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The pear-thrips factor; a humorous look at tree farming on a shoestring, with some advice for fellow innocents.

A humorous look at tree farming on a shoestring, with some advice for fellow innocents.

Yes, the land's an investment." My husband was trying hard to sound both knowledgeable and jocular. "In 10 years we'll need a shot to help the kids through college. Then by the time we're ready to retire, we figure the tree'll be fat and tall. Millions of boardfeet right in our pockets!"

The county forester looked us over impassively, "So, Jim," he said finally, "you're a minister, hm? Just what do you know about tree farming?"

"Well, uh, quite a bit, actually. We read a book - a couple of books. We know the cubic feet in cord of firewood, how to figure the board-footage in a standing tree; we know the best time to ..."

"What equipment do you have? Chainsaws? A wood vehicle? Four-wheel-drive tractor, maybe?"

"Um, we have two saws, the non-motorized kind." Jim smiled weakly. "One's a handy little utility bowsaw' the other is bigger, different - uh - shape ..."

A strong scent of diversion brightened the administrative group across the table. The forester winked at his cohorts. "How many acres do you want to sign up for in the Timber Stand Improvement program?"

"Well ... let's see," Jim said, pausing nervously. The hobby end of our scheme was beginning to look foolish around the edges." We have a month's vacation, plus a few Saturdays here and there. We could get up here maybe ... uh ... 40 days all told. Doesn't seem like a lot, I know, but how much d'you think we could do in that time?"

The fermenting humor came uncorked as the forester tipped his head back. "Forty days - 40 acres. Hawhaw!"

"They don't think we can do it," Jim muttered on the way out. "They think we're wimps! They sit behind the table, tough-as-nails dairy men with tan necks and white foreheads, snickering at a minister trying to tree-farm. Well, we'll show' em!"

We did show them, and after 25 years of muscling around 260 acres of Vermont woodland, we have some advice to pass along - not just to ministers but to teachers (Jim does that, too) and to word-processors (my field), and to anyone else who claims a bit of private woodland.

Lesson No. 1: bowsaws are not adequate for felling large trees, or large numbers of small trees. However, the small utility saw is an excellent tool for whipping fallen twigs and branches from trails that nobody but you may care about. A quick flick sends them sailing.

So let it be said: a chainsaw is indispensable to tree farming. Two chainsaws are equally indispensable. One nearly always isn't working; the second fills in just long enough for the first to be fixed before the collapse of No. 2. Two people working together, however, seem to have a salutary effect: the saws gain strength from snarling at each other.

Our very first chainsaw gave us an enormous sense of power, especially against bowsaws. Carrying it from place to place increased muscle power as well. We found it expedient to set its tonnage on something solid overnight- concrete or a heavy plank. Left on the ground, the saw would sink slowly out of sight, causing quite a to-do in the morning. Fortunately, bedrock lies close the surface in Vermont, so the saw never did make it all the way to the mother lode.

Yes, other equipment is helpful. You learn this after the woods close to camp are all cleaned up, forcing you over hill and dale with axes, saws, fuel, tools, insect repellent, extra clothing, first-aid goods, lunch, and perhaps a container for blackberries.

Jeeps, even old ones, are expensive but durable. They needn't be in one piece, either. Our current Jeep is held together with metal bandaids and offers the driver the extraordinary sensation of frame and seat floating off in different directions. The steering disintegrates occasionally and a wheel has been known to come off, but such shortcomings are minimized by the slow speed of woods driving. And there are always trees to stop you when the brakes fail. If the thing runs, you're all set. Oh, yes - a gas mask is handy for warding off exhaust in the cab, or you can drive with your head out the window.

We have other antique and durable vehicle: a circa-World War II Ford tractor, plus a small 'dozer of similar vintage. The combined ages of all three machines is at least 100 years, a remarkable wealth of experience from which to draw.

One early tractor, however, betrayed us. This first major purchase, eked out of a slim budget, was intended to spell the Jeep in skidding logs. An old, ugly monstrosity thick with sawmill residue, the Oliver's greatest attractions were low price and free delivery. It arrived one steamy noon, and we abandoned lunch to greet our new fellow laborer.

Jim played with the machine a bit, but the following noon, just 24 hours later, the thing chose to self-destruct in a towering blaze, leaving us with a blackened hulk and shattered nerves.

Keep away, then, from machines that have served time pushing sawdust.

Don't count on logging to get your kids through college. Sure, you might pick up a nice sack of money at the mill, but you have to factor in saws that get older and duller and are prone to carry on with the repairman.

Then, too, it costs to have logs hauled to the mill. In thinking about this problem, you might toy with the idea of building your own log truck. Please don't. Trust me in this matter. Let your local trucker have the heart palpitations brought on by a high center of gravity that shifts rapidly on rough logging roads.

