The Pine Needles Are Brown. They Might as Well Be Gold

Inside a $200M industry
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 10, 2021 3:41 PM CDT
The Pine Needles Are Brown. They Might as Well Be Gold
Longleaf pine trees in the Sam Houston National Forest, Walker County, Texas.   (Wikimedia Commons/William L. Farr)

They're brown, not gold. But fallen needles from the longleaf pine, which is native to the Southeast, might as well be the latter. The Washington Post reports pine needles are a $200 million industry, and of the trio of pine needles that are collected and sold, the longleaf's version is tops. That's all thanks to "its unusual length and high resin content, making it an attractive, water-retaining ground cover for gardens." The color doesn't fade and termites steer clear of it, and so it commands higher prices than wood chips. But the Post's story is less about landscaping and more about what one Nature Conservancy scientist phrases as the "reasonable compromise between exploitive uses and conservation." Longleaf pine trees are incredibly straight, creating demand for their timber.

But rather than being felled, longleaf pine forests have been able to thrive, as landowners have realized it's much more profitable to sell their needles repeatedly than sell the timber once. The owner of North Carolina's Pinestar Farms explains the math: He could get $4,000 an acre for his wood once, or $1,200 for the pine needles those trees drop annually. Another farmer says the stability of the crop has allowed him to hang onto his family's land. But it's not easy work, or a path to quick riches: The longleaf pine doesn't produce needles during its first decade, and much of the collecting of it is done by hand. The AP took a different view in December, looking at how dominant longleaf pines once were centuries ago and how development and farming led to their near-demise, until a restoration effort was put in place. The pines now cover 7,300 square miles. (More pine trees stories.)

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