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Trees good option on marginal land

Year after year, you've planted a crop on that field on your farm that is simply holding the earth together and, in most years, those acres haven't been especially profitable. What you may want to consider is planting trees instead of traditional row crops on the less productive areas of your farm, according to Ted Leininger, project leader for the USDA Forest Service Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research in Stoneville, Miss.

Leininger believes that much of the marginal agricultural land that was cleared for row crop production in times of high commodity prices may eventually find its way back into trees. “As the economy of farming changes, more farmers are going to see silviculture as an option,” he says.

“A lot of additional agricultural land was cleared for row crop production in years of high prices. Then, of course, commodity prices declined and a lot of the land that was previously cleared for crop production may or may not produce economically sustaining yields in most years,” he says.

Like cotton, soybean, or rice farming, tree production is intensive on the front-end. However, after about two years, the production management required to sustain the crop decreases substantially.

The flip-side to that, of course, is that instead of producing and selling an annual crop of cotton, it will take a minimum of eight years to harvest, and sell, a crop of trees.

“With trees, you are looking at about a 10- to 12-year rotation for pulpwood,” Leininger says. “It takes a little bit more faith on the part of a grower to plant a crop of trees knowing that it will be 10 years or so down the line before he hopes to realize a profit on that crop.”

To harvest a tree for use as pulp, the tree must be approximately six- to 12-inches in diameter. To harvest the same tree for its timber, it must generally be a minimum of one foot in diameter. How long it takes a particular tree to get to those growth stages is dependent on environmental conditions, the tree species and the soil type it is planted into.

“Trees are going to respond the same way a soybean or cotton crop would, just over a longer timeframe,” Leininger says. “Most farmers don't plant cotton on clay soils because that soil type doesn't provide the yield potential for cotton, that a lighter soil type would offer. Similarly, the heavier clay soils are ideal for rice because they hold water, and soybeans will grow fairly well on tighter, heavier soils.

“The same is true for trees. If you were to plant a cottonwood tree into a clay soil, it might grow to be 80 to 90 feet tall in 50 years. However, if you planted that same cottonwood into a lighter, cotton soil it could grow to be 130 feet tall or more in 50 years,” he says.

The fact that tree growth may be delayed when it is planted into the poorer soils found in many of the Delta's marginal agricultural sites should be factored into a farmer's decision to return his land to trees, Leininger says.

However, farmers considering the switch from row crops to trees do have one built-in benefit — equipment. “Most row crop farmers already have the equipment needed to rip lines into the soil to plant the trees. Plus, they have the disking equipment needed to keep the weeds down during the first two years after planting, which is critical for hardwood plantation establishment,” he says.

The success of any crop — an agronomic annual crop like cotton or soybeans or a perennial crop like trees — is stand establishment, Leininger says. And, like more-traditional Delta row crops, trees require intensive management until a stand is established.

“Once a farmer puts the cottonwood cutting in the ground, it will sprout and begin to grow. But, the ragweed, goldenrod and other annual weeds that are out there grow three times as fast as that tree seedling does, and they are going to quickly shade out that little initial sprout,” he says.

“If not controlled, the weeds emerging around the tree seedling will crowd it out and rob any available water from the planting site,” Leininger says. “Competition for resources on the planting site will be intense for rooting space, water and light. It is critical to keep the weeds at bay and allow the tree to take hold.”

Generally, by the start of the third growing season, a fast-growing tree species like cottonwood has become less susceptible to competition from weeds and grasses. At that point, most tree species have taken root and are likely more than 15-feet tall.

“Even if you get weeds that emerge at that point, the trees are going to tend to shade out those weeds because you've already given the trees the competitive advantage they need to grow,” Leininger says. “Tree production is very intensive on the front-end, but after about the first two years it's just a matter of letting the trees grow until they are large enough to harvest.”

Why, then, isn't everybody planting trees?

Leininger says that some growers may have determined that switching from traditional row crops to trees may not yet be economically viable for their farming operations. That is, he says, unless there are other motivating factors at play in their planting decisions, including conservation and hunting interests.

“The bottom line for farmers, as business people, is whether or not they are going to get a decent return for their money at the end of a crop rotation. That's as true of tree producers as it is of cotton and soybean producers,” Leininger says.

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