I still remember the Facebook comment that first opened my eyes to the possibility of growing basket willows for profit. I had no idea such potential existed, so I settled in for a binge session – avidly devouring any and all information I could find on the ins and outs of basket willows.
As it turns out, there is quite the potential for profit in these trees and, owing perhaps to the slow turnaround time, not a whole lot of competition. We’ll be planting our first crop of willows next month, already ordered and on the way soon. I’ve been waiting for this moment for most of a year now and I’m excited to get started.
What are Basket Willows?
Basket willows are usually made from standard willows. The trees are started from willow cuttings, grown one year and then coppiced–cut down to an inch or so above the ground–and then left to grow another year. The resulting rods are long, straight and flexible, perfect for weaving into baskets and other creations. Basket willows come in a stunning array of colors, from simple greens, browns and tans to red, yellow, purple and orange.
One of the things I like about growing basket willows is that the harvest time falls in the typical farmer’s “off time,” in later winter and early spring before the sap rises, so you don’t typically have to give up another crop to grow these, assuming you have the space.
Startup Cost for Basket Willows
Getting started is fairly inexpensive. We bought our cuttings at Dunbar Gardens for $1.50 each. We plan to eventually fill 3/4 of an acre with willows, but don’t have a lot of cash to start a new venture. What we’ll do instead is turn this year’s growth into cuttings for planting next year. We live on a creek that is full of majestic, old willows and we’re going to take cuttings from those as well. This gives us a well rounded variety of colors and types to get started. Our initial cost for 80 cuttings was $140.
If you live in an area where you can access willows for cuttings, you can potentially begin this venture with no money out of pocket, just the time spent collecting the cuttings. Ask locals to barter cuttings with you, especially if you have another plant to offer in trade.
How Much Time Does it Take to Grow Basket Willows?
Willows are an annually harvested crop so the time investment is relatively minimal. Prepare the ground before planting by tilling or mulching. Willows are susceptible to weed interference in the first two years but after that are virtually weed free because they form a canopy to block out weed growth.
Planting is done just once for a 10-12 year harvest lifespan and it’s as simple as poking a stick in the ground at a set spacing, which depends largely on the source. Dunbar Gardens, linked above, recommends 32 by 6, or 6″ spacing in the rows, which are spaced 32″ apart. This really, really awesomely cool old book I found to read online from 1908 recommends 20 by 9, or 9″ spacing in rows 20″ apart. I recommend you read that book through if you’re interested in growing basket willows, along with the information on Dunbar Gardens. Between the two you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to grow basket willows.
The University of Kentucky estimates:
“Labor needs will vary by the production system. Estimated per acre labor requirements are approximately 15 to 35 hours for planting, 10 hours for production, 50 hours for harvesting, with150 hours for sorting, handling, and marketing. Installation of a fence the first year would require additional labor.
How Much do Basket Willows Produce?
The same article from University of Kentucky estimates that, “An acre of well-managed willow could produce 4 to 5 tons of marketable rods.” Other sources I’ve come across estimate 7 tons of fresh weight, so this seems to be accurate.
Income Potential from Selling Basket Willows
You can sell basket willows in three ways: cuttings, dried rods and living rods. Cuttings are the simplest because they are cut from live plants and shipped immediately. Because they are short, they are easy and inexpensive to ship. The price ranges from $1-$2 per 10-12″ cutting. Each willow plant typically produces 9-15 rods per year and the lower 2/3 can be cut into sections for willow cuttings.
Dried rods require more effort but offer more return as well. Basket makers need a lot of material to supply their trade. If you can find a local artist to buy your dried rods direct, you can eliminate the time spent marketing.
At an estimated 4.5 tons of dried rods per acre and the current rate of $10-$15 per pound, dried rods have a potential of $90,000-$135,000 per acre. Dried rods lend themselves well to shipping, making this a great mail order opportunity.
Living rods usually require a local market because they are longer and cost prohibitive to ship. Most growers I researched only sell these on-farm at a rate of $5-$6 per rod.
Selling Basket Willows for Profit: Where to Sell
Our personal approach is going to be a combination of online through our website and in-person sales at farmer’s markets and our roadside farm stand.
Uline has shipping tubes for $4-$6 each. I’m sure there are other options, but for dried rods these seemed to be among the most economical. Willow cuttings can be shipped in USPS flat rate boxes.
eBay and Etsy are both great options for selling online. In this market, the competition is low enough you could also rank well on your own website for searches and eliminate the middleman (and his fees).
Willow Has a Double Use
If all that weren’t enough, willow is also an excellent survival food source for your animals. You can cut your coppiced willow at the end of summer while the leaves are still green and put it up as hay. High in protein and minerals, goats especially gobble it up. Rabbits love willow, too. Here’s an informative article (PDF) about willow and poplar as fodder options, particularly in drought.
Willow is both a fantastic income opportunity and a long term sustainability option. If you have the space, this is definitely a crop worth trying out.