J.E. Schroeder Seed Orchard will host its 50th anniversary celebration in May 2024. (Photo provided by Oregon Department of Forestry)

ST. PAUL — As the J.E. Schroeder Seed Orchard marks its 50th anniversary, its history of forest conservation and genetic mastery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is in the spotlight. 

Initially envisioned for a state prison, the 400-acre site near St. Paul was bought by Oregon Department of Forestry in 1973, becoming one of the state’s main sources for tree seeds. Today, it aids in regrowing forests critical to the state’s economy, environment and societal well-being. 

“Currently the orchard is in its third breeding cycle,” said Don Kaczmarek, ODF geneticist, while emphasizing the orchard’s commitment to traditional breeding. “The first cycle was from wild parent trees that are tested to determine which produce the best progeny, then placing them in the orchard. The second cycle crosses the best selected progenies from the first cycle. The third cycle is currently being monitored with in-place progeny tests and will be monitored for the next 10 years or so.”

Kaczmarek said Douglas fir and Western hemlock are the orchard’s two most advanced breeding programs. 

The orchard refrains from genetic modifications, focusing on natural traits like increased growth rates, widespread adaptability and insect and disease resistance. Such efforts have addressed challenges like the Swiss needle cast, a disease notorious for defoliating Douglas firs in their first and second years. 

From its inception, the seed orchard has thrived as a cooperative venture. Today, it boasts 38 separate seed orchards, with 70% of efforts going toward improved Douglas fir. Each orchard is monitored and maintained for a diverse group of 28 cooperators, including federal agencies, ODF, tribes and private companies. 

Over the last 20 years, 28,000 pounds of Douglas fir seeds have been harvested, capable of reforesting around 1.3 million acres in the western regions of Oregon and Washington.

“Roughly 95% of the Douglas fir in these regions originates from improved seeds from orchards like ours,” Kaczmarek said.