20 years, most recently as a "lifter."

"Why am I here? I've been a civil engineer, Air Force, 20 years. I do this because it's green," he said. He lives in Park Rapids.

Once seedlings have been "lifted," or harvested, the fields are prepared and seeded again.

"On the line"

Between 90 and 120 seasonal workers are hired during a normal year, according to Somes.

Two forestry technicians, a general repairman and two office staff work year 'round.

Workers in the packing sheds, or "on the line," need to lift a 25-pound tub, count and sort.

"It can be hard on your feet. You're standing all day long," Somes said. "They do an amazing, amazing job. They are some tough folks."

Trees arrive from the field into the loading dock.

Every seedling is inspected to meet certain standards for height, diameter, root development and health.

"Culls," or seedlings that don't make the grade, are re-planted and allowed to grow another two years.

Those passing muster are counted, bundled and sent down a conveyor belt to be stacked into boxes.

Workers have diverse backgrounds. Some are retired, some like the supplemental income.

Ruth Horton has sorted trees in the packing shed since 2006.

"I'm 77 and I'm not getting any younger," said Horton. "My daughter said, 'Mom, why are you working this year?' I said, 'Well, I went to Hawaii this year and I need to supplement my savings account.'"

Originally from Huntersville, she recently moved to Park Rapids.

"It's only 23 miles," Horton said of the commute to work.

This will likely be her last year — she's slated for knee surgery this winter.

"I enjoy being with all the other people," she said.

Tree seedlings are shipped to the same "seed zone" of origin. Minnesota has six zones.

The public is welcome to take a tour of the nursery. Call 218-652-2385.