Baled pine straw is one of those prized commodities that practically sell themselves.

“The demand exceeds the supply,” says Mitson Elliott, Leary, GA.

Even with the 100,000 bales his crews produce annually, Elliott still has to buy additional bales to keep his commercial customers supplied.

“It's a tremendously large industry,” says University of Georgia extension horticulturist Gary Wade. “At a big nursery like Pike's in Atlanta, a semi load is gone in one weekend.”

Wade says pine straw has all the qualities of good mulch.

“It's loose in structure, which allows for good air penetration and good water and nutrient infiltration. It's also very attractive.”

Pine straw's popularity translates into dollars for those willing to bale it. In 2001, Georgia's farm gate receipts on baled pine straw totaled more than $17 million. And pine straw is sold throughout the Southeast.

The dollars don't come easy, however. The straw is usually raked and baled by hand.

“Some people bale with mechanical balers, but the straw doesn't have the quality — they get more trash,” says Elliott.

In his operation, crews rake the straw with pitchforks and bale it by hand in a wooden box. They transport the bales out of the woods with a 20-hp tractor and small trailer.

Even with workers to do the baling, Elliott estimates that he puts 300-400 miles a day on his truck and frequently works 14-15 hours a day.

First, he keeps a close watch on quality. His customers demand clean, tight bales with no sticks or leaves.

“Sometimes I go 40 or 50 miles to find good straw that's fairly clean,” says Elliott. “Finding the pine straw is the most difficult part.”

When searching for sites, he first looks at tree age.

“I like trees that are eight to 12 years old. Nine- to 10-year-old trees are the best baling, but you can bale them only until they're thinned. Once they're thinned, too much sunlight reaches the ground and you get too many weeds.”

He also prefers slash pine to loblollies. “Ninety-nine percent of what I bale is slash. It has a longer leaf than loblolly.”

When he finds a suitable site, he deals with the landowner. He normally pays 30¢ a bale. The average site produces 100 or more bales an acre.

Elliott says service is another key factor.

“When people want pine straw they want it now,” he states. “When somebody calls me I have them pine straw in two days.”

He says demand is greatest in March, April, May and again in fall. However, stockpiling doesn't work well — baled pine straw has a short shelf life.

“It needs to be gone in three weeks,” he remarks.

Besides the landowner payments of 30¢/bale, labor costs add another $1/bale and twine averages around 5¢/bale. He sells the bales for $2-2.50 each, delivered.