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Woodlots

USDA Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

At least 6 million people own woodlot parcels averaging 40 to 50 acres in size that make up 33 percent of the Nation's 348 million acres of private timberland. Many can improve their land management. This factsheet is intended mainly for them rather than for others who may want to try to get into the business.

Many newcomers are farmers who are planting trees on more than 2 million acres under 10-year crop retirement contracts with USDA. They start woodlots under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), administered by the Agncultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) with assistance from cooperating State foresters. Owners receive cost-share assistance from ASCS and technical advice from the foresters on how to establish timber stands on cropland.

There are other Federal aid programs, such as the Forestry Incentives Program jointly administered by ASCS and USDA's Forest Service, which helped 92,000 farmers with timber management on nearly 3 million acres from 1975 through 1986.

The Forest Service (FS), working through State programs, provides thousands of private landowners with assistance annually for tree planting, seeding, timber stand improvement, and other woodland activities. The FS also is helping to support "Global ReLeaf," an American Forestry Association campaign to urge U.S. residents to plant 100 million trees by 1992.

Some owners may want to improve their management so as to boost timber production. Many others, however, favor production not only of wood but of other goods and services...water, wildlife, forage, esthetics, and recreation, including cross-country skiing. Not so incidentally, they also help with fire protection by way of fire lanes they maintain.

Management Lacking

Experts in the Forest Service and State and industry forestry circles say most woodlot farmers don't fully manage their operations. Their timber growth generally reaches only 50 to 60 percent of potential.

Good timber management means getting each acre to produce the maximum annual growth of trees spaced adequately to maintain good form and quality. It also means regenerating the stand to replace harvested trees.

According to many foresters, the most immediate need in most private hardwood timber operations is for a timber stand improvement cut, according to many foresters. Some State universities and Cooperative Extension departments have published booklets on timber stand improvement.

Several States have forestry officials who, at no charge, will arrange visits by a forester who will suggest plans for improvement of immediate and long-term commercial potential of woodlands. Private commercial foresters may be called in for more detailed plans and to oversee their proper execution.

The latter often work on the basis of a percentage of sales.

Some State foresters will show owners how to spot and mark trees that should be felled rather than left growing. They can review a written contract with a logger hired to harvest trees. Too many landowners have been defrauded and had timber and woodland abused by failing to clarify arrangements.

Officials can give names of professional foresters available for hire, as can the Association of Consulting Foresters, 5410 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814. (Telephone: 301/530-6795)

Another source of information or help is The American Tree Farmer, official magazine of The American Tree Farm System, which has certified 65,000 tree farmers of 91 million acres. The system is managed by the American Forest Council, 1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 320, Washington, DC 20036. The magazine goes 6 times a year to persons paying annual dues of $15.

The owner may learn from a State forester how to protect water quality, how large a buffer to put between the logging and a stream, where to locate skid roads, and how to manage "slash" (trash) to avoid fires. Some States require a portion of the sales dollar from logging be set aside for slash management and reforestation. There may be forest practice laws requiring inspection before, during, and after logging to help insure replanting.

State foresters may tell of availability of small, portable mills and other ways to maximize profits. They may give written material and tell of workshops on timber management. Such foresters may provide landowners with plans to achieve double objectives, such as wildlife habitat improvement and increased timber productivity. Usually these two objectives can be accomplished together.

Without professional advice, improper logging may occur that reduces not only beauty but the biologic diversity of a forest by destroying essential wildlife habitat.

If a landowner can't locate the State forester, he or she can contact the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), comprised of the directors of State forestry agencies. NASF is at Hall of the States, 444 N. Capitol Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001. (Telephone: 202/624-5415)

Advice is available from the 33,500-member National Woodland Owners Association. The NWOA is at 374 Maple Avenue E, Suite 210, Vienna, VA 22180. (Telephone: 703/255-2700) Formed by nonindustrial private woodland owners, the NWOA is independent of the forest products industry and forestry agencies. For $15 a year, members receive 8 issues of the Woodland Report and 4 issues of the National Woodlands Magazine. NWOA can arrange for a visit by a forester to a new member's location.

The Society of American Foresters (SAF), 5400 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814, lists help professionals can provide:

  • Inventory a forest to estimate its extent, quality, and value;
  • Reestablish trees on bare land;
  • Improve protection from fire, insects, and disease;
  • Select timber for harvest;
  • Help insure that timber is sold at a fair price;
  • Administer harvest activities to prevent soil and remaining tree damage;
  • Take advantage of financial incentives and other help offered by public agencies, industrial firms, and tax laws;
  • Review the owner's tax situation.

Foresters sometimes specialize. A woodlot owner should select one whose specialty matches the owner's objectives.

Best Prospects

Owners with already-established woodlots often have immediate income potential. Sometimes, however, the return covers decades. An example appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of The American Tree Farmer, in an item from President Nels Hanson of the Washington Farm Forestry Association He reported that when Lula and Vern Johnson bought their 40-acre Washington farm for $102 an acre, it had a 6-acre patch of 40-year-old Douglas fir. Between 1949 and 1987, as money was needed to clear and plant under-stocked areas and to supplement their income, they logged and thinned the stand. When the well-managed stand was sold to the Weyerhaeuser Company in 1988, it had 660,000 board feet of lumber. That high bidder paid the widow nearly $382 per thousand, or $252,000. Not everyone can find a timber investment to match that.

Benefits are available not only through selling logs but also through wildlife or other outdoor recreation projects. Information for the latter-such as developing hunting leases-is available from many Extension Service specialists and State and private foresters.

For those wanting to begin a long-term timber growth project, unused areas along creeks or streams often are excellent sites. Depending on the region (and advice from the experts), hardwoods or conifers can be planted. The exact species would depend on local growing conditions. As mentioned earlier, State and Federal officials often offer not only advice but also financial help in planting.

Woodlands along creek areas serve to filter agricultural chemicals from the soil to prevent contamination of the creek and watersheds below. Forested wetlands will become more important over time in controlling farm runoff.

The years it takes to develop a woodlot on idle land depends on the region.

The South produces salable lumber products in 15 to 25 years. In the North and West it usually takes 30 to 50 years. In the South, final harvests usually take place in 30 to 40 years and in the North and West about 60 to 80 years. Fairly intensive management is required to produce sawlogs in those timeframes.

A forester's services can be utilized to help determine proper species for planting, thinning cycles, and the right timing for a final harvest cut, not to mention reforestation plans.

What About Alley Cropping?

In many States, tree farmers can farm more than trees. One farmer plants potatoes in freshly logged areas. Dr Gene Garrett, University of Missouri forestry professor, suggests that in the Midwest, farmers plant Eastern black walnut trees (Juglans Nigra)in rows about 10 feet apart and then do "alley cropping." Alley crops can include soybeans or small grain or even vegetables.

In the South, a similar approach might be used with pecan trees. Harvesting the wood as timber takes many years, but in the meantime nut production can provide some income in about a dozen years.

Printed Information

There are many publications and books that a potential woodlot owner can consult. One fairly universally accepted is "The Woodland Steward," by James R. Fazio. A copy may be obtained for $15.55 (including postage) from the American Forestry Association, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013.

USDA's Forest Service publishes Agriculture Handbook No.681, "Forest Owners' Guide to Timber Investments, the Federal Income Tax, and Tax Record-keeping," last issued in July 1989. It includes forms for recording timber transactions. A copy may be obtained for $5 from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325.

West Virginia University's Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station published a 55-page Circular 148, "How to Estimate the Value of Timber in Your Woodlot," by Professor Harry V. Wiant, Jr. He also explains how owners often lose thousands of dollars by cutting too soon. A copy may be obtained by writing to Mrs. Mildred Spangler, Communications Bldg., West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506.

Prepared by Jared D. Wolfe of USDA's Forest Service and George B. Holcomb of the Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Program Director). The address is: Office for Small-Scale Agriculture, Cooperative State Research Service, Room 342-D, Aerospace Building, USDA, Washington, DC 20251-2200. (Telephone: 202/447-3640)

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

March 1990

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