Volume VI, No. 3, Spring 1979
by Kathy Long
Wouldn't it be great to drive in the Ozarks through much of our worn-out, cutover and burnt-out ridge lands and see once again stands of big trees with tall waving grass growing under them the way much of the region in southwest Missouri was in the early 1800's when the first settlers came? Is it an impossible dream to restore our marginal lands to their former state, or is it a possibility?
Most people today sit back and bemoan the loss, blame our forebearers or wonder why the government doesn't do something, never even considering that the possibility of restoration exists, much less that they could help make the dream a reality.
But Warren Cook isn't most people. He hasn't listened to excuses such as, it'll take too much money, it's too much work, it'll take too much time, I'll never gain anything from it. Rather, he has taken a positive attitude. Determined to succeed, he is not afraid of hard work. "Certainly," he agrees, "it is a long term project and I'll never realize the full value, but I have great satisfaction knowing my grandchildren will." With this philosophy he is actively spending his retirement years making it happen on his 160 acres.
He has had his dream from childhood when he first began to worry about the disappearance of the good timber. During the years, though many things intervened, he has wanted to do Something in a small way himself to return today's land of "black jack, scrub post oak, sumac and tangle briars not contributing anything," to its original richness when "there were stands of huge trees and grasslands belly deep to a horse."
He is convinced that the land can be returned to its original condition while bringing in some profit to the tree farmer at the same time. With planning, dedication and work and time, his idea is taking shape.
Warren's interest in walnut tree farming began when he was a young man growing up in the Ozarks near Neosho, but circumstances prevented his beginning work until the 1960's. At that time while living in Texas he was able to purchase his Ozark farm. Then, when he moved back to the Ozarks in 1967, he devoted his weekends to his walnut tree farm. Since fully retiring in 1971, he has worked at improving the timber stand on his farm.
"My forefathers must have been tree lovers for there were a lot of huge walnut trees on their farm. During World War I the walnut log buyers in my opinion took advantage of the situation. They came to my dad who owned the farm at the time, and convinced him to sell those walnut trees to make gun stocks to be used in the war effort. I didn't think too much about it at the time, but in later years I realized that only a few of those logs were used in making gun stocks. The log buyers had a good story to tell and persuaded him to sell his trees for patriotic reasons. That bothered me. I started thinking that I wanted to get into the tree business, particularly walnuts.
"By that time it was up in the '20's and the Depression was already pinching down on the farmers long before the crash came in 1929. I was married at the time and my wife and I were starting to buy a small acreage and build a house on it. Everything was going along nicely--we were making it. Then the crash came. We struggled along for a year or two to hold our land and couldn't. I had already started doing some planting and grafting on the property, but I had to let it go.
"You can't imagine what the Depression did to a lot of people. I would up with a very loving and helpful wife, three kids at that time and a worn out pickup. That's all the assets I had. So I couldn't do any tree farming. Several times I got a little capital and found a piece of property I thought was worth the money. With a little bit of improving and selling profits, I could buy a bigger piece next time. I don't know how many times we went through that process to get enough capital to buy a larger piece of land.
"My wife and I acquired this 160 acre farm in 1963 and started tree farming in earnest. First of all, there were little or no fences because the farm had been abandoned for a number of years. It was virtually covered with trees and in many places a lot of undergrowth. There was actually no open land on it that could be cultivated. There were scattered trees, cedar, sassafras, hickory, many species of oak, some good ones but many worthless except for firewood. "I bought an additional acreage on the west side. While inspecting the land before buying it, I discovered over 700 black walnut trees ranging from two inch diameter trunks to a few choice saw log size trees. That convinced me I should buy the land and plant three more acres of walnut seedlings. However, when Mrs. Cook's health got so bad that I didn't have enough time to work on all of it, I needed to concentrate on the first 160 acres that I had already done so much on, so I sold the additional land. The new owner brush-hogged and cut down that three acres of trees. That was his business. Evidently he didn't realize the potential there in a very few years, for the trees were four years old and in a few years they would be producing nuts that would sell for three or four times more per pound than nuts from the trees growing in the woods under less advantageous conditions."
