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Since 1947 the George O. White State Forest Nursery near Licking has offered Missouri residents seedlings for reforestation, windbreaks, erosion control and wildlife habitat.
The nursery began in the 1930s, soon after Missouri’s national forests had been designated. At that time, thousands of forest acres needed restoration, and it would take millions of seedlings to do it. The U.S. Forest Service sent a young forester, George O. White, to Texas County to inspect a possible site for the nursery. White found the property well suited for growing shortleaf pine seedlings, and it was centrally located within Missouri’s National Forests.
As a Forest Service employee, White helped establish and operate the nursery. He would go on to organize and direct the Department’s first forestry program, and he became Missouri’s longest-tenured state forester, serving for 21 years. In 1960, the Department renamed the state nursery and dedicated it in honor of White’s commitment to Missouri’s forests and forestry efforts.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service nursery grew with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees, Works Projects Administration (WPA) workers and local labor. They built an office, nurseryman's residence, shop, warehouse, deep well, irrigation system and cold-storage building. The CCC enrollees even built their own accommodations, including two barracks, kitchen, mess hall and a camp post exchange (PX).
With World War II, the CCC program dissolved, funds for reforestation disappeared, and the nursery closed. In August 1947, the Conservation Department signed a special-use permit with the Forest Service, acquiring full use of the nursery, tools, building, and equipment. In return, the Department agreed to produce two million shortleaf pine seedlings annually for National Forests in Missouri. In 1976, the Forest Service transferred ownership of the nursery property to the Department.
The original nursery property was 40 acres and had about 15 acres of seedbeds. Over the years, several acquisitions increased the size of the nursery. Today, the total acreage of the nursery is 754 acres, with 50 acres of seedbeds.
Three deep wells and an improved irrigation system allow managers to irrigate the seedbeds during summer. An office, packing building and cold storage building have grouped the grading, packing, storage and shipping operations in one structure, greatly improving the nursery’s efficiency.
In the early years of operation, the nursery produced mainly shortleaf pine seedlings, shipping more than 10 million seedlings annually. During the 1950s, multiflora rose was a very popular seedling. Autumn olive, Tartarian honeysuckle, and other nonnative shrubs were in demand in the 1970s. As landowner needs have changed, so have the nursery’s production and processing. The nursery now grows more than 70 different species of trees and shrubs. Except for a few pine species and wildlife shrubs, all are native Missouri plants. The minimum order today is 10 trees, reduced from 200 a few years ago.
Each year the nursery processes more than 10,000 orders and ships about 4 million seedlings. To grow all these species, the nursery collects or buys tens of thousands of pounds of seeds each summer and fall. For example, about 5,000 bushels of walnuts, 15,000 pounds of white oak acorns, 8,000 pounds of hazelnuts and 600 pounds of plum seed are needed just to establish seedlings for these four species.