Growing Basket Willows for Profit

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.

Growing Basket Willows for Profit Quick Facts
Initial investment: <$100 or free if you have access to cuttings
Turnaround time: 1-2 years, yields increasing to year 3
Acreage required: <1 acre
Daily time required: <1 hour, about 250 hours per year
Profit potential: $$$, estimated $90k-$135k per acre

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.

13 thoughts on “Growing Basket Willows for Profit

  1. Scott Goff says:

    I never comment on these types of things….but here I am. I’ve been looking for something to do with my 5 acres, and I’ve now come across willows several different times. I think I may be getting the bug! My intent is to do something with the acreage that will supplement my current income and perhaps grow to where I can do it full time and leave the commute behind!
    I live in the Houston area. Hot and humid in the summer, but often dry spells too. I can water manually, I believe, if necessary.
    Any additional thoughts regarding my location, size, etc. that would help? Houston too far south, not a market here, etc.? I’m not a marketer, but it looks like I’m going to have to learn to do that too!
    Would love to hear more about how you are doing since writing the above article/blog in March…..

    • megan says:

      Hey Scott! Thanks for dropping by. I think willow is such an adaptable plant that, as long as you can make sure it gets water, you’ll have no trouble growing it there. We have native willow growing IN our creek and just this summer, I was pruning branches off of one of those big trees. I pulled all the green branches off of a larger branch, leaving a solid brown branch. Just to see how it went, I walked over to a moist area, shoved that branch in the ground and walked away. A month later, it was a tree sprouting branches. Willow is easy to grow.

      As for the commercial basket willow, we planted our first batch this last spring about the time I wrote the post. We planted them in sub-irrigated bottomland with a layer of cardboard followed by deep mulch. I got really busy all season long and kind of forgot about them. When I made it back out there in August, there were 9-10′ whips full of leaves and thriving, all from 12″ starts.

      We haven’t had an opportunity to test out the market yet, but when I was doing my research, there was far more demand than supply and most of the sales were done online. If you can work out a way to sell online, you would probably have a market for your willow. The biggest downside is the couple years to wait to start selling.

  2. Jim Rice says:

    I too have 5 acres in Western Washington on a river bottom, meaning it will flood once or twice a year. I love the thought of growing willows for wholesale as opposed to retail. Does anyone have suggestions as to who would buy willow cuttings wholesale? I do not live on that land it is about 1.5 hours from my home so I’d like to have them to where I can go and spend a week or weekend and cut them all at roughly the same time.

    • megan says:

      Ooh, they’ll love a river bottom. The stuff we planted last spring on bottomland did GREAT, reaching over 10′ on the first year for some of them.

      I’d try approaching retailers like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Joann, etc. and work on a wholesale contract. I’d probably do that before I planted just to see if they’d be interested. If not, maybe join some local basket weaving groups and see if you can line up a deal with a weaver who would buy everything.

  3. Thomas William Rogers says:

    I have acre I want to plant small trial parcel of these on. Where can I find clippings?
    Pastor Thomas William Rogers

  4. Sadie says:

    Hi, this is a great article. 4 years on, how is your business doing? We are looking to do this in the North East.

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