Now, if the federal government happens to be feeling well, it will help you build roads. You call in a construction man to eyeball the terrain, and after the customary number of delays, he will appear one fair morning with a MACHINE. I mean it - a half-acre at a swipe. Venerable trees that have clung to bedrock for centuries fall in a shown from just the roar of the juggernaut. In no time at all you have a major artery across your wilderness.

You now have your road - one to gladden the heart of any trucker you might invite for tea - but that's not the end of it. To keep your road you need to seed it down. That's the easy part. Then, as a further step in erosion control, you dig water bars that would make a Dutchman proud. Inexorably, though, water will find the most direct way downhill, eating your water bars and turning your major artery into a minor Grand Canyon.

The ultimate economic value of a tree species is directly contrary to the value you initially placed on it. (I believe this is called a law.) For instance, when we first walked our land, we grew ecstatic over what seemed to be acres of solid white birch. White pine also was everywhere, and the former owner, who had worked the land his whole long life, had pruned every young pine shoulder-high. "Limbed pine," he quavered, "makes clear lumber; you'll get a high price for it at the mill." We promptly signed up in the government pruning program.

One of our hills ran to sugar maple - a fine timber stand, he assured us, for which he had turned down a sizable sum. Closer to camp. another group of maples promised to make a good sugarbush for syruping - more dollar signs in our eyes.

Now, let it be known here that fancy equipment such as buckets and an evaporator are not required to make maple syrup. You can even make your own spiles, or spouts, out of elderberry sticks, or just slash the bark like the Indians did. But that gets to be work and could open you to a charge of cruelty to plants.

All you really need are a few large plastic kitchen wastebaskets and sufficient string to tie them to the trees, more or less under your store-bought spiles. You should have something to keep rain out, but I leave that to you.

You certainly don't need to service your wastebaskets every day, especially if you live 100 miles away like we do. But you might consider a few prayers for a decline in the sap run after a week has gone by; the staying power of string might not be equal to the weight of seven or eight gallons of sap hanging on it. We added regulation buckets the second year, and the physical properties of string seemed less relevant.

That first attempt at making syrup yielded just one quart and cost us $26 (1965 figures). Not bad, if you factor in exercise and laughs.

But getting back to the economic law aforementioned. On the lower end of the value spectrum, we began dealing with "weed" trees - striped maple and hophornbeam, among others. The only good thing the forester could say about that latter tree was that it made decent firewood. We immediately set about eradicating it from the face of the earth - just before the oil crunch of 1973, when firewood entered the world of high finance.

Other realities hit us more gradually. White birch is a beautiful tree for artists, but it makes neither top-grade lumber nor good firewood. And we do have a lot of it.

The theory of pruning pine for clear lumber is fine, and the government sang its praise for years. Pruning became a favorite and heartening activity for us. You get instant gratification from the neatness of all those clean trunks.

However, professional loggers began dropping remarks about "little black zits" left in the center of the logs. Then we learned that mills are reluctant to pay a higher sum for pruned logs, even though lumber yards, still scalp customers for knot-free lumber.

That felt us with our backs against the sugar maples that were growing fatter and presumably more valuable each year. Looks, however, are deceiving. A recent improvement logging revealed brown speckles all through the wood, reducing our "fine logs" to pallet-wood grade.

Our latest calamity was even more intriguing. After the third poor sugaring year in a row due mostly to unfavorable weather, we peered up one fine day to see nearly all our maples looking feverish and peaked. A quick call to our forester brought an instant diagnosis: an invasion of pear thrips, of all things, from California. It seems that these tiny insects tired of pears and went on a maple binge, sucking juice from the buds and rendering the tree decidedly morose. Nobody really knows what will happen, and some observers have said that the maple industry will be dead in 10 years - an optimistic forecast, from the look of our trees.

So there you have it. A minister can be a tree farmer, and religious leanings - far from being a hindrance - bring a definite advantage. It's all in the focus. We've worked very hard these 25 years. We've made do with highly improbable equipment. We've come to respect nature and learned to live with it. We've accepted the hard economic facts of tree farming and know we'll never get rich from it. There will always be pear thrips or pruning zits or incendiary tractors.

The tree farmer whose livelihood depends on the ways of the woods is indeed at risk. But I pity those woodlot hobbyists whose well-being is welded to hard cash. Indifferent to the wealth of beauty in the woods, they suffer from a spiritual hardening of the arteries as deadly as its physical counterpart. Pear thrips, it seems, can kill more than just trees.

Besides being a tree farmer, Eleanor K. Gustafson is a freelance writer has published two book. She resides in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:tree pests hard to deal with
Author:Gustafson, Eleanor K.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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