Pine Needlesa Hot, New
Technician Frank Chrismer (left) and agricultural forester Catalino Blanche
examine a bale of pine needles, a new crop for some landowners.
Money doesn't grow on trees. But for the rural landowner with even a few
acres of pine tree plantings, Catalino Blanche has a suggestion that could be
the next-best thing.
"Harvesting the pine needles that fall off the trees can give you a
nice interim cashflow during the 20 to 30 years before the trees themselves are
big enough to be harvested," says Blanche, who is an agriforester at the
ARS South Central Family Farms Research Center located at Booneville, Arkansas.
"Here in Arkansas, we can harvest as many as 150 bales of needles,
called pine straw, per acreat 30 to 40 pounds per baleand sell them
for as much as $8 apiece, starting when the trees are about 8 years old."
The needles are a hot commodity among landscapers and builders.
"Landscapers prefer pine straw mulch to bark nuggets or wood chips,
because the pine straw doesn't wash away as easily," Blanche explains.
"It's a nice color, and it will eventually break down, providing extra
organic matter for the soil.
"Builders like to spread pine straw at building sites to prevent the
soil from being disturbed too much by their heavy equipment," he says.
"The demand for pine straw is much greater than the supply."
But pine straw harvesting is very labor-intensive, Blanche warns. While the
straw can be baled with the same machinery used to bale hay, it must first be
raked into piles, with care taken to avoid sticks and other trash that could
lower the value of the product.
Another potential drawback is the impact of straw harvesting on the growing
"Shedding of needles is the way the tree returns nutrients to the soil
to help nourish itself," Blanche explains. "Our studies indicate that
you lose 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre by harvesting 100 bales of straw per
"Still, 238 pounds of 28-8-8 fertilizer per acre would be enough to
replace the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium you've taken away. That would
cost only about $27 per acre, against income of $600 if 150 bales per acre were
sold for $4 apiece."
Still unresolved is the potential impact of moisture loss in summer, as soil
around the tree is left bare by straw harvesting.
"We're looking now at leaving a certain amount of straw on the ground
under the trees to minimize water stress that can reduce growth
significantly," Blanche says.
Pine straw can be harvested anytime during the trees' shedding season, from
August to January. But the harvest could be timed to reduce adverse impact on
the growing trees, according to Blanche.
"Studies have shown the maximum harvest is in October and
November," he reports. "But harvesting in February could minimize the
impact on the ecological system because the straw would have been in place
through the winter, protecting the trees' root system from freezing
"That's particularly important in the Midsouth, because tree root
systems stay relatively active here, even in winter, and therefore are more
susceptible to damage."
In field tests with 16-year-old loblolly pine stands at Hope, Arkansas, from
1990 to 1995, pine straw yields averaged 480 pounds per acre in August,
slightly more in September and October, and a maximum of 1,603 pounds per acre
in November. But at the higher elevations on Petit Jean Mountain near
Morrilton, Arkansas, and at Booneville, greatest yields have come in October.
"The whole idea here is to get some interim cashflow," Blanche
concludes. "Pine straw is a value-added product. And now we know it's
economically feasible for the small landowner.
"Those who have larger pine plantings might lease the land for pine
straw harvesting at $10 to $25 per acre. This is a new source of income for
rural areas." By Sandy Miller Hays, ARS.
"Pine Needles -- a Hot, New Commodity" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.