Woodlot Management in the Anthropocene: Part Two

Our impact on the environment is widespread and planet-changing. If you accept that, then you’re left with few approaches to dealing with that impact. You can exploit the planet, with little or no thought to what happens when its resources are used up. You can try and leave it alone. Or, you can try and use it in a way that is mutually beneficial. Some resources like oil are not renewable, at least not in any timescale that makes sense to us. Trees, however, are renewable, if managed correctly, and we’re going to try to manage our woodlot system in a way that provides resources for us, yet improves the trees and soil.

Timeline: As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in Woodlot Management Part One, we’ve divided the total area of our woods, approximately 30 acres, into eight woodlots. Our plan is to work with one lot at a time over a two-year period.

As Earl Scovell writes in his 1943 essay “The Farm Woodland“: “[T]hese practices are not limited to a few days or months.… They can be applied at any season over a number of years…. One uses the labor and time when available when it is not otherwise profitably occupied.”

Our timeline is to work the woods during the months of January and February. The first year is for selecting and removing the cull trees, and the second is for harvesting marketable trees.

Woodlot division: The eight woodlots are not necessarily of the same size. Rather, we selected parcels that seemed manageable over a two-year period, following natural boundaries or fence lines.

Culls: The criteria for culls are to a large degree commonsense. Cull trees that are damaged or diseased. Cull trees that are leaning and could harm better specimens when they fall. Cull species that are not indigenous or that are of little market value or use on the farm.

The goal is not to create a sterile industrial system but, instead, to mimic nature, encourage growth, aid soil and water retention, and provide a habitat for wildlife.

Felling and removing: Commonsense again is our guide. Fell trees in a fashion that they

Horse drawn logging arch

Horse drawn logging arch

do not hit the next crop of seedlings, saplings, maturing trees. We plan to remove trees with either horse or tractor using a logging arch. (The arch is an ingenious piece of equipment that raises the front end of the log off of the ground, avoiding the scarring so injurious in a clearcut operation.)

Mycelium: An acquaintance recently pointed me to a fascinating work by Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running. (Mycelia are vegetative masses of filaments, of which mushrooms are the fruit). The book introduced me to several revolutionary ways of viewing the woods and our harvest plans.

First: I had never really given much thought to the woods as a crop. Like any crop, if the soil nutrients are not replenished, then each successive harvest is weaker. Imagine if you never added any amendments to your garden. Would you expect the same yield year after year? This is why timber companies routinely sell off their holdings after the second or third clearcutting.

Second: We can play a role in increasing nutrients and soil depth by chipping the branches and using the mulch in the forest itself (as well as using the selective harvest scheme in rotation). Using mycelium in the mulch layer, we can facilitate the breakdown and accelerate soil creation.

Third: We can use some of that mulch layer to start beds of commercial mushrooms. And we can inoculate the stumps of trees that were harvested with commercial strains of fungus like oyster mushrooms.

Selling timber and products/CSF: The final stage is marketing the harvest. There is firewood from the culls and the crowns of the marketable trees, logs, mushrooms, and mulch that can be sold or used on the farm. We are considering setting up a variation of a CSA (community-supported agriculture), a CSF (community-supported forestry).

In a CSF, customers might buy in for a cord of wood, a few hundred board feet of lumber, mulch, knowing they were supporting local sustainably harvested timber.

This is a short overview of our plan and goals. A lot of details have been left out, and some of those details are yet to be decided. But, hopefully, I have given you enough of an idea of our general framework that you can share in our enthusiasm.

Have a good week,



Reading this week: Mycelium Running: how mushrooms can save the world by Paul Stamets

A Gosling’s Demise

Two years ago our formerly large flock of Pomeranian geese had dwindled to one aged pair. The Pomeranians are not known for their success at setting, often abandoning the nest before the eggs hatch. Wanting to get some more goslings we took four eggs from their nest and hatched them out in the Brinsea. As geese age the eggs decrease both in fertility and viability. So, it was without real surprise when only one hatched fully and another peeped for a few days before dying.

We put the sole gosling in a makeshift brooder in the library. After a couple of days Cindy broke down and bought some Wyandotte and Partridge Rock chicks to keep the gawky gosling company. We named him Andre the Giant as he lumbered around with the tiny chicks. The chicks snuggled up to him at night for warmth.

After a week we moved them all to the brooder in the coop. After another two weeks we tried introducing the gosling to her parents. They first shunned and then drove it through a fence. We pulled the gosling out and put it back with the chicks.

The next weekend we tried it again. The gosling was now a few pounds and just feathering out. The parents responded with total indifference, which we saw as an improvement to attacking their offspring.

Later that same day Cindy saddled up her horse and I gathered the chainsaw, barbed wire and various tools. Some cattle had gotten out and an afternoon of repairs awaited us in the backfields. It took a little coordination between Cindy’s horsemanship and my gate opening before the cattle were back in our fields. Another hour or so and the fence was repaired. Cindy saddled up and headed home while I followed with the tractor.

Upon our return we discovered the gosling gone. A thorough search of the enclosed paddock and we were unable to find her. The fencing was strong and predator proof. Except, and this was a weakness that only then was glaringly apparent, the gate that led into the pig paddock. An inescapable truth, the gosling slipped into the paddock with four hungry hogs. Nothing remained.

Today only the goose remains, the gander having been killed by coyotes last year.


