The Economics of Managing a Small Woodlot

The Economics of Managing a Small Woodlot

The author inspects red oak and sugar maple regeneration in a part of his woodlot protected by deer fencing. Photo courtesy of Jerry Michael.

Michael Tree Farm is in the Town of Triangle, in Broome County, New York. When my parents purchased a 40-acre parcel there in 1955, it consisted of a 20-acre second growth hardwood forest and 20 acres of meadow and brush. My father planted a red pine plantation on 12 acres and Christmas trees on 5 acres of the meadow.

My wife and I purchased the property in 1972, and I arranged to have our local DEC service forester write up a management plan for the property and mark the hardwood stand for timber stand improvement and what was probably the land’s first commercial harvest. The forester also helped us get certified as an American Tree Farm. That first harvest was fairly lucrative and we were encouraged by that. It paid the taxes on the land for six years. But we knew we would need to figure out what do to after that, which was one of the motivations for getting into the Christmas tree business. We began actively tending the Christmas tree plantation, and for the last 35 years have operated a modest cut-your-own Christmas tree business on the property. While it usually shows a loss on paper, it helps to offset taxes and other expenses and has been a lot of fun; we’ve had three generations of some families come to get trees from us.

After moving back to the area full-time in 1989, I joined the New York Forest Owners Association (NYFOA) and began expanding my knowledge about forestry. In 1995, I enrolled in the Master Forest Owner Volunteer program, administered by Cornell Cooperative Extension. The program, and the annual refresher trainings, have equipped me to advise and assist other woodlot owners. I would say that economics is the primary concern for most. Of the 200 or so visits that I have made, probably two-thirds of them began with the landowners saying something like one of these two things: “I’m having a hard time paying my property taxes; who can tell me whether or not I have timber that could potentially be harvested?” or “A logger just came by and offered me $10,000 to cut every tree over 14 inches in diameter on my property; what should I tell him?”

I always take my Biltmore stick and give them a tutorial on economic maturity. I show them the difference in volume between a 15-inch tree and a 20-inch tree, and then I show them on the state DEC stumpage price report how that can make a tree triple or quadruple in value by allowing it to grow that last five inches. That usually is pretty impressive to them, so unless they are just desperate for income, they will typically say, “OK, I’m going to wait 10 years.”

If they need the income, or if I feel they have economically mature trees on their woodlot, then I go into my speech about how much more money they’re going to get if they hire a forester and do a competitive bid sale. I carry example bid sheets from sales conducted by NYFOA members that show a spread of bids on a timber sale that range 200 or even 300 percent from minimum to maximum. That’s an eye-opener, and always persuasive. I also encourage them to join NYFOA and mention all of the resources that are available to them.

By the year 2000, regeneration had become the primary management objective for my own woodlot, and I concentrated on aggressive removal of weevilled white pine, diseased American beech, and cull trees of all species, which I sold at roadside for firewood. In 2009, I conducted a commercial seed tree harvest. This really opened up the canopy, and I was rewarded with a flush of red oak and sugar maple seedlings, which were predictably and repeatedly browsed by deer. I have dealt with this inevitable problem by building a series of small, quarter-acre deer-exclosure fences to protect the seedlings until they are at least five feet tall. Then I dismantle the fences and move them to a new location. The oaks that were protected by the first exclosure I put up in 2009 are now 15 feet tall. More recently, I have been pruning off browsed seedlings at ground level and placing a five-foot tree shelter over the stump. Some of these seedlings have well- established root systems and have produced stump sprouts exceeding six feet in height in the first year.

In 2003, an ice storm and blizzard leveled the 12-acre, 50-year-old red pine plantation and we sold all of the downed trees for wood pulp. I decided to let the stand naturally regenerate to hardwoods, but wanted to experiment with supplementing the normal pioneer species with planted sugar maple, red oak, black cherry, and white ash seedlings. (I didn’t know about emerald ash borer at the time.) Protecting the seedlings from deer would be a prerequisite for success, so I planted 200 of each species within a three-acre, eight-foot-tall exclosure fence; another 800 were planted outside the fenced area, but protected with five-foot plastic tree shelters. Approximately two-thirds of the cost of this project was reimbursed through the DEC’s “Forest Stewardship Incentive Program.”

Today, the Michael Tree Farm serves as an experimental demonstration teaching forest. Over the past five years or so the farm has been visited by consulting and service foresters, academics from four universities, representatives from Audubon, the Sierra Club, various local environmental groups, 4H clubs, and many members of NYFOA and the general public. The planted seedlings have done well, and the 12-acre early successional forest stand has a significant component of desirable timber species. The original 20-acre woodlot features areas where prolific natural regeneration outgrew the reach of deer.

Over the past 45 years, we have enjoyed the income from three hardwood timber sales, one pulpwood sale, and modest annual income from Christmas tree sales. My objectives for the property are certainly not just economic, but the economics have made it feasible to hang on to the property. Although the next commercial harvest will be several decades in the future, the property is currently serving a more important purpose.

 
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