In spite of the set backs and difficulties, Warren has persisted with his tree farming idea. With help from the Missouri Conservation Commission Department of Foresty, he has made quite a start. In 1977 he was named tree farmer of Missouri. The following is the way he plants and manages his trees.
PREPARING LAND AND PLANTING
There are two catagories of walnut tree farming--improving and restoring existing stands of native timber, and setting seedlings on open farm cropland. The native stands are usually found on the tops and steep sides of ridges unsuitable for cultivation. There is usually evidence of trees in the form of rotting stumps to show it has been cut over, but not replanted. Warren has done both kinds of tree farming, and he and any landowner can get advice and a part of the cost from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. The local farm forester with the Missouri Conservation Commission is available free of charge for advice and supervision.
The first preparation in starting a walnut tree farm is finding land suitable for growing the native black walnuts. "Don't be sold that your whole farm will grow walnuts. You've got to find where walnut trees will thrive or you're just wasting your time. If you're going into the walnut business, it would be beneficial to find a farm that had at least a few walnuts on it. Then if you find comparable sites on the land, it is probable that walnuts will thrive there, too." Though most of Warren's farmland has been cultivated at some time in the past, walnut trees sprout readily in fence rows and in uncultivated areas. "Check carefully walnut trees found growing under these conditions. Look for signs of vigorous growth and evidence of nut production. Study the appearance of the soil, the direction and degree of slope of the site. If the trees look like they are enjoying life and will live to a ripe old age, start looking for comparable sites on your land that might be converted to walnuts by setting seedlings."
Walnut trees should be planted on the north slopes of the land. In natural condition they are usually found growing on north and east slopes as well as in little hollows and valleys. In the Ozarks the vegetation growing on the north slopes differs quite a bit from that on the southern slopes. There may be several reasons for that. Some soil scientists say that eons ago there was a northeast movement of the surface soil in the area causing a pile up of soil on the north and east sides of the ridges. Another factor causing different growing conditions is that on the south and west, the sun burns up a lot of the humus matter that's in the soil. When the land is cleared off and cultivated, there is a problem of not enough moisture and fertility. Walnuts do best in deep, fertile, well-drained soils, therefore barren, sunbaked hillsides are not good planting sites. Walnuts need moisture, but will not tolerate wet feet for any great length of time, because they get root rot.
Walnut trees can be planted in with other hardwood stands or on unused ground in areas too small to cultivate or on sites no longer cultivated with a deep soil. When preparing an area for a walnut stand, one should clear out the undesirable growth by cutting, disking or plowing. Warren's experience proves you don't have to have sophisticated machinery.
"I've done my own brush-hogging. And I've done most of the saw work, because there's too many trees to risk woodcutters coming in. I cut stumps off level to the ground so I can go over them with my disk when I get ready to work the soil. I sowed the grass cover from the back of a pickup with a hand seeder and covered it by pulling a blackjack tree over it."
When the ground is ready, state foresters advise planting the trees in a staggered effect, so that the mature stand will eventually have twenty feet between the rows and forty feet between the trees. This spacing permits growth of long logs in good condition and allows room between rows for machinery to harvest the hay. But to assure getting a good stand of trees, foresters recommend spacing seedlings twenty feet or less in the row and thinning out undesireable trees as they show up. That means more cost and more labor, but in the long run better trees are the end result. A seedling that cannot be developed to produce a log at least eight feet long should be removed.
On natural walnut stands, or when planting trees in established wooded areas, it is essential to eliminate the competition for space, moisture and fertility by thinning out the undesirable trees to obtain maximum growth of quality trees. If trees are not thinned out, the faster-growing trees will eventually out-compete their neighbors, but only at a considerable sacrifice in their own growth rate.
