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April 21, 2003   Email to Friend 

PINE STRAW OFFERS FOREST OWNERS ADDITIONAL INCOME
Outdoor writer Ben Norman lives in Crenshaw County.
Ben Norman
(334) 613-4212
April 21, 2003

Tommy Horn, standing left, and his crew manually feed pine straw into a baler.
When Tommy Horn walks into a stand of plantation pines he is not there to check on the diameter or height of the trees like most forest industry people. He's on his knees checking the volume and quality of pine straw on the ground.

Horn, owner and manager of Horn Pine Straw Company (334-527-3347) near Brantley in Crenshaw County, is a pine straw raker.

"I've been in the pine straw raking business for 12 years. I started out part time with borrowed equipment using my children and other relatives to help me harvest straw," Horn said. "This is a labor-intensive business. We use a mechanical baler, but the raking and feeding the baler requires a lot of elbow grease. It's a lot like feeding an old-time stationary peanut hay baler."

The straw rakers employed by Horn are paid by the bale. Each raker uses a four-pronged pitchfork to lift the straw from the ground and place it in a small pile. A pickup man collects the small piles of pine straw in a narrow-wheeled trailer and dumps it at each raker's windrow.

When the pile is large enough, the baler is brought to the windrow, and the straw is hand fed into the machine using pitchforks. Horn sets the baler to turn out 25- to 30-pound bales so his customers can handle it better. The straw is then stacked and counted, and the raker is paid accordingly.

The straw is then loaded on a covered truck and delivered to customers. Partial loads are delivered up to a 50- or 60-mile radius, and full loads of 225 bales up to 80 miles. Horn, who has a reputation for delivering high-quality pine straw, says the demand for his pine straw has increased every year since he began.

"I can sell about all the straw I can harvest. That's money in my pocket and the landowner's pocket," he said. "In my opinion, a lot of landowners are missing out on additional income from their timberland by not harvesting their pine straw. I've paid landowners anywhere from $30 to $70 an acre for loblolly straw and almost $100 an acre for one tract of longleaf straw."

Pine stands from eight to 15 years old with minimum undergrowth are preferred. Horn generally gathers straw every other year from each tract but says it is not uncommon to find young stands that can be harvested every year.

Research done by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service suggests that a single removal of straw will have little effect on forest production. Continued annual or semi-annual removal may deplete nutrients to the extent the trees will need to be fertilized. Fertilization will increase needle production and tree growth.

Horn's customers range from those buying a few bales for their flowerbeds to nurseries and landscapers wanting several hundred bales.

"Even people who live in the country and work all week had rather buy the straw and have it delivered than spend their off day raking straw," Horn said. "I compare it to when everyone in the country had a milk cow. They wouldn't think of buying 'store milk.' How many milk cows can you find now? It's the same with pine straw, many people feel it's more economical to buy it from people like me than try to rake it themselves," he added.

According to Horn, most straw harvested in Alabama is from loblolly pine stands, but the demand for longleaf straw is increasing.

"We have a lot of people wanting longleaf straw, but it's hard to find. People with young longleaf stands shouldn't have any trouble selling their straw to a straw raker or even baling it and selling it themselves, when the trees get old enough," said Horn.

Jerry Howell, who owns Howell's Nursery and Landscaping (334-222-3682) near Andalusia in Covington County, agrees with Horn that the demand for quality pine straw is increasing.

"I'm using more and more pine straw in my landscaping business on everything from a small yard to a large industrial complex," he said. "I'm also selling about 3,000 bales of straw each year to do-it-yourself gardeners."

According to Howell, late winter and early spring were traditionally the best times to sell straw, but he is now seeing demand increase year round.

"A lot of people who are having dinners and parties during Thanksgiving and Christmas want their flower beds looking good," Howell said. "I use pine straw rather than bark or cypress mulch because pine straw will help cover up a lot of problems. For instance. if you have a flowerbed on a slope, pine straw will cling to the ground where chips will eventually work their way down hill. Also, straw keeps its color longer where chips and mulch begin to fade after a month, and straw is still about half as expensive as bagged cypress mulch."

Landowners who are interested in managing their timberlands for pine straw harvesting should keep undergrowth to a minimum by applying accepted management practices including prescribed burning, herbicide application, grazing and mechanical control such as bush hogging, and in some cases, the use of a small dozer.

Local County Extension agents, Alabama Forestry Commission personnel and private forestry consultants can offer advice to landowners who would like to include pine straw harvesting in their overall forestry management plan.


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