If you have longleaf, loblolly, or slash pines growing on your land, your forest is producing pine straw. But if you wish to harvest pine straw, simply having it is not enough—as with any forest farming activity, planning and active management are the keys to success. There are many stand and property characteristics that make a site suitable for pine-straw harvests. Consider the following factors to help you decide whether pine-straw harvesting is right for your property.
Those who harvest and sell pine straw consistently state that having “clean” straw is very important; that is, it should be free of sticks, weeds, and briars. In a survey of Alabama pine-straw producers and sellers, Dyer (2012) found that having clean straw was more important to most respondents than species or needle length. On the basis of this finding, landowners should consider removing unwanted understory brush and sticks as part of their site preparation. In addition, herbicide applications may be needed to remove unwanted vegetation. Invasive plants are always a concern, and steps should be taken to ensure they are eradicated from a site prior to any raking activity.
Pine straw is harvested from both natural and planted stands. Because trees in planted stands are usually in rows, plantations are more conducive to harvesting pine straw, especially with mechanical operations. Natural stands, and those that are densely stocked with trees, may need to be thinned to prepare for future harvests. Thinning can remove unwanted underbrush and smaller, less productive trees that can reduce the quality of the straw and slow the harvesting process. Remember that thinning also opens up the forest floor to more sunlight, which promotes understory vegetation growth. Stands should be monitored after thinning, and this vegetation controlled if necessary.
Accessibility is important for the successful completion of any forest management activity, and pine-straw management is no exception. Tree rows need to be wide enough to accommodate tractors and raking equipment. Pine straw is often transported and stored on large trailers. Roads and turnaround points should be planned to accommodate them. Similarly, because pine straw is a desired commodity, it can also be subject to theft or poaching. Depending on your forest’s location, you may need to consider gates or fences to control access.
Properly managed, pine-straw harvests have been found to have minimal impact on forests and soils. However, steep slopes and erodible soils should always be managed with care. In these conditions, hand raking is the method of choice because it limits the removal of organic matter and reduces the chance of soil disturbance. Raking every other year or every two years is also recommended.
Dyer, J. 2012. Three essays on the pine straw in Alabama: Needlefall yields, market demands, and landowner interest in harvesting. PhD dissertation in Forestry, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University.