John Deere fabricates top of the line machinery in modern factories. And Ford cranks out behemoth trucks on high-speed assembly lines. So, what’s the deal with tree farms these days? While nurseries have seen their share of progress, there’s astonishing room for improved efficiency. Let’s take a look at the eye-popping advantages of in-ground fabric grow bags.
By eliminating tree spades and labor-intensive ball-and-burlap planting, in-ground Root Control Bags (RCBs) have become indispensable. They allow twice as many trees per acre, and they’re extremely easy to dig.
In-ground RCB tree bags are a great production tool. Whenever a tree is stepped up to the next arena — whether it’s above-ground or a container box — the vast root system that developed in the Root Control Bag facilitates an explosion of growth. Faster-growing trees can become salable a year or more faster than their ball-and-burlap counterparts. Now that’s an advantage you can measure.
The Need for Speed
With the proper equipment and a strong three-to-four-man crew, in-ground fabric grow bags can be planted or harvested in under 75 seconds. In just one day, 400-800 trees can be planted. And harvesting is just as rapid. Using a small fork attached to a three-point hitch, Jim Barborinas of Urban Forest Nursery in Mt. Vernon, Washington, can harvest a two-and-a-half to three-inch-caliper tree in just over a minute. What kind profitability could you achieve at that level of productivity?
Jim’s rows are just wide enough to get his equipment where he needs it, and he can dig a tree anywhere in the row without removing excess soil from his field. Using fabric grow bags, he’s able to preserve up to 80% or more of the root ball at harvest.
With speed and efficiency that explosive, it’s surprising that tree planting bags aren’t more widely used. With just a tractor, an augur, and in-ground tree bags, hundreds of trees can be planted in a single day. They can be planted a year ahead of time, and they can be planted up with liners at any time.
One misconception about fabric grow bags is that they completely retain the root ball. That’s not exactly the case. During the maturation process, it’s quite common for tree roots to penetrate through the tree planting bag and into the soil. This is true whether the bags are grown above-ground or in-ground.
The key, however, is air pruning. When tree roots approach the exterior of fabric grow bags, they branch into a fine, fibrous structure rather than circling the pot. This process, known as “air pruning,” creates a highly effective nutrient delivery system for the tree. Not only does it grow bigger trees faster, it allows tree farmers to retain approximately 80 percent of the root ball at harvest. By retaining such a high percentage of the mature tree’s roots, nursery operators can dramatically reduce mortality and encourage faster recovery times.
Labor is the largest expense at any tree farm. With minimal labor availability, the single biggest challenge is hiring good help. Using the proper equipment and techniques, tree nurseries can save tens of thousands in labor costs per year — if not more. By eliminating tree spades and labor-intensive ball-and-burlap planting techniques, tree nurseries stand to save major cash.
Chipping away at shipping
Nursery operators negotiate a variety of shipping arrangement with clients. Some build the cost of shipping into sales contracts, while others negotiate per-tree or per-truck contracts. Regardless of contract structure, fabric grow bags reduce the overall cost of shipping while delivering a healthy tree.
Due to their smaller root ball size, in-ground Root Control Bags allow farmers to ship two to three times as many trees per truck. Instead of running multiple truck loads using standard ball-and-burlap, the job can be completed in one trip, delivering a healthy tree at half the cost.
The bottom line
In-ground fabric tree bags offer major cost savings to tree farm operators. With faster planting and harvesting, reduced labor and shipping costs, lower mortality rates and improved soil preservation, operators are taking notice. As nurseries adopt more efficient techniques, fabric aeration containers may very well become the dominant method of cultivation.
Lofty Ambitions at a Rocky Mountain Tree Farm
As a child, Gary Moyer grew up working in his father’s logging and milling business. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Gary made his way to the University of Minnesota where he majored in forestry and wood products. As his passion for tree planting grew, Gary planted a hobby farm in the late 1980’s. In 1991, he purchased 25 acres and dove into the tree farm business full time. Currently spanning 165 total acres, White River Trees specializes in high-altitude aspen cultivation. At 6,200 feet above sea level, Gary’s tree farm presents its own unique challenges.
High-Elevation Growing — With Help from Higher Education
Growing at high elevations imposes harsh limitations on Gary’s tree nursery. The topsoil is extremely shallow, and it’s impossible to grow above ground. Gary’s staple aspen crops need to mature in-ground, and preserving shallow topsoil is a major priority. In the early stages of his venture, Gary contacted researchers at Ohio State University who were conducting research with High Caliper Growing’s Root Control Bags.
A Landmark Discovery for Landscaping Trees
Building on the advice of OSU researchers, Gary developed a system for placing High Caliper’s fabric bags in the ground. Gary’s crew attaches an augur to a skid steer loader, and inserts it down a pipe placed vertically above the hole. The augur penetrates the soil and pulls the dirt up into the pipe. Gary’s crew inserts the Root Control Bag into the hole, and releases the dirt out of the pipe into the bag. Gary’s assistants run drip line along the row of newly inserted fabric bags and place woven weed barriers over the tops of them. In the spring, they place new seedlings into the fabric bags and nourish them with drip irrigation. On a good day, Gary’s crew can get 500 bags into the ground.
A Labor of Love — and Efficiency
In recent years, tighter restrictions in a federal guest worker visa program have placed a strain on agricultural producers. For tree growers like Gary, the impact has been severe. “We used to bring workers in from Peru. We had guys that could do just about everything on the tree farm. But now the audit process is much stricter. One clerical mistake, one tiny infraction in living conditions, and you’re looking at a minimum $10,000 fine. We’ve seen people put out of business. It’s a risk we just can’t afford to take anymore.” With the loss of temporary foreign workers, and located deep in a remote stretch of Colorado, White River Farms faced a labor crisis. That’s where Root Control Bags really made a difference.
Facing a labor shortage, Gary knew he had to make the most of his manpower. Using a skid steer extension known as a “nursery jaw,” Gary and his team can harvest and load up to three trees at a time – which means they can fill a 25-foot gooseneck with up to 100 trees in an hour. On a 48-foot box truck, they can fit up to 250 trees, compared with approximately 90 using the ball-and-burlap method. The savings to Gary’s customers are substantial.
Root Control Bags: The Root of Gary’s Success
Time savings are a huge advantage. Using nursery jaws, Gary’s crew can harvest, wrap and containerize up to 500 trees per day. The result? White River’s yearly rotation comes out of the ground in approximately one month, drastically saving on man hours while solving the long-term shortage of skilled nursery labor. With all of the savings and efficiency he’s achieved, Gary remains focused one thing — delivering high-quality products. “At the end of the day, you have to develop relationships and keep customers coming back for more. That’s why we go out of our way to deliver the best high-altitude tree on the market. And Root Control Bags are a huge part of the equation.”