When the tree stand is ready for thinning, do it in stages, leaving the trees thicker than intended for them to eventually be. Remove the neighboring trees to allow at least five feet of clear space around the top. First. remove or kill hollow, forked, diseased, fire-scarred, extremely crooked or generally poor formed trees of all species which crowd or suppress valuable young walnut trees. Sell as much of this lower valued resource as the market will permit. However, until the trees to be removed are of saw-timber size, the markets for thinning products are rare. The best market is for firewood. But once the trees reach marketable size, thinning should be profitable.
Unfortunately, there are people that don't appreciate the timber potential of their native walnut trees and fail to care for them properly. One of the most common forms of neglect is allowing limbs to spread out from neighboring trees, crowding the more valuable walnut trees. To correct such a problem, eliminate everything growing within seven feet of the widest limb. This will give them room to grow upward. "My farm was very thickly populated with trees. I marked the trees I wanted left and pushed the rest out with a bulldozer. If those had been walnuts, I wouldn't have used a bulldozer, for you ruin the walnuts when you tear up the roots. I learned the hard way on about two acres. There the walnut trees are dying because we tore them up."
Walnut stands can be thinned by sawing down trees, girdling them or by injection. "Part of my thinning is done by tree injection which kills the tree. There's reasons for not cutting trees down. Unless you're a better woodsman than I am, it is very possible to fall a tree imprecisely and ruin others. The brush left from a fallen tree also creates a fire hazard. If a fire ever starts there, it will ruin every tree around the fallen treetop, using the injector method, the limbs will fall of gradually and soon there's just spikes standing that a woodsman can fall without damaging others."
At about twenty years of age when the trees are producing nuts, Warren recommends marking them to keep a record of the good nut producers. Those which have a poor nut crop should be thinned out as the neighboring trees develop and crowd. Painting is the easiest way of marking the tree as it doesn't damage it. Each year he puts a different color on the north side of the tree. Those trees with the most colors of paint are the good nutters. Then, it's easy to determine the quality trees from the poor producers, when thinning.
Thinning out neighboring trees, either other species or poorer quality walnut trees, is a continual process. As trees grow more and more of the surrounding trees will need to come out.
Thinning isn't the only care needed on walnut trees. Individual trees should be pruned to assure tall, straight, single-stemmed trees. Since young walnut trees will respond favorable to pruning, try to start the pruning program early enough in the life of the trees to remove the lower side limbs before they are two inches in diameter. With a good pruning job, wounds will heal in about two years on rapidly growing trees. Pruning is best done during the dormant season, preferably in winter or early spring. At that time callus formation is likely to take place promptly during the following growing season, thus reducing the period of exposure to attack by fungi and insects.
In the first growing season prune forked trees to develop one good stem. When the trees are about five years old, start pruning to remove the lower branches. This is especially important on walnut trees because the thin foliage which allows the sun to filter through to the lower limbs discourages natural pruning. Therefore, to assure a log long enough to be of marketable value, cut off the lower limbs.
Remove the branches flush with the tree trunk. If sprouts develop from the pruned bole, remove them immediately before they develop into branches which will form knots in the wood. Do not leave branch stubs, for these scars will not heal and new branches will sprout from around the cut. This type of pruning is worse than no pruning at all, for injuring a tree, activates the latent tree buds, and the tree is shocked. Sometimes such a shock will kill the tree.
Continue pruning annually until at least an eight foot butt log has been developed. Pruning higher, leaving a longer log, will usually produce a higher quality log which will bring a higher price on the market. However, do not remove more than a third of the live crown at one time.
PROTECTING TREES DURING GROWTH
For walnut trees less than nine or ten feet in height the emphasis should be on growing a stem that is straight and free of defects which can be converted into a veneer log of at least minimUm dimensions. But while the trees are growing, they also need some care from objectionable weed growth and animal molestation.
