Taking The Long View: Yankee Thrift Is Back

May 22, 2010

Taking The Long View

Yankee thrift is back in style.

Quick question: what do you image will happen next after a bulldozer rolls stumps across a scenic, rural NH landscape?

If you’re like most people, you likely imagine new homes, a new businesses or a parking lot or road construction. What if the bulldozer was building a forest, the next forest?

Not all progress done by construction equipment involves buildings or asphalt. The current economic downturn is changing attitudes about owning land in subtle yet important ways.

The economy is tight. Demand for open land for development is flat. Only recently has demand and prices paid for raw hardwood timber shown a slight increase. While there is creeping optimism about the future of housing and lumber markets, right now is a good time hold your cards, particularly the aces.

According to UNH Cooperative Extension Merrimack County Forester, Tim Fleury: “there is a revival underway of thrift as a virtue.” In ownership of both farmlands and woodlands, there are only so many easy ways to make a one-time, quick buck selling the most valuable timber or the acreage itself. As those quick profit margins evaporated over the past two years, many landowners are now re-evaluating their objectives for owning land and are taking the long-term view.

In conducting certified Tree Farm re-inspections and meeting with forest landowners, Fleury notes an increased interest in firewood thinning to take advantage of strong low wood grade markets and to improve overall timber quality. More landowners are marking boundaries, working on management plans, improving access roads, reclaiming old fields and taking more satisfaction from careful long term stewardship in lieu of short-term profit-taking.

Long tenure of ownership for farm and forestland means that stewardship investments are a winning proposition. Sacrificing immediate short-term income gains will pay off in the long run when better economic times return. Some landowners are literally plowing their proceeds back into the land itself. Holding land and timber fundamentally requires better long-term maintenance rather than a more speculative, short-term approach. The car analogy is it’s more like maintaining an older car rather than leasing a new one.

On the family-owned “Carbee Farm” on East Road in Greenfield, a Caterpiller D3-B bulldozer is building a new forest. Hunter Carbee contracted loggers last winter to clear brush and cut low quality hardwoods for fuel-wood grade chips for the biomass energy market. Carbee is now investing in site preparation, hiring his friend and contractor Gary Russell to “stump” the acreage using a small excavator with a “thumb” capable of popping-out stumps; lifting them to shake loose top soil from the roots.

Five long windrows of stumps are being rolled by the bulldozer to the edge of the new opening. Lastly, Russell will use an older model Clark log skidder to pull a very large set of bog harrows to smooth the land which will then be planted to white clover as a cover crop for the summer. Eventually, the clover cover crop will eventually die-off as native grasses and forbs beat clover in partial shade.

This autumn, Carbee plans to plant 1,000 seedling Canaan fir trees as an expansion of the family Christmas Tree plantation. Late-budding Canaan firs are the best choice for the colder “frost pocket” growing site. Carbee’s ten-year goal is to sell some 200 Christmas trees each year to help defray the expense of property taxes. With obvious pride, Carbee says “hopefully one of my sons will take over someday and continue our family tradition of stewardship of this land.” 

In another form of local “site cultivation,” Carbee is planning to hire neighborhood teenagers to help with the planting next fall. Getting local kids involved will demonstrate and “pay forward” an ethic of caring for land in the community among boys who may one day hike, hunt and fish along Rand Brook on Carbee farm land for years to come.

Forester, Tim Fleury suggests that a significant silver lining to the poor economy has been that “people are increasingly taking renewed pride in their long term stewardship activities and not making decisions based on motivation for short-term profits.”

The growing popularity of the “back to the land” ethic may be a reflection of the fact that many of the world’s most pressing environmental problems on the scale of the current Gulf oil spill disaster are too big and remote for most people to solve. Taking care of land and its future potential empowers people to make a tangible difference close to home.