By Virginia Baldwin Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

May 29, 2000
Money does grow on trees after all.

At least that's what experts in agroforestry in Missouri and agriculture policy makers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are trying to prove.

They plan to use tree-growing technology developed in Missouri to reforest Ireland.

"I think of it as the greening of Ireland," said H.E. "Gene" Garrett, director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

And that is "greening" in all of its meanings: environmental, traditional and economic.

"Ireland used to be completely forested," said Cecil H. McMurray, chief scientific officer for Northern Ireland's department of agriculture. Now less than 5 percent of the land is covered with forest. It is the least forested nation in the European Union, he said.

The trees were cut down for British warships and as a result of intense agriculture, McMurray said.

Irish and other European agricultural officials want to encourage farmers to plant trees -- to control erosion, to provide fuel for electricity production, to replenish oxygen and displace carbon in the atmosphere and to develop as a cash crop.

Earlier this month McMurray and his counterparts from the Republic of Ireland visited the Agroforestry Center and Forrest Keeling Nursery in Ellsberry, Mo. Forrest Keeling hopes to license its technology to the two nations -- and any other members of the EU interested in rapid reforestation.

Unlike some of the other plant technology being developed in our region, this advanced technology doesn't involve gene splicing. Instead, it employs traditional techniques for planting, transplanting and caring for tree seedlings that grew out of research in the university and in the nursery.

The technology falls into two broad categories:

* Agroforestry, which is the combination of traditional agriculture with forestry. The center at Mizzou has developed techniques for the small family farm that make sense both for family income and for the environment. Among its methods: planting trees in pasture land and planting legumes and other cattle-feeding plants in the shade between the trees.

* A combination of pruning, planting and husbandry techniques that Forrest Keeling has trademarked as RPM (Root Production Method). Using RPM techniques, the nursery has been able to grow oaks and other slow-growing trees much faster than traditional methods. For instance, trees that would normally take a decade or two to develop a full acorn crop are fruiting in their third or fourth year.

The Irish visitors toured the nursery, some test plots nearby and a demonstration farm run by the Agroforestry Center in New Franklin, Mo.

Also accompanying the two groups was Ken Dalrymple, wildlife management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, who has been using the University's research and Forrest Keeling's RPM trees to restore trees to areas along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers that were flooded in 1993 and 1995.

McMurray was impressed with both technologies. "We think agroforestry is more ecologically friendly," he said, after seeing a test plot near Ellsberry. "You get a variety of trees and species, a diversity, which is good for wildlife."

Wayne Lovelace, general manager of Forrest Keeling, and Garrett began a pilot project last October at Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland is planning to establish a research farm at a castle property it owns, perhaps as early as September, Garrett said.

Both nations want to use seed from native trees, rather than to import seedlings.

That follows Forrest Keeling's method, which has been to collect acorns from the best specimen trees it can find. Those specimens include rugged giants found in the wild and the first "graduates" of the nursery's technology, which were planted more than a dozen years ago and already have produced several years of bumper acorn crops.

Forrest Keeling begins with seed selection -- culling out all but the heaviest, most dense seeds -- and then plants the acorns in bottomless flats and pots. The technique is called "air pruning."

Its results are most dramatic with oak trees, which sprout with a long tap root that ultimately shrivels after sending out fibrous side roots. The side roots are the main feeding and support mechanism for the mature tree. These lateral feeder roots take years to develop in the wild.

But in Forrest Keeling's bottomless flats and transplant pots, the tap root grows through the soil, hits air and dies at the tip. That "pruning" prompts dozens of side roots to develop, even in tiny seedlings.

Such root development speeds the rest of the tree's development -- causing it to grow taller and leafier and to fruit much more rapidly.

"We're creating 3- and 4-year-old trees with as many acorns as a 20-year-old tree," Lovelace said.

The early maturation appears to make sturdier trees as well.

"The initial cost of RPM trees is more," McMurray said. "But the overall cost could be less -- in survivability, in the shortened time to maturity, in less cost to protect and maintain the trees."

The RPM name is trademarked. The nursery has applied for a patent.

The methods "enable us to turn trees out like a factory," said Hugh K. Steavenson, executive vice president of Forrest Keeling and son of the nursery's founder.

The timing is geared toward setting the acorns to germinate in greenhouses by Feb. 1, planting seedlings in three-gallon pots and moving them outside by the end of May.

"It becomes a system," Steavenson said. "The tree is ready for the field by Oct. 1, four feet tall with a fully developed root system."

The nursery sells the trees to retail nurseries, large landscape outfits and reforesting operations like Dalrymple's. The retail establishments will plant the trees in lines -- which is why trees of that size are called liners -- and grow them for another year before selling them for final planting. At that point, such trees may fetch several hundred dollars each.

This month, Forrest Keeling will plant 500,000 trees in pots to weather outside for the summer. About one-fifth of those will be held back for another year's growth and the rest will be sold for an average price of $7.75 each.

Last year, when the nursery planted about 400,000 trees, sales were between $3.5 million and $4 million, Steavenson said.

Licensing is common in the industry, Steavenson said. He expects a deal with Northern Ireland might glean 50 cents to 75 cents a tree.

The pilot project got off to a slow start because of difficulty in getting enough good local seed, Steavenson said. Still, the Irish project expects to have about 5,000 trees this fall ready to plant in the field.

Under the initial agreement Northern Ireland pays Forrest Keeling a consulting fee at first -- $40,000 to $50,000 this year.

"I'm pretty confident they're going to be so pleased, they will want to accelerate those numbers," Steavenson said. "Then we would be talking about some kind of per-tree royalty."