Vines should always be removed, for they compete for growing space and suppress young walnut trees. Quality walnut trees should also be free of metal. Use posts rather than valuable trees as support for fences. Walnut buyers usually refuse to purchase trees to which fences were once fastened. Nails, staples, or other metal objects in logs damage saws and veneer lathes and can cause serious accidents.
Complete weed control for young trees is neither necessary nor desirable since it aggravates erosion problems. However, control of competing weeds for the first three years after planting should ensure that the trees will grow well during the crucial period when form is determined. Weed control for more than three years, especially on a larger area around each tree, will continue to stimulate growth, but costs may not be worth the benefits.
Animals can also cause problems. "I've had quite a lot of trouble with hawks tearing up my trees," Warren said. "When seedlings are set in grass sod, rats and mice will be present and the hawks light in the top of the young seedlings, breaking the center stem. Some of my trees are damaged by rabbits. I had to get rabbit guards when I set out twenty-three more acres because they were really slashing them."
Those wanting to harvest the nuts must compete with the squirrels that start taking the nuts in the dough stage. A big squirrel population can seriously cut down on nut harvest. But the squirrels also help re-forest areas by storing their nuts in the ground and never returning for them. Warren takes advantage of that habit. "The squirrels are still planting walnuts and I rescue the trees I find. If they sprout out where cattle are grazing, I have to build barriers around them. I've been fussing with the Conservation Commission because they don't start a program training the squirrels to put walnuts at least twenty feet apart when they plant them."
The oldest trees on Warren's farm that he has set out are seven or eight years old. Some others are five years old, and the remainder were recently planted. Walnut trees mature in approximately sixty years, however, trees with an eight inch diameter at the small end of the log can be harvested and sold to certain buyers like manufacturers of novelties and wooden bowls.
When open crop land is converted to trees via setting seedlings, a good sod of hay producing grasses should be established at least a year in advance. "The hay off of my land has been paying more than the cost of the fertilizer, taxes and other expenses on the land." Fescue, clover, bluegrass and other grasses suitable for orchard planting can be grown on such land. Tree farming land may even be used to graze stock, if a few precautions such as hot wire fencing are taken to keep the stock between the rows during the first eight years. Young calves can be put in sooner, however, horses should never be pastured with young walnut trees, for they usually mutilate them in some way.
A continual product from tree farming is fire wood. When clearing land, thinning out the trees or harvesting the trees, the branches and excess trees may be used for fuel wood.
Finally, the land is ideal for wildlife. Warren has left the roughest land for a wildlife sanctuary. "I'm like the fellow in the story, who cleaned up a vacant lot and had a wonderful garden on it. His minister came along and said, 'Brother, you and the Lord sure got a wonderful garden here.' He said, 'That's right, Parson, but you should have seen it last year when God had it by himself.' So I'm going to let part of my land go just the way nature wants to."
If these aren't enough reasons to explore a tree farming occupation, why not help contribute to the world's constant search for energy? Trees are our only energy source we can regenerate. "We haven't even explored this wood deal for energy. Once we're out of steel we're out of steel. Once we're out of aluminum, we're out. But wood, we can grow more wood all the time."
In planning for the future, Warren is also getting immediate satisfaction. Already the results of his work are visible. On portions of his land where there were already native walnut trees, his management and care of trees and grass show what vision and work can accomplish on once abandoned tracts.
"If farmers would just take care of the walnut trees that are existing on a lot of the farms, they'd be much closer to payoff than I am before I plant these little seedlings. That's too far down the road. I know I'll never see them mature. If I live that long, I'll be blind anyway. My main thrust is to establish the challenge of taking thousands of acres of semi-abondoned Ozark land and putting it into some production for both short term and long term income, relying primarily on trees and grass.
"I thought that when I really got into this thing and began to have some visible evidence that tree farming could pay off, I could talk some younger people into buying land and starting a long term program. So far, I haven't really converted anybody to that practice, but I've still got hopes. Bittersweet magazine may be the best missionary to get people to think about tree farming. The next thing is to get some action."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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