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Is your farm wasting a valuable asset?

James Pintar/Getty IMages Rows of crops with forest in background
DON’T MISS THE TREES: ISU Extension forester Billy Beck wants farmers to consider the potential of trees at field edges. From timber to carbon, there may be income just waiting in those wooded areas, with the right management.
Timberland on farms could offer added benefits, says Iowa State forester.

What do you call that stand of trees on your farm? Is it “the timber” or “our woods” or “the trees”? With a little work and planning, you could be calling it a “moneymaker” — or at least have something that provides improved value to your cropland.

That’s the message Billy Beck, forestry specialist at Iowa State University Extension, shared during a recent Integrated Crop Management event in Ames. Beck is on a drive to connect farms and forestry in a state not always known for its trees. And he started with a fundamental question: What is wood?

“It’s aboveground carbon,” he answered. “There’s carbon stored in these massive beauties we know as trees.”

He said when he walks a farm with a producer, he can see that those timber sites are overlooked. And as a forester, he knows when a wooded area is overgrown with invasive species, pulling down the value of those areas. Yet, Beck said those shrubs and trees along streamside and riparian areas can bring value to cropland.

“These are pockets of land that are not being maximized for carbon, for wildlife,” Beck said.

He showed a slide of a wooded area, noting healthy black walnut trees obscured by invasive species. “These are stagnated trees, but with a little management and work, this could be a moneymaking area,” he said. “Whether the objective is hunting or watching wildlife, these areas have value.”

Beck encourages farmers to connect with a forester in their area to assess the wooded areas of farmland and determine the potential opportunities, whether for wood, carbon storage or wildlife.

A healthy forest area

Beck shared a graph showing how different trees when young and healthy store carbon in different ways, and that aboveground mass has value as a carbon sink when not harvested. “What is the mass of the tree aboveground?” he asked. “This has management and programmatic implications.”

He explained that as trees age, they capture more carbon in their woody material.

“Sequestration is more of a process. Trees use  carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. And as the rate of tree growth slows with age, slower, older trees offer less sequestration potential,” he noted.

Proper management of those areas — such as removing invasive species and adding plantings to protect seedlings — can offer income potential. That income could be in the form of high-value timber such as black walnut trees or as a carbon payment for not harvesting.

Start out with a focus on forest stand improvement, Beck advised, such as thinning trees and planting more desirable tree species. A key is to mimic forest disturbance, which “freaks people out,” Beck said.

For example, oak trees like sunlight, so clearing or thinning other trees that can shadow those oaks can improve forest health. The aim is to not have stagnation in the woods, he said.

Carbon opportunity

Beck also offered options for earning some carbon sequestration cash from that on-farm timber, if properly maintained. There are services paying for harvest deferment credits. These HDC payments are essentially given for leaving trees for a specific amount of time.

“Forest management is allowed,” Beck said. “And there are no programs for planting trees yet.”

But bringing in a professional forester to help upgrade timber areas opens the door to participation in these HDC programs. He cited NCX, which pays landowners to defer harvest. For example, 1 HDC is about 19 green tons of hardwood, or about 2,000 to 2,300 board feet, with the market clearing price at $19 per HDC.

Beck shared some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the value of HDCs for properly maintained areas: On average in Iowa, the timber harvest ranges from 1,000 to 10,000 board feet per acre. So 2,000 to 2,500 board feet per acre would mean about $47.50 per acre.

A quick calculation shows that 10 acres of timber could earn $475 a year for those harvest deferment credits. For 100 acres, that would be $4,750 per year.

Beck’s example may or may not work for your farm. Whether you’re looking at wooded areas for direct timber income or considering longer-term carbon options, it starts with reviewing management of those wooded areas on the farm.

TAGS: Crops
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