University of Vermont

Vermont New Farmer Project Vermont New Farmer Project

What about the woods?

By Pieter van Loon, Stewardship Forester, Vermont Land Trust

One kind of land that is often overlooked or only peripherally considered by farmers, especially new farmers, is woodland. And there is a good reason for that. The agricultural land is the most important land to the future of the farm, so it gets a lot of attention and review. Then there are questions of equipment, infrastructure, livestock, crops, financing, marketing, and on and on.

New farmers have so much on their minds, it is hard to consider one more complicating factor. But, there are few farms in Vermont that have no woodland, so what's a new farmer to do? I have a couple of suggestions.

First of all, forget about it. I don't mean forget it entirely, but don't worry about it for now. If it was enrolled in Current Use, you will want to continue that, but don't worry about doing any active management for awhile. Current Use (the informal name for the Use Value Appraisal program), is a State-run program where a property under active agricultural or forest management is taxed at its use value rather than its development value, which translates into a substantial tax savings for the landowner. Properties with forest land need to have a management plan, and you will want to get a copy and review it. Properties already enrolled need to have a change of ownership form filed with the state within 30 days of the sale, along with a new application, map and a signature page indicating you will follow the existing management plan. If the property is not enrolled, call the county forester to find out more about enrollment.

The nice thing about the crop you are growing in the woods is that it can wait. If someone tells you the trees in your woods need to be cut right away, be skeptical. The only time trees really need to be cut in a hurry is when doing a salvage cut after a natural disturbance such as an ice or wind storm. And even then, you usually have at least 6 months before the logs start to degrade and lose value.

Suggestion number two is more practical-- get a forester to help you. The thing is, there is real value in the woods and, if it is managed right, it can produce periodic income for the landowner to help smooth out some of the rough spots. If there are mature trees on the property, there may be an opportunity to offset some of your capital investment by doing a timber harvest. A carefully thought out harvest can produce income in the short term, while protecting the long-term value of the timber resource and allowing income-producing timber sales to be done periodically. A poorly planned and executed timber harvest will result in short term income but will reduce or eliminate future earning potential.

Many people worry that hiring a forester will reduce the amount of money they get from a timber sale and take away their control of woodlot management. The reality is that the forester is hired to represent the owner's best interests in the careful stewardship of their land. The farmer states his/her objectives for the woodland, and the forester's job is to implement a management scheme that will achieve those objectives. Timber income is often an important goal for landowners, but is almost never the only goal. Improvement of wildlife habitat, expanding recreational opportunities, and enhancing sugarbush production are common goals. Others may include being able to cut firewood for home and sugaring use, protecting the water and soil, and harvest of non-timber products, such as wild edibles.

Foresters have connections within the timber industry that allow them to access timber markets that regular folks can't. This increases profits for the owner. The forester can also set up a competitive bidding system for the sale of forest products, be it standing timber or logs. Competitive bidding drives up prices and improves the farmer's profit margin. Forester's can also mark a stand of trees in such a way that there will be opportunity for making timber income on a regular basis, anywhere from every 10 to every 20 years, while still protecting the ecological resources and promoting the other landowner goals. Logging operations carried out without sufficient consideration of future value can end up costing the farmer a lot of money in lost future income. Harvests without forester supervision can also result in significant damage to the residual stand of trees and the forest and ag soils, due to rutting and erosion.

So let's look at this using a hypothetical situation. You have 100 acres of fairly mature woods on your new farm. Seventy acres are mixed hardwood and softwood, and 30 acres are sugar maple, never tapped. A timber buyer comes along and offers you $30,000 for all the trees in excess of 15 inches in diameter. He explains that this kind of cut will only remove about 30-35% of the trees, so will leave you with a lot of small trees to grow into the next crop of timber. Getting $30,000 right away sounds like real money, and you have a million other things on your mind. So should you take it? It's ready money. Cash on the stump, as they say.

Let's consider this more closely. Assume the logger will be cutting 2,000 board feet per acre in the sugarbush; that's a pretty conservative estimate. The timber is mature and average to a little above average. If the stumpage value (the value of a tree standing in the woods) of the average sugar maple in the stand is $450 per thousand board feet, the stumpage value for the sugarbush part of the sale is $27,000. That means he will be paying you for the timber in the sugar woods, and is getting all the timber in the 70 acres of mixed woods for $3,000, or about $43 per acre. If he cuts 2,000 board feet per acre in the mixed woods that means you are being paid $21.50 per thousand board feet for all that wood. Suddenly this doesn't look like such a good deal. Add to that the fact that a certain portion of that sugar maple is likely veneer quality (probably somewhere around 10%) with a value between $1,200 and $2,500 per thousand board feet, and it looks even worse. If you consider that this type of cut usually takes out all of the best trees and leaves the junk, meaning you won't be able to have another commercial timber sale for at least another 25 years, it starts to look like a really bad deal.

So step one when considering managing woodland is call a forester. Studies have shown that working with a forester results in more money going to the landowner and a better result in the woods. Farmer's have a lot on their minds and are busy people. Let the forester do his or her job and relax a little bit in knowing that you don't have to worry about all the details and headaches that can be associated with supervising a timber sale. The forester will develop a timber sale contract and supervise the job to ensure a good result. One disclaimer on all this is that not all timber buyers are out to cheat you and not all foresters are perfect people. Call around, get recommