Reforestation operation takes shape in Loveland greenhouse

LOVELAND — Imagine, if you can, 350,000 tubes, each six to eight inches tall and an inch in diameter. Each is filled with a special mixture of fertilized soil and popping from the top is a ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, a narrow-leaf cottonwood or some other tree suitable for planting in Colorado.

Each of those tubes was seeded with exactly three seeds — by hand. If all three seeds sprouted, two would be removed, again by hand, to leave room for the strongest. Or perhaps the other two seedlings would be replanted and nurtured into viable plantings.

The result of this hand labor is an expanse of seedling trees that in the next year or two will find new homes in the landscape of Colorado, replacing trees lost to beetles or fire or, perhaps, in a local homeowners association looking to have more visual greenery. As space is created through sales, more tubes are seeded and more trees sprouted. 

The demand for trees suitable for reforesting the region’s mountainsides, high plateaus and prairies is enormous, and a new social enterprise company, OneCanopy, is there to help fill it.

OneCanopy is the brainchild of Kevin Brinkman, whose day job is as CEO of Brinkman Real Estate Services LLC. With an interest in the environment and seeing the need in Colorado for reforestation, he launched Brinkman Conservation LLC, hired a staff and began to plant trees under the trade name OneCanopy. The operation runs from a former hemp greenhouse at 2880 14th St. SE in Loveland. A company Brinkman created called KMB 525 LLC bought the greenhouse property for $2.1 million. 

There, on 7.5 acres — half of which is covered by greenhouses — the staff works to create a crop that will fill the void created by beetle kill and wildfires.

OneCanopy Brinkman

Katelynn Martinez, director of operations and business development and also a Colorado State University graduate in both forestry and sustainable business, operates the business day to day. 

To start, the operation is raising “bread and butter” tree species common in Colorado, with plans to expand into less-common species later, Martinez said. All trees are adapted to the Rocky Mountain region.

Customers for the operation are numerous: federal and state agencies, private property owners, cities, nonprofit organizations interested in reforestation and others, she said.

A landowner near Granby, whose land was devastated by both fire and beetles, is buying trees to reforest private land, for example. 

Martinez said that both fire and beetles are natural in Colorado; the devastation witnessed in the state in recent years resulted from overly dense forests. “It’s a Darwinian mechanism. In nature, bark beetles and fire take out the least fit,” she said.

Some trees, such as lodgepole pines, are served by fire because the tree’s sticky cone takes heat to release the seed. Extremely hot fires, however, will burn the seed on the ground.

Competitors for the operation are few. The U.S. Forest Service has its own greenhouses, and there are private or public greenhouses in Fort Lupton in Colorado and other operations in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska. Given the demand, there’s room for all, Martinez said.

Trees started in the nursery are able to get a jump on trees that might sprout from seed in the wild. In six or eight months, a nursery tree will be as tall as a 2- or 3-year-old tree in nature. That translates into an increased survival rate for greenhouse trees when planted in nature.

Martinez said that forest service trees typically have a 50% survival rate. Trees from private greenhouses have upward of 75% survival rates.

The operation uses multiple techniques to help Mother Nature grow trees.

Seeds, which at this point are harvested by third-party contractors, are stored in a freezer before planting to prolong their viability. Some seeds to be planted in the spring go through a “stratification” process that is intended to mimic the forest floor during the winter; seeds are placed in a special material in a refrigerator to simulate the conditions of a Colorado winter.

The greenhouse naturally provides light suitable for growing trees. The greenhouse does add some light in the winter. During the summer heat, a giant swamp cooler kicks in to lower temperatures and add moisture to the air. 

After the trees get their start, they’re moved to an unheated outside greenhouse in a “hardening-off” process — preparing the trees for life in uncontrolled nature.

A staff of six, plus numerous volunteers from high schools, Colorado State and Front Range Community College, provide the labor to get everything done. In addition to Martinez, Zach Clark-Lee is production supervisor and Josh Stolz is nursery manager.

OneCanopy sells trees in lots of at least 25 at a cost of $2.50 per tree. Discounts are available for large quantities, Martinez said.

The operation is not cash-flowing yet; Martinez expects that by next year it will be cash-flow positive.

The growing operation is well underway. Next steps, Martinez said, are to create a stand of trees on the property that can generate seeds so the operation has control over acquisition of seed stock. OneCanopy also wants to add a planting and monitoring operation, thus completing the circle of reforestation. 

Interest, even among those who don’t own land suitable for planting, has been high, Martinez said. “Babies, puppies and trees — people like them. This has been the right time and the right place,” she said.

Source: BizWest

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