Sherman and Joyce Dotson’s five-year-old black walnut plantation provided the backdrop for the recent Henry County Extension Office Forestry Field Day.
The field day highlighted methods of farming and the future of marketing locally grown hardwoods.
Experts in forestry, woodcutting and wildlife habitat as well as individuals considering a tree plantation shared information and experiences while enjoying a walking tour of the plantation and surrounding forest land.
A Jefferson County native, Dotson purchased his Henry County farm in 1998 after many years of enjoying the deer-hunting the area afforded. In 2002, he retired from the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Narcotics Division K-9 Unit and began the transformation of six acres of fields into a black walnut plantation.
With expert advice and hands-on assistance from Steve Moore of the Henry County Extension Office, Dotson chose the Beineke Purdue 1 black walnut patented in the 1970s.
“Steve had actually seen the Mother Field and he led us step by step. We couldn’t have done it without him,” he said. In November/December of 2003, Dotson and a volunteer workforce planted a total of 900 saplings.
A problem arose when the following spring turned out to be the wettest in years. “I found out real quick that walnut trees don’t like wet feet,” Dotson said. Fortunately, only about 100 of the trees were lost. “We have 810 out of the original 900,” he noted. “That’s a loss of less than 10 percent.”
Dotson’s initial outlay including labor was $10,000. To protect the young trees from damage caused by deer, he purchased reusable wrap-around tree shelters that retail from $2-3 each. “They were worth every cent,” he said.
A natural stand of black walnut will be home to 40-50 trees per acre. At more than 100 per acre on the plantation, thinning becomes an important part of the growth process.
“Culling them is like picking your kinfolk,” Dotson noted.
Aside from mowing around the trees monthly during the spring and summer, maintenance is minimal. He has mulched only one time in four years. Dotson now uses grass clippings instead and prunes just once annually.
With a growth rate of only about one inch per year, Dotson realizes that this field of dreams will not mature in his lifetime.
Walnut trees need to reach 40-80 years old before harvesting. Dotson believes that perhaps his daughter and son-in-law will see the trees reach maturity, but shared his big picture view. “This field here is nothing I’ll ever see harvested. I do it for my little grandson,” he said.
A modern day convenience that may save time and money for hardwood growers is the portable sawmill. Local sawyer, Robert Lindsey demonstrated the WoodMizer by cutting a large cedar board into slices for use in the construction of an outdoor play set. “The portable sawmill can cut 800,000 board feet of clean wood without having to change blades,” he noted.
Consulting Forester Loren Powell is an expert on hardwood grading and pricing. He recommended the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) Rule Book as a top resource for people involved in the hardwoods industry.
Considered a time-saver, some hardwood producers use a kiln-drying service to speed up the natural drying process. Powell said he personally does not recommend it.
“You can grow it for 60-80 years, do everything right, and mess it up in four days,” he explained.
Ranger Sara Johns added that many people use kiln-dried wood for personal applications in their own homes rather than commercial uses. When asked about the market for local wood, Dotson shared that he had sold off some excess sawed wood on ebay as well as through the newspaper. “There was such a demand for the wood,” he said, “that after the first phone call, I had to take the phone off the hook.”
Powell noted that when the weather is hot and humid, hardwoods should not be allowed to stay on the ground for any length of time. “This causes incipient decay rendering the wood useless for anything but a campfire. Get it up and to the sawyer,” he said. “Leaving it on the ground in cold weather for a little bit longer is fine,” Powell added.
Wildlife biologist Chris Grasch offered information for tree farmers as well as others on how to improve habitat for and control damage from wildlife. Grasch provides a Habitat Improvement Program through the University of Kentucky to landowners with 25 or more acres offering technical guidance. “I’ll walk the property with the owners and write a management plan,” he said. Grasch’s primary recommendation is to convert fields over from Kentucky 31 Fescue, a widely used grass that has dominated farms for decades. “It’s very aggressive, really bad for wildlife and causes fungal problems for cattle,” he said. Grasch’s recommendation was to mow the fescue down, allow it to regrow and then spray it with an herbicide. Once the grass is killed, planting trees, grain, orchard grass, clover or native warm season grasses is a good idea.
The UK Salato Center loans out equipment such as sprayers, as well as providing a warm season grass mix at no charge. “The wilder and woolier your place looks, the better it is for wildlife,” Grasch said. He can be reached toll-free at 1-800-858-1549. More information and resources can be found on the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife and Salato Wildlife Education websites.
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