At Home on the (Tree) Farm

Sunset on the Saul family tree farm. Photo by Jack Saul.

Some might call it a plantation, and some a tree farm, but my family refers to it simply as “the farm.” To the outside observer, our marginal patch of land may appear aesthetically unspectacular. Some might even dismiss its grid-like layout as a sterilized imitation of natural forest. But I am always quick to point out that where once there was nothing, now there are trees, glorious trees of all different kinds.

The project began on a sandy, infertile 22-acre pasture in Amherst, Massachusetts, once part of a 700-acre dairy conglomerate, and has since expanded to a total of 220 acres scattered in an archipelago of properties around town. On the newer acquisitions, planting and tending practices involve an industrial, systematic production methodology, including glyphosate application and brush-hogging. Recently, our innovative farm manager developed a plan to grow ginseng under closed canopies, as well as camelina and rapeseed for biodiesel in between rows of seedlings.

The original property, immediately behind the house I grew up in, remains most intimate, most known to me. The majestic trees here are the same age as I am, growing as I grow. I always feel at home among them. With an idling chainsaw in hand, I have walked past each and every tree now standing, given it an appreciative once over from roots to rustling canopy, and blessed it with permission to live. After 20-plus years in our soil, these trees have just begun to tower, and many have reached huggable diameters.

The parallel rows of oak, maple, white ash, black walnut, and black cherry run north-northwest to south-southeast, 12 feet apart. This careful spacing promotes healthy competition, allowing trees just enough room to absorb sunlight but not so much that they can grow decadently and extend their branches horizontally. To avoid being shaded out, each tree must grow straight up. Combined with yearly pruning and periodic thinning, the planting plan produces uniformly straight trunks and wood with minimal defects.

The trees require less attention with age, and for the most part the labor is deliberate and unhurried. In the early 1990s, taking up such work seemed manageable for my parents, Amherst graduates from New Jersey and Buffalo who had recently settled back in their college town. When the tract next to their home became available, my mother humored my father’s dream of land ownership, and they bought the parcel, built a new house, and started sticking saplings in the ground: first spruce and fir for Christmas trees, then the hardwoods that today stand waiting to become veneer logs (or firewood, with less luck). The farm progressively became a source of agrarian groundedness that countered the stresses and abstractions of my parents’ careers in finance and education.

Like many others who farm in our liberal suburban town, where education is “the industry,” my parents are financially comfortable people who have opted to engage in agricultural practices without much previous experience. We are what some might call gentlemen farmers, and the Saul farm was not wholly designed to make a living. It acts as a long-term asset and as supplemental income. It’s also an excuse to follow a particular way of life.

This positive balance in our lifestyle reflects a tension inherent in the Massachusetts landscape: an uneasy coexistence of suburbia with rural and forested land. During the past few decades, our state – the third most densely populated in the country – has allowed roads and residences to encroach upon its already fragmented woodlands. Fortunately, our land’s designation under the Commonwealth’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program helps hold this last stage of forest succession at bay by recognizing the difference between the land’s fair market value and agricultural value. The graveyard-like subdivision directly across from our home suggests the fate that our wooded lot could have met without our commitment to tree farming.

 
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