Steve McKeand gets funny looks when he tells people what he does for a living. “They have one of two reactions: stunned silence, or a giggle,” he says.
It’s not easy being a tree breeder, it seems. But it’s no laughing matter, either.
McKeand, a professor of forestry and environmental resources in the College of Natural Resources at NC State University and director of the university’s Cooperative Tree Improvement Program, is among a select group of scientists responsible for enhancing one of the nation’s most important natural resources — the estimated 39 million acres of planted pine forests stretching across the United States from central Texas to southern New Jersey.
His work is vital, not just for giving loblolly and longleaf pine trees a genetic advantage in the face of threats such as disease, pests and a changing climate, but also for giving the owners of forest land a competitive advantage in the market.
In recognition of his successful efforts on both counts, McKeand received the Governor James E. Holshouser Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service from the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina. The annual award was established in 2007 to encourage, identify, recognize and reward public service by faculty of the university system.
In the Treetops
Tree breeding is a time-intensive endeavor, says McKeand, who spends much of his time out in the woods and at the tops of trees in the breeding orchards operated by the program’s members throughout the Southeast. He calls these orchards “living warehouses” of the best loblolly pine trees in the region.
The process itself is straightforward, he says, ticking off the steps involved in tree breeding in rapid order.
“We go out and look for good trees. We select them and put a tag on them. Then we take cuttings off of them and graft the shoots into the tops of large trees so they will produce cones in two to three years,” he explains. “Then we do the breeding, collect the cones, extract the seeds and test the offspring for five or six years in field trials around the South.”
McKeand and his colleagues use this cross-breeding technique to develop trees with specific traits prized by growers. Primarily, they’re looking for fast-growing trees that are resistant to disease and have desirable wood properties and straight stems.
When the Tree Improvement Program was established by professor Bruce Zobel in 1956, it took a while to catch on with North Carolina growers. “There were a lot of skeptics at first,” McKeand says. “But it’s been a tremendous success. We’ve had huge impacts on productivity and value.”
One measure of success is the popularity of PRS, a rating system that helps landowners select seedlings that have been bred for specific traits, such as wood production, rust resistance or stem quality.
“In the old days, you took whatever the nurseries had available. The genetics were good but maybe not optimal for the specific objectives of each landowner,” he says. “Landowners now have a huge range of options available to them.”
In fact, genetic traits coaxed from pine trees in the program’s orchards are now found in about 60 percent of the trees planted in commercial forests in the United States.
The program’s success is based on its innovative operating model: It’s a membership organization comprising forestry companies, landowners, nurseries and public agencies. From the original 12 members in 1956, the program has grown to include more than 30 full and contributing members and four research associate members.
“Forestry is big business in North Carolina,” McKeand explains. “There are over half a million forest landowners in this state and almost five million in the South.”
For many families, forest land is an important source of income, generating funds to cover the cost of college tuition for their children or to ensure a more secure retirement. Selecting a tree crop to plant is a much greater long-term investment than choosing most agricultural crops.
“If you’re planting your family land, you want to make sure you’re planting trees with the right genetics, because you’re going to be stuck with them for 25 or 30 years. You don’t want to end up saying, ‘oops,’” he says. “Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of those ‘oops’ acres out there.”
For all its value, the program’s growth wasn’t assured. A reduction in the number of forest product companies in the last 10 to 15 years threatened to undercut the program’s funding base.
“They started merging and buying each other out, and then, for a variety of reasons, the big, vertically integrated forestry product companies sold off their land to investors or restructured their companies,” McKeand says.
Faced with the risk of abandoning decades of work in tree breeding, McKeand struggled to find a solution. “We had to become creative,” he says. “We had to find a way to sustain this.”
Taking a page from industry, McKeand and his colleagues hit on an idea to attract new partners. They restructured the program to add a membership level for the new players in the industry, such as timber investment management organizations, or TIMOs, real estate investment firms, consulting firms, nurseries, sawmill owners and large landowners.
“The amount of forest acreage hadn’t declined,” he explains. “But a lot of land had been purchased by TIMOs and other investors. These organizations were very interested in tree improvement, but they didn’t want to do tree improvement.”
As cooperative members of the Tree Improvement Program, the contributing members have access to information derived from the program’s genetic research. “That allows them to make wise decisions about reforestation,” McKeand says.
Revenue from new members has not only helped save the breeding program; it has also allowed McKeand and his colleagues to expand opportunities for top undergraduate and graduate students.
“We are able to provide them with income opportunities,” he says. “But they also get a heck of a lot of experience doing good forestry, good lab work, field work and greenhouse work.”
McKeand, who launched his own career in forestry four decades ago at Purdue University, sees a bright future for today’s students.
“Back in the day, if you were in tree improvement you basically worked in forestry,” he explains. “Today there are a variety of opportunities. We teach the fundamentals of genetics and genomics, so we’ve had graduates go on to work in the agronomic industry, in functional genomics, in crop-breeding programs as well as forestry.”
To open that path to as many young minds as possible, McKeand and his family recently established the McKeand Family Scholarship endowment in NC State’s College of Natural Resources. The scholarship is open to incoming freshmen in forestry and environmental resources, with a preference given to students from Millbrook High School in Raleigh, where McKeand’s wife, Lou, is a longtime chemistry teacher.
McKeand is donating the cash award he received with the Holshouser Award to further increase the scholarship endowment.
“Looking back, I can’t think of a career that could possibly have been more gratifying,” he says. “The university and my college and department have provided me with the opportunity to be creative, to be innovative, to be practical, to do work with students, to do research, and most important, to make a difference.”