Staying in one piece with chainsaws and augers

Looking back over my shoulder, I’ve come to a sprinting stop halfway into the woods. My heart is beating fast. The 30-foot-tall tree I have been cutting down has fallen against another tree. Now it’s dangling precariously over a fence, the opposite direction from which I had notched it to fall. At this point, I am aware that my chainsaw is still idling–and hanging perilously close to my leg.
Recently I had a discussion with Cindy, trying to sell her on the idea that spending $2500 on a portable sawmill was a good investment. We can earn that money back with one good oak tree, I tell her. We will have a lifetime of well-cut lumber. I can quit my day job and cut lumber on other people’s property, I throw in hoping to persuade.
She says, “$2500. Hmmm … I guess that’s about the cost of one prosthetic limb?”
Equipment on the farm allows you to save time and energy (perhaps even money), but it is infinitely frustrating and dangerous. Soon after we bought the tractor-powered posthole digger, the nightmares began: Scarves, hair, shoelaces, fingers, all caught and sucking me into rapidly moving gears. Arms pulled out of sockets, wheelchairs, physical therapy, and charity stretching to the horizon. Pleasant stuff.
Hopefully that scarf, missing finger, empty arm socket, wheelchair, and an infinite horizon of charity will remain just a nightmare. But the frustration of dealing with cantankerous machinery or forgetting basic principles of leverage seems to be the rule in my life on the farm. And so it’s been since the beginning.
Cindy bought her first horse a week before we actually closed on the farm. Paint was very pregnant—a two for the price of one, an “offer we couldn’t refuse,” but we had no home to put her in. With the blessing of the man selling us the property, we headed out to build a corral. At that time we had neither fencing on our 70 acres nor the skills to put it up.
That first day on the farm, we brought in T-posts; telephone pole-size corner posts, posthole digger, a rented hand-operated auger, and enthusiasm. It was 95 degrees, the ground was baked, and the auger was missing a bolt. First experience with driving endless distances when you run out of something in the country, first experience with businesses rolling up their carpets at noon on Saturdays. Cindy returned with bolt an hour later, donated by an ATV repairman some miles down the road.
The auger is a dainty piece of equipment: a gas engine on top of a nine-inch-diameter, three-foot-long turning screw. The idea is simple. Start engine, hold auger away from privates, and drill hole.
Two hours later, both of us red-faced, our frustration level is very high. I have barely managed to dent the surface of the ground. I ditch the gas-powered auger. A couple more hours later, using a hand-driven posthole digger, I’ve carved out two holes barely deep enough to hold the massive corner posts. We manage in another few hours to set some T-posts and stretch some woven wire.
While this has been going on, our dear friends Jack and Deb turn up to see our “idyllic country place.” They just can’t understand why we have sold our restored Victorian home and moved to the sticks to live in a concrete-floored garage. Before their arrival, I had entertained hopes of boasting a healthy day of physical activity and a neat bit of fencing to show for our effort.
Instead, our tempers are frayed and my sunburn has turned to a nasty molten shade. I look at our effort, T-posts set out of line, the corner posts set too shallow, fencing already sagging, and I wonder, what in the hell made me think we could do this. My enthusiasm is waning as quickly as the setting sun.
A few months later, along with a 40-year-old tractor with a three-point hitch, we buy a tractor-operated auger. This single piece of equipment should allow us to (more or less) effortlessly drill holes all over the property.
The first time we hook it up to the old Ford, we are just starting to fence our first pasture. This is a small pasture below the barn that encloses about an acre and half. The fencing is woven wire. It was originally meant to protect sheep. (One day I’ll tell you the story of when I was in New Hampshire and Cindy pulled up the drive only to see our sheep-guarding dog playing catch with the head of a decapitated lamb.)
The first post for our new pasture system is to be set halfway down the slope of our lower fields. I stand ready to guide the auger into correct position as Cindy backs the tractor up and lowers the auger to the ground. Once the clutch pedal is depressed, the power takeoff (PTO) is engaged and the auger begins to turn, boring easily into the fertile soil. It drills down to its three-foot maximum, and Cindy takes her foot off the clutch. The auger stops spinning, and she pulls the lever that lifts the hydraulics. Nothing. She depresses the clutch pedal. The auger spins, but again it won’t budge. It is buried to the top by earth, and the tractor can’t pull it out.
I guess the easiest way to understand the predicament is to imagine a wood screw torqued into a block of wood until only the head is sticking out. No amount of brute yanking will budge it.
There is an acute embarrassment that comes with standing in the middle of a field, visible to all, at a complete loss on how to solve the problem. Hanging my ego out to dry in public does not build self-esteem.
So how to fix it? Getting out a shovel, I dig a hole three feet down and three feet in diameter all the way around the auger. Then, engaging the PTO, I yank the SOB out of the ground. We set our post. One post set in four hours.
Having found out that there is no “reverse” on an auger, I ask our neighbor Mr. Kyle for advice before we started the second hole. There is a trick, I’ve learned: When you engage the PTO on the tractor and the auger starts spinning, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Dig your hole and, with one continuous motion, pull out the still spinning auger.
We try this on our next hole. Again, the auger digs down. When it is down to three feet, we pull up on the hydraulics. As if to mock our farming ambitions, the auger continues to dig down, again burying the casing of the motor. Two hours later, I finish digging out the auger.
Four hundred dollars worth of auger, eight hours worth of work and we have set two posts. I dig the remaining 12 postholes by hand.
It was many months before we dared again to use the auger. Today, we are quite proficient. Cindy operates the tractor, and I handle the metal bar that guides the giant screw into the ground. The trick, we’ve figured out, is to keep it spinning, digging down one foot at a time, and then pulling it up. That way there is less resistance from the soil on the tractor’s hydraulics.
You know the old saw “That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Farm work is a lot like that; it offers plenty of opportunities to show your ignorance, as well as to run the risk of losing limbs. There always seems to be a tree falling the opposite direction from where I intended and a running chainsaw dangerously close to my leg.
But, I now can look at 70 acres of fencing, barns, chicken coops, equipment sheds, orchards, and gardens and say, “We did all that.” And as Robert Frost wrote, that has made all the difference.