The way Darin Wegner sees it, the job he does has an impact today – and for the next 40 years.
Wegner works at Badoura State Nursery. He oversees crews that plant and “lift” 4 million tree seedlings each year. On plots as long as two football fields, Badoura grows everything from conifers such as Norway pine and white spruce to hardwoods such as oak and birch. The seedlings eventually are replanted across Minnesota. They end up in state forests, on county lands, in private woodlots, and on “tree farms.”
Badoura’s seedlings become the woods and shelter belts that protect farmsteads, provide refuge for wildlife, and help make Minnesota’s recreation and tourism sectors possible. In time, they provide the raw materials that support the state’s lumber and paper industries.
Reforestation is main goal
“I like the fact that we’re doing something for the environment, for our wildlife, and for our future forest,” Wegner says. It is this impact that Wegner thinks legislators forget as they steadily squeeze the DNR’s forest nurseries out of existence.
“The concept of reforestation, that’s kind of what’s been lost,” he says. “They’re not thinking 30 or 40 or 60 years down the road.”
Within two years, a new state law will ban Badoura from selling its trees to private landowners (see story on Page 7 for details on why). That will have consequences for the entire state, Wegner fears. “It’s not just state lands that the deer use, and turkeys use, and grouse use,” he says.
Kathy Melby, another Local 1623 member at Badoura, fills custom orders for private landowners. Her customers, she says, don’t understand why the new law will cut them off – and “they’re not happy about it.”
Preserving native tree species
Badoura, which opened in 1929, covers 290 acres in Hubbard County, south of Akeley. It grows trees and shrubs native to Minnesota, and grows them from local seed sources – literally. The nursery buys seeds from people in areas such as Hill City, Hibbing, Deer River, and Bemidji who go out and collect cones from the woods.
The nursery keeps track of where seeds come from, so seedlings can be replanted “maybe not to their exact location, but in a general way, the same part of the state,” says technician John Wizik.
Beyond basic reforestation, Badoura is an insurance policy for state forests in another way: It stores and maintains a one- to four-year inventory of seeds, and deliberately grows more seedlings than it expects to sell. That means a back-up supply of seedlings is always available in case a fire or natural disaster hits a state forest.
Maintaining those kinds of emergency reserves is a role that only a public nursery will fill. Private, profit-driven nurseries can’t afford to maintain that kind of extra inventory, a DNR report to the Legislature said earlier this year.
But by the end of this year, Badoura will be the DNR’s lone remaining nursery. It’s current companion – Gen. C.C. Andrews, in Pine County – will be out of the tree-growing business entirely, though it still will be used for seed research.
The nurseries’ combined workforce will be cut by 11 full-time-equivalent positions, a reduction of 40 percent. Reducing the state to only one public nursery – and having all the seedlings in the same location – brings risks, the DNR report says. It makes the whole program more susceptible to disease, fire, wind, or other destructive weather.
‘Miserable’ work gets easier
Badoura is a year-round operation: lifting in the spring, growing in the summer, planting in the fall, processing seeds in the winter.
Spring is the most hectic season. Roughly 100 regular and seasonal workers (most of them not in the bargaining unit) lift, package and ship millions of seedlings, typically in mid-April. Most seedlings grow for three years before they are sold.
The nursery’s seasonal jobs provide a crucial economic boost in the area. “A lot of people have worked here,” Melby says. “They take it for a little extra cash, or in between jobs. Everybody’s ‘done time’ at Badoura.”
“Doing time” is no exaggeration. Until about a decade ago, “workers were literally on their hands and knees in the rain, the cold, the snow, the mud,” Wizik says. “It was dreadful work.”
It’s not so bad now. “We’ve found ways to make it physically easier to do the work,” he says. Now, much of the lifting operation is automated. Instead of 80 people in the field, there’s half a dozen. A modified potato lifter gently pulls up seedlings and shakes off soil. A conveyer belt glides seedlings back to a wagon, customized by AFSCME workers with a canopy, tubs and platforms that are more comfortable and efficient to use.
The tubs are hauled to the packing shed, where scores of other workers count and ship seedlings, also while sheltered from the elements.
When the lifting is over, “we fertilize, water, weed and do other field work, just as if you were a farmer,” Wizik says.
The nursery operates three wells to irrigate its 120 acres of growing beds. “You have to be on top of the whole watering thing,” he says. “We joke that we’re always like two days away from drought, because it’s that sandy.”
Meanwhile, new growing beds are prepared for seeding which, for most species, takes place in the fall.
“We do some really monotonous tasks – but none of them lasts very long,” Wizik says. “And then you go to the next one.”