John Hair, 42, and his brother Jason, 35, started NRS after working with the Conservation Reserve Program on their family's wheat farm near Prescott, Wash. "We had to transplant 280,000 shrubs," Jason Hair said. "We geared up to do our own project, and then the neighbors asked us to do it, and then the neighbors' neighbors."
Eight years later, they've worked for 200 clients in 13 counties in the two states. The NRS crews have planted more than 3 million shrubs and trees and have seeded native grasses in almost 60,000 acres. NRS installations dot the landscape from Columbia County, Wash., to Morrow and Sherman counties in Oregon.
Jason and John Hair, founders and principals of Natural Reclamation Service, inspect a new planting along Wildhorse Creek just north of Pendleton, Oregon. (Photo by Lee Farren).
(The Natural Reclamation Service (NRS), a private tree-planting and maintenance contractor, serves landowners in Eastern Washington and Oregon who have enrolled their land in conservation programs with the federal government. Adapted by permission from an article appearing in the Capital Press, Salem, OR.)
NRS provides a turn-key project for landowners who enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or Continuous Conservation Reserve Program. The landowner contacts the Farm Service Agency, which provides funding. The Natural Resource and Conservation Service provides technical assistance, including a site evaluation, maps and recommendations about which species to plant NRS works with the landowner and the various agencies involved during the application and design process.
The landowner enters into a 10- or 15-year contract with the FSA. Federal and state funding pays for the project plus an annual rental fee based on soil type and acreage. "The landowner pays zero out of pocket,"'Jason Hair said. "It's a partnership between the landowner and the federal and state government. The government provides the dollars and technical resources. The landowner provides the property and stewardship." John Hair added that society in general benefits from the improvements for fish, erosion control and enhancement of the overall ecology of the area.
The Hairs focus on each detail of the project to ensure long-term success. After a few initial failures - "We had to replant 200,000 sagebrush and trees in early projects," Jason Hair said - NRS now boasts a survival rate of 85 to 90 percent. Those details include techniques borrowed from other agricultural sectors as well as equipment the Hairs have adapted or designed to meet the unique needs of planting in rough and sometimes inaccessible terrain.
After tilling the ground with a specialized power till, the Hairs use their custom-built mulching machine to lay strips of black water-permeable biodegradable plastic: The mulch keeps weeds down and reduces water loss. From the vineyard they borrowed the idea of their hydroplanter, a planting machine that eliminates air pockets by injecting a slurry of water and fertilizer into each planting hole. From forestry they borrowed the seedling protectors, tubes of yellow plastic mesh that keep the seedlings safe from deer, beavers and other herbivores until they have time to establish their root systems. They also turned to forestry for effective plant-handling practices, such as keeping nursery stock refrigerated until the moment it goes into the ground. The Hairs prefer trees and shrubs with a "plug" of soil and roots, rather than bareroot stock.
Working with other contractors, the Hair brothers developed a black mesh sleeve that wraps around the stem of each tree or shrub. The workers tuck the sleeve into the slit in the mulch and fasten it with an oversized staple. This extra step keeps weeds from sprouting in the slit next to the new shrub and competing with it during its first, most vulnerable, growing season. In addition, the Hairs offer two- to five-year maintenance contracts with the projects. They hand-pull or spray weeds and replant where necessary.
Their techniques and equipment make them unique in the business, Jason Hair said. "This isn't rocket science," he said. "Nothing is patented. But they are techniques we've learned the hard way." The brothers estimate they have close to $1 million invested in equipment.
Accountability, they say, is the main factor in their success. "We feel responsible to the landowners," Jason said. "When we sign up with them, that's a long-term deal. We come back and look, monitor the work, and make sure they're happy."
NRS employs 14 people year-round, including office manager Kathy Hair, who is married to John, and her brother Steve Fuller, who runs the grass-seeding operation. During planting season, Nov. 1-March 15, they hire another half-dozen workers.
By Lee Farren, Freelance Writer, Ukiah, OR