Josiah Pierce of West Baldwin, Maine, loves trees. He has a 2,000-acre tree farm with 1,960 acres in woodlots.

On the remaining 40 acres, Pierce, who is retired from the jewelry manufacturing business, has a hobby farm upon which he raises a small flock of registered Tunis sheep, some chickens and the occasional pig.

He also had 45 taps in a sugarbush operation this year. He could tap another 150 if he wanted to, but he’s far too busy tending to the rest of his trees… they’re what pays the bills.

2007 Outstanding Tree Farmers

In 2007, the American Forest Foundation named Pierce and his wife, Kathy, the nation’s Outstanding Tree Farmers. Being a certified Tree Farmer (with capital letters) means having a management plan, following the forest practices it outlines toward identifiable goals while exceeding the state’s best woodlot management practices.

Pierce said his goals are to raise quality trees for harvest while creating wildlife habitat. “White pine and red oak are our money trees,” he said. “I pay my taxes and I expect to earn from $20,000 to $50,000 a year from my tree harvests.”

What separates Pierce from a lot of others is his vision for his woods after the harvest.

“I want to be able to look at my trees afterward and see what lies ahead,” he said. “Will I be doing improvement cuts over the next few cycles or will there be high-value trees to take out in our next harvest?”

His holdings are far more diverse than his money trees. Like so many other woodlots in the Northeast, his forests hold a lot of hardwoods, including red and rock maple; white ash; beech; white, yellow and black birch; as well as some pine and hemlock.

Pierce spends much of his time weeding. “That means cutting trees with forked tops and crooked stems and culling out the diseased ones,” he said. Why? “I want to leave my woods in better condition than they were when I found them.”

That’s a lofty goal, in Pierce’s case. “We’ve been managing our land sustainably since 1950,” he said. “We are third-generation tree farmers.”

Timber Sales

As with all farmers, money comes after the harvest. And just like everything else, there are right and wrong ways to go about it.

Hire a licensed professional forester, Jonathan Kays, University of Maryland natural resources extension specialist, said. “Licensed professional foresters will look after your interests,” he added.

High-grading, diameter cutting, taking the biggest and the best and leaving the rest – these are the practices of those who would cream-skim a woodlot and leave nothing for future harvests.

These are the people woodlot owners want to avoid. “So, if someone comes to your door and offers you $20,000 for your trees,” Kays said, “you really ought to figure out how much it is worth. If it was real estate, that’s what you’d do. Why wouldn’t you do the same thing for your woods?”

That is what a licensed professional forester will do. The reason is because they want to set up a management plan to assure there will be another harvest that brings in more than $20,000, if harvesting is, indeed, what you want to do.

Licensed foresters in Maryland must have four-year degrees and be licensed by the state. Only Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Vermont do not have state forestry licensing programs, although Vermont has a bill moving through its Legislature to create such a program.

Pierce has worked with his forester, Rene Noel, owner of Southern Maine Forestry Services Inc., North Windham, Maine, since 1982. “He marks the trees, lays out the roads for the harvest. We talk about it a lot before we actually go about doing it.”

Normally, foresters find loggers for landowners and negotiate prices. Kays said lump sum sales are best because landowners get their money up front and don’t have to watch what goes out of their woods as closely as those who prefer prices paid per volume shipped.

Pierce is a per-volume shipper. He has known his logger since before he became one and, because of the trust that comes with a relationship like that, he doesn’t mind collecting his money based on volume shipped.

“I’ve known him since he was born,” he said. “He’s conscientious, he’s a hard worker, he’s hunted these woods and he lives within a mile of my house.”

When Ricky Day decided to become a logger, he came to Pierce and asked if he could harvest his trees. “I told him to come back and talk to me when he was a certified professional logger.”

Day did just that and no one else harvests Pierce’s wood.

Pierce said his timber harvests generally last from eight to 10 weeks, depending on the weather. Currently, he’s cutting a 60-acre parcel, taking hardwood saw-logs and mat logs because those prices are on the rise.

Mat logs are logs woven into mats and laid down in front of heavy equipment to help them move through wet or swampy ground.

He’s cutting some pine, though not very much because he’s getting about $20 to $30 less per thousand board feet than he did in 2008.

That’s the nature of the woodlot business. Unlike harvesting corn and risking bin storage until the market price rises, trees can be left on the stump for years until the market rebounds.

Bottom Line

Will woodlot profits pay the mortgage on the farm? The answer is a qualified yes.

For farmers whose woodlots contain high-quality hardwoods in sufficient quantity, there can be years when they generate enough money to cover the mortgage. But there will be years in between, during which trees spend time maturing into the fine quality commodities that command those good prices.

Then, too, the timber market is just like any other. Prices vary from year to year.

Farmers who hire licensed professional foresters to help them work up management plans, and then stick to those plans, are also more likely to reap good profits from their woodlots than those who don’t.