Cover Story

The Forest-Tree Story

Story and Photos by Bill Sherrod, Editor

 


Franklin Myers with a young pine.

Trees — poet Lucy Larcom’s bastions of hope — spring skyward from nearly 16 million acres of Virginia soil. And more than 12 million of those acres are privately owned.

The business of developing, planting, growing, nurturing, harvesting and processing trees and their byproducts is huge in the Old Dominion.

“Agriculture and forestry combined are the number-one industry in the Commonwealth,” notes John W. Campbell, Jr., director of public information for the Virginia Department of Forestry.

From paper to chewing gum, furniture to food, forestry and forest products are everywhere. In Virginia, more than 5,000 products originate with trees, and forestry accounts for more than $23.4 billion in annual commerce and 144,000 jobs, Campbell says.

“A tree in the city is just as important in its own way as a tree on a rural tree farm. Trees are an enormous resource in the Commonwealth,” he adds.

And today’s forestry ensures that trees are a resource Virginians will enjoy far into the future. Trees aren’t just a renewable resource, they’re an expanding resource. For years, more trees have been planted than harvested annually in Virginia, according to Campbell. Forested acreage being lost in Virginia is being lost to uses other than forestry.

About 78 percent of Virginia’s trees are hardwoods, according to Campbell. The rest are various types of pines.

And most tree farmers plant pines. The species of pine used in most Virginia plantings outside of the highlands is the loblolly pine.

There are essentially four steps in a forestry cycle: harvesting, planting (or natural regeneration), thinning, and harvesting. Trees cut in the harvesting and thinning steps are sold for pulpwood, lumber or other uses. During its 20- to 30-year life cycle, a stand of pines provides habitat for a variety of wildlife, cleans the air and water, and provides a pleasing view for all to behold.


Rob Wait and his wife Jane bought their 160-acre Caroline County farm in 1997.

“In Virginia, especially in the Piedmont, loblollies are most predominant,” notes Rob Wait. An Ashland resident, Wait is a retired investment advisor who currently serves as chairman of the Virginia Tree Farm Committee and treasurer of the Virginia Forestry Association. He and his wife Jane have planted trees on their 160-acre farm in nearby Caroline County.

Wait says there are between 1,400 and 1,500 Virginians involved in the American Tree Farm System, and the average size of their tree farms is 300 to 500 acres. “There are some as large as 5,000 acres, and some smaller, but most are in the 300-to-500-acre range,” he says.

How did an investment advisor get into the tree-farming business?

“I was looking to buy a farm, and this (tree farming) was good investment diversity. Jane and I looked three or four years before we found a farm we liked. When we bought the farm in 1997, there were 50 acres of loblolly pine that had been planted in ’87,” notes Wait.

“In 2004, we took 45 acres out of rental for farming and planted oak. Some of my forestry friends joked with me and said I was nuts to do this, since I’ll never see these oaks reach maturity. But it’s been an interesting exercise, and planting oak helps to provide wildlife benefits and diversity of the forestry makeup.”

Apparently not everyone thought his oak plantings were too nutty: Rob and Jane Wait’s Five Poles Tree Farm was selected by the Virginia Tree Farm Committee as Virginia’s Outstanding Tree Farm in 2005.

“When you own a tree farm, you’re not just doing it for the income,” Wait continues. “The trees are helping to clean the air and filter the water on the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Trees are a renewable resource and provide a great benefit to society. Forestry people often don’t get credit for this.”

Supporting Natural Resources

Forestry’s unsung environmental benefit is a theme that echoes across the industry. “People often don’t think about how much forestry means to Virginia, beyond the obvious economic impact,” says Paul Howe, executive director of the Virginia Forestry Association. “There are thousands of private landowners with trees on their property. Someday, they’ll cut those trees for money; but in the meantime, the trees are helping provide clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, visual enjoyment and a host of other environmental benefits.

Such benefits range from removing carbon dioxide from the air, to replenishing oxygen, to filtering pollutants from rainwater runoff headed for, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

“It’s impossible to put a price tag on that, but we hope that people can see the value that timber and forestlands bring to the eco-system,” Howe adds. “Forestry is an industry that supports natural resources.”


Ken Morgan, president of Morgan Lumber Co. chats with the company's forester manager, Michael Elliott.

Ken Morgan is immediate past president of the Virginia Forestry Association. He is president of Morgan Lumber Company, a wood-products milling operation located near Red Oak in Charlotte County. The business was founded by his grandfather in 1939. His son, John, is the fourth generation of the family engaged in the business.

“I’m not only interested in cutting trees — I’m more concerned about planting trees,” says Morgan. “If people are truly interested in healthy forests, it’s important for them to understand what makes a healthy forest. Forestry is the way we manage our forestland and maintain healthy forests. If we don’t manage our forests, we’ll see diseased trees, wildfire, and forests being cleared for development.”

One of Morgan’s favorite causes is the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation (see sidebar), which provides forestry scholarships and promotes forestry education in general. He is vice chairman of the foundation’s board of directors. Morgan believes that education is vital in ensuring that forestry and forests thrive in the future.

“I’m at the point in my life that I’m not looking to create something for myself. But I do want my grandsons to have the same opportunities I had. I want to ensure that there are more and healthier forests in Virginia when I retire than there were when I started working,” Morgan says.


Tom Newbill of Franklin County got into the tree-farming business in 1967, when he bought a 152-acre tract of land.

Tom Newbill, who succeeded Morgan as president of the Virginia Forestry Association, is a Franklin County certified Tree Farmer whose Montmorenci Tree Farms, LP, land includes acreage he first purchased in 1967 to get into the tree-farm business. That 152-acre tract has expanded over the years to approximately 1,200 acres, including many relatively small tracts purchased since 1967, according to Newbill. In 2008, Newbill and his wife Sallie were named Virginia Tree Farmers of the Year.

“I got into tree farming because I thought it would be a good investment,” Newbill notes. “As opposed to, say, savings accounts, I felt like land would be a valuable asset in the future. When we first got into this, I bought three or four tracts and paid for them mostly with proceeds from the timber sold off the land.”

Since 1967, Newbill adds, the other assets of forest management have come into focus for him. “Forestry is good for wildlife and all of the recreation associated with it, from hunting and fishing to just watching nature.”

Forestry is also a good complement to traditional agriculture, according to Newbill. “The majority of tree farms have some form of agriculture associated with them,” he notes. “And forestry itself is a huge contributor to the state’s economy.”

For the Love of the Woods

Franklin B. Myers is vice president of M.M. Wright, Inc., and Gasburg Timber Corp., and president of Gasburg Land and Timber Company, Inc., in Southside Virginia. A native of Augusta County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Myers graduated from Virginia Tech with a forestry degree in 1981 and moved to Southside in 1987. His wife Susan’s father founded M.M. Wright, Inc. in 1949. Since then, the business has expanded into four separate companies employing 60 people. M.M. Wright was named the National Outstanding Logger by the American Pulpwood Association in 1991.

“We run four crews, all the time,” notes Myers. He estimates that his company harvests 275 tractor-trailer loads of wood per week, using a variety of equipment such as feller-bunchers, skidders, knuckle-boom loaders, bulldozers and service trucks.

Myers, who serves as a member of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s board of directors, began his career with Continental Forest Industries and has been in forestry since he left college. Recently elected to the board of directors of the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation, Myers is passionate about forests and forestry.

“Personally, I love the outdoors. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than working outdoors,” he says. “And as people who work in the forest-products industry, we consider ourselves stewards of the land. We make our living off the land, so we want it to be here forever.”

Foundation Promotes Forestry Education

Founded in 1958, the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation (VFEF) is a charitable and educational 501(c)(3) organization. 

The VFEF advocates conservation and wise use of forests and its primary goal is to support educational programs that speak to the benefits of forests and forest products and to the perpetuation of our forest heritage through conservation. VFEF underwrites scholarships for qualified students enrolled in forestry and forest-products programs at Virginia Tech.

The foundation supports programs that demonstrate that sustainable forestry can protect watersheds and wildlife while preserving aesthetic and recreational values of the community. Sustainable forestry supports jobs for local loggers, sawmills and other segments of the local communities.

The mission of the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation is to financially support statewide youth education to promote sustainable forests for the environmental, social and economic benefit of all Virginians.

To fulfill this mission, the foundation supports programs that advocate many of the positive benefits of healthy, sustainable forests. Healthy forests help moderate climate extremes, filter the air and produce oxygen, reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.

Some of the programs VFEF supports are: Project Learning Tree, which instructs teachers (K-12) on forestry and environmental programs so they return to the classroom and impart this to students; the Forestry 4-H Program, which teaches students about recommended forestry practices, tree identification and environmental information; and the Scholarship Program, which assists the best forestry students at the College of Natural Resources & Environment at Virginia Tech.

Other programs supported by VFEF range from forestry internships at Virginia 4-H centers to a project locating and identifying the state’s oldest, most historic, largest and most interesting trees.

To learn more about the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation, visit www.vfef.net, e-mail info@vfef.net, call 804-278-8733, or write to the foundation at 3808 Augusta Ave., Richmond, VA 23290-3910.

For more information about forestry:   

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Virginia Department of Forestry: www.dof.virginia.gov

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Virginia Forestry Association: www.vaforestry.org

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American Tree Farm System: www.treefarmsystem.org

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Virginia Forestry Products Association: www.vfpa.net

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Virginia Logger’s Association: www.valoggers.org 

 

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