From crops to forest

Friday, June 3, 2011
Dr. David Mercker, left, a University of Tennessee forestry specialist, shows landowner Gary Swanson the developing acorns on one of the nutall oaks.

Land where corn and soybeans grew less than 20 years ago is now a forest on the banks of the Duck River, thanks to a determined landowner.

Members of the Elk Valley Forestry Association assembled for their spring field day on May 20 at the farm of Gary Swanson, near the tiny community of Milltown, southwest of Chapel Hill.

"Finding this property was a real blessing," Swanson said. "My intent was to have a sanctuary for myself and for the wild animals. It's been a wonderful journey."

Swanson explained that he knew since he was four years old that he wanted to be two things: a doctor and a farmer. He's been farming since 1979, and bought this farm in 1996. Swanson "grew up in a lumberyard" and knew he wanted to "plant some trees and live in a forest." A lucky meeting with Assessor of Property Linda Haislip introduced him to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). That's how he met area forester Tom Hall.

Hall insisted on many, many soil samples from the 100-acre row-crop field where they intended to create a forest. The samples revealed that the soil was "pretty poor" except close to the river where it was prone to flooding, which many tree species can't stand. Swanson had to give up the walnut, maple and cherry he hoped for, and settle for loblolly pines, which will grow almost anywhere, and the two varieties of oak that survive flooding - sawtooth and nutall.

Swanson remarked that there was a right way, a wrong way, and a Tom Hall way to do things, and that Tom Hall's way was "the right way turbocharged and on steroids." So, doing it the Tom Hall way, he used some very expensive chemicals to clean the 100 acres until it resembled the surface of the moon. Then they used a tobacco planter to drop in 28,000 tiny pine seedlings. Two thousand minuscule oak trees were planted as well.

"Have faith they're there," advised Hall as the weeds came up and the trees vanished, not to be seen again for three years. The oaks would never have survived without hand weeding and careful mowing around them. Now, however, the trees are 30 to 40 feet high, and will need thinning out in a few years.

"It's been quite an experience," Swanson said. "Well worth it. I got back more than I put in."

He was referring to the Conservation Reserve Program he signed up for through the NRCS. Mandy Cash of the NRCS spoke to the group, explaining that CRP is a voluntary program administered by the Farm Service Agency, which offers financial incentives to private landowners to protect highly erodible and environmentally sensitive cropland by planting trees, grass, and other long-term cover.

Swanson spent between $12,000 and $15,000 on chemicals and planting and was reimbursed 50 percent, then paid a stipend for the next 10 years.

EVFA members took a walk through the woods down toward the Duck River, and paused in the shade to listen to wildlife biologist Chris Wolkonowski talk about the kind of cover small game needs.

"There's a lot of good things happening here," Wolkonski said, complementing Swanson's management. The biologist told the group that land managed for wildlife can't look manicured - it needs warm-season annual grasses, clover, annual weeds, and a dense "understory" at the base of the trees to provide cover for animals and birds.

"Native weeds are our friends," Wolkonski said. "Common ragweed carried my deer through the summer months when we had a drought," he added.

"Forestry and wildlife go hand in hand," said the next speaker, forestry specialist Dr. David Mercker.

He said there was more forest in Tennessee today than there was 110 years ago, and that 148,000 people were employed in the forest industry, as well as 540,000 private forest landowners, and 460 certified tree farms.

Mercker was asked how to encourage the trees to produce more acorns, which are prime food for wildlife, and the answer was emphatically not to fertilize. Acorn production depends a lot on weather conditions and the general health of the tree, and there's not much the landowner can do about it except perhaps thin competition away from the base of the tree.

With that, the lessons were over and the group walked back to Swanson's yard ate a barbecue picnic, and said goodbye to Hall, since he's retiring June 30.