It’s no secret: Legislators never quit trying to get rid of the DNR’s tree nurseries.
As far back as 1983, they cut off funding for day-to-day operations and said: “You have to break even.” So the nurseries did that – successfully. For the past 30 years, they have not cost taxpayers one dime.
“We only exist on what we generate,” says Darin Wegner, a member of Local 1623 at Badoura State Nursery. “We don’t get any General Fund money or anything like that. If we’re not doing our job, we don’t have jobs – I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
But private nurseries keep suggesting that DNR nurseries are competition. So legislators keep piling on restrictions. They restrict who DNR nurseries can sell to and how much they can sell.
The reality is, DNR nurseries rarely compete directly with commercial nurseries in Minnesota. For one, DNR nurseries are only allowed to fill large orders of 500 trees or more. In addition, the state nurseries and private nurseries grow different types of seedlings. The DNR primarily grows bare-root, conifer seedlings. Private growers typically grow seedlings in containers, not in the ground. Or, they sell larger, more-established trees.
“We’re in the practice of reforestation,” Wegner says. “We’re not here to beautify somebody’s lawn or little bit of acreage.”
Cut off from private sales
As it is, the DNR already has shut down several smaller nurseries; the most recent was Carlos Avery in 1985. Nonetheless, since Republicans took over the Legislature in 2011, they’ve gone straight for the jugular.
Rep. Denny McNamara (who, it must be pointed out, co-owns a private nursery in Hastings) is trying to get the DNR out of the nurseries business entirely. In the scramble to end the state shutdown in July 2011, McNamara and his allies muscled new restrictions into state law. The result: DNR nurseries not only have to break even – now they have to do it under conditions that cut off about 40 percent of their revenue.
Beginning in 2014, DNR nurseries essentially are forbidden from selling any seedling if it will be planted on private land. Technically, there’s one exception: They can sell to private lands with “permanent” conservation easements. That exemption, however, is meaningless, says nursery supervisor Craig VanSickle. In the last three years, he’s had exactly one customer who meets the law’s criteria.
Economy already hurting sales
But banning state nurseries from selling to private landowners won’t automatically translate into better business for private Minnesota growers, either, Van Sickle says. Instead, he expects much of the seedling business will shift to Canada.
“The Canadians can sell trees cheaper than anyone in the States can grow them,” VanSickle says.
State nurseries already feel the impact; they are selling fewer trees to counties, which are taking their business north. If sales to counties continue to deteriorate, it means the DNR’s own Forestry Division will be the only major customer left.
But the Forestry Division – affected by budget cuts and the slow economic recovery – continues to limit what it buys. Fewer houses being built and less paper being used means fewer trees get cut. That means fewer seedlings need to be planted, which means the nurseries don’t grow – or sell – as much.
One result: Nursery revenues dropped by $1 million between 2008 and 2010, before rebounding slightly. State nurseries sold 5.6 million seedlings in the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30. That’s down from 8 million seedlings sold five years ago.
VanSickle expects the ban on private sales will cut the nurseries’ sales even more – to about 3.5 million seedlings by 2014.