On a sunny fall day at the edge of Shenandoah National Park, Jake Good, a nursery technician with the Virginia Department of Forestry, was getting acorns and chestnuts into the ground. More than three tons of them.
Here at the state’s nursery, about 140 miles southwest of Washington, this planting was an industrial operation. Poured from sacks into a machine, these seeds — future Chinese chestnut and white oak trees, many collected from donors around the state — were filtered into tubes that cast them on a row of earth about seven feet wide. Workers walked behind the machine,stepping on the acorns and chestnuts that were not covered by sufficient soil to grow.
Jim Ulmer, a Virginia Department of Forestry tree technician, steps on Chinese chestnuts just dropped onto the agency’s tree field to push them into the soil, while Jake Good loads nuts into the spreader tubes on the tractor. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
The process wasn’t gentle but in about 18 months would result in a crop of seedlings that could be sold to landowners and the timber industry. In this way, Virginia’s arboreal future would be secure — thanks in part to acorn enthusiasts who donated more than a million specimens this year as part of a state program.
Good was already excited for early 2025, when the seedlings would be ready for harvesting and distribution: “You see them come up … that’s all my hard work.”
The operations at the Crimora nursery use contributions from an acorn donation program that Virginia’s forestry department has run for about a decade. Last year, the harvest was a formidable eight tons of acorns and nuts — enough to produce 1.5 million seedlings. This year, donors sent 12 tons.
Brittany Blackwell, a tree technician for the forestry department, holds bur oak tree seeds that were sent to the farm by a Virginia resident. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
No matter how many seedlings the program produces, however, there is room for more. Virginia has about 16 million acres of forestland and more than 108,000 residents employed in forestry and related industries. This is big business: The commonwealth’s forestry industry is worth $21 billion annually, according to forestry department spokesman Cory Swift-Turner.
This dollar amount is more than simply the value of the logging industry’s timber. Trees filter the water and air, reduce temperatures to decrease demand for electricity during hot months and bring in autumn’s “leaf-peeping” tourists who spend money across the commonwealth. Eventually, mature trees are felled to provide raw materials for builders, furniture makers and others.
A close-up of young Chinese chestnut trees at the Virginia Department of Forestry tree fields. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
With its collection program, Virginia facilitates this cycle, stabilizing the forest canopy as trees come and go. Money from the sale of seedlings also is invested back into the nursery, according to Swift-Turner.
One of the state’s more diligent acorn collectors is 69-year-old Mike Ortmeier, who started gathering them as a retirement project after leaving the Department of Energy in 2009. As a young boy, he and his twin brother had dreamed of planting forests, he said. Now, by contributing trees-to-be to the Crimora nursery, he was helping Virginia do just that — and fighting global warming in the process.
“I can’t go out and suck out every carbon molecule from the atmosphere,” Ortmeier said. “I see myself as a cog in the wheel.”
A self-described “super-collector,” Ortmeier said he gathers as much as 1,000 pounds of acorns and other tree seeds per year from public streets and other people’s property. Undertaking this mission, he faces an unexpected enemy: landscapers. Among the detritus cleared from gutters and lawns are the future of the state’s forests. If these countless acorns, nuts and seeds can be conveyed to facilities such as Crimora, new forests eventually will be born.
“All you have to do is get people to scoop this stuff off of their driveway,” he said. “It’s a contribution to the universe.”
Nursery technician Jake Good holds northern red oak tree seeds that were sent to the farm by a Virginia resident. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Alexis Dickerson, the Potomac Conservancy’s senior director for community conservation, said the nonprofit helps facilitate acorn-collection programs throughout the D.C. region with its “Tomorrow’s Trees” program.
With expanding construction and development, Dickerson said, areas of the river’s watershed are paved over or converted into manicured lawns. When acorns fall, they cannot take root in asphalt or concrete or are dismissed as yard waste by landscapers. Any that become saplings may be devoured by deer displaced byloss of forests and habitat. As a result, the developed area becomes a “desert” that cannot produce the next generation of oaks and other species, according to Dickerson.
But people can help trees reproduce if they take the time to pick up acorns instead of treating them as refuse.
“It’s something they walk past every day that they might step over,” Dickerson said. “You can simply collect those things and get them to the right person that can create the next generation.”
Blackwell transfers bags of Chinese chestnuts into buckets before taking them to be planted. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Brittany Blackwell, one of the workers pushing seeds into the ground at the Crimora nursery, said she and her children went to a farm her family previously owned to gather Chinese chestnuts as part of this year’s collection effort. When the farm’s current owner thanked her for doing yard work, her response was: “What yard work?”
This wasn’t a chore. This was keeping an important species alive.
“We’re starting the future population,” she said.
As a tractor drops nuts on the ground, Blackwell uses her feet press them into the soil so that they can germinate. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)