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Forests have huge impact on Virginia agriculture

Forests have huge impact on Virginia agriculture

Virginia forests provided $21 billion to the state’s economy in 2017. More than 62 percent of the commonwealth qualifies as forestland, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Of the state’s 16 million acres, about 13 million is privately owned, with approximately 405,000 individuals and families holding 10.6 million of those acres. Bruce Phillips of Southampton County is one of them. He has been managing the forests that surround his three farms since the 1970s. 

Phillips has a stewardship plan in place and has been recognized for his stewardship efforts. “This plan qualifies the landowner for assistance with reforestation when timber is harvested,” he explained.

But Phillips sees forestry management as a lifetime commitment. “It’s important to have an understanding of forest management. The more information you have, the better. It’s our land, and we need to make good decisions and plan for the future.”

He cuts blocks of timber that are commercially viable and then replants. “Managing timber allows you to have an income stream instead of cutting it all at one time,” he explained. “It’s best to cut in blocks.”
Growing pine trees allows a producer to cut more often, but the growing time is based on whether the trees will be used for logs, wood pellets or chips.

Hardwoods need to grow 50 to 80 years before they can be harvested. Phillips said pine trees can be harvested after 20 to 25 years or longer if they will be logs. They can be cut every 15 to 17 years for chips or pellets.
“An issue timber producers face is they’ve moved a lot of sawmills from Virginia,” Phillips noted. “We have the timber, but limited buyers and low prices.”

Phillips has used a timber consultant to help manage his forests. Consultants assess the value of trees and help landowners get the best price. They also help manage the harvest, making sure a landowner’s and the state’s restrictions are followed and that the property is kept clean.

“I try to leave the forests better than when I got here,” Phillips said.

Forest managers have learned from varied resources

For the past 21 years, Bill and Stephanie Osl have lived on Oakland Farm in Cumberland County, close to the Cumberland State Forest—the second largest state forest in Virginia.
“The forest is 16,000 acres, and they harvest up to 1,000 acres per year,” Bill Osl explained.

When the couple started their forest management journey, they learned from the foresters at the state forest, Virginia Cooperative Extension and the state Department of Forestry. “There are a lot of resources available for landowners interested in forest management,” Osl noted.

The Osls have about 450 acres of various types of trees on their farm, nearly all of it hardwoods, including varieties of oak, hickory, poplar, sycamore, cherry, black walnut, maple, beech and cedar. They also have a variety of pine trees.

“In addition to the nut trees, which are great for the wildlife, we also have persimmon and pawpaw trees. In the fall the deer know when the fruit drops from the trees, and there will be four to five deer at a time munching away,” Osl said.

The Osls have used a forestry stewardship plan for their hardwood forests.

Challenges forestland owners can encounter include environmental problems such as wind and ice damage, pest infestations and fires.  Theft also is an issue, Osl said. “People stealing trees and logs is a problem in Virginia.”

The Osls use their land for recreation, including birdwatching and daily walks. “We cut two to three miles of trees in the woods to make walking/riding trails,” Osl explained. “We mulched the trees up, which made good trails. The mulch eventually supports the natural re-establishment of grasses, and we mow it to maintain the trails. The trails also provide access for hunting, birding, hiking and access if there was a forest fire.”

Additionally, the couple has harvested some trees and allowed them to regenerate on their own.

Osl has a small milling operation and cuts logs into beams and boards.

“We cut and season poplar, cedar, oak, walnut, hickory, pine and cherry,” he said. “Our children love to get items made from the trees on our farm.” In the past he has made benches, tables, shelves, bookcases and centerpieces for events.

Forestry department committed to working with landowners

Managing Virginia’s forestland is a lot of work. Heather Dowling, senior area forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry, said private landowners play an important part in helping to manage trees. 

“Anyone that needs help can turn to us,” Dowling emphasized. “Our goal is to listen to what landowners want to do with their trees and help them meet their goals. We can help landowners determine how best to manage their forests and how to keep insects and diseases at bay.”

Some landowners want to preserve wildlife habitats or maintain forests for hunting, she noted, while others want to cut and sell timber as a cash crop.

“If a landowner isn’t sure what their next step is going to be, we can tailor a management plan to what the landowner wants out of their property,” Dowling added. “We try to build trust and walk the landowner through the process.”

Forests serve many purposes, including protecting the environment, Dowling noted. “If you have healthy trees, you have a healthy community.”

Virginia forest types:

Oak-hickory 61%
Oak-pine 11%
Pine plantation 14%
Natural pine 7%
Bottomland hardwood 5%
Maple-beech-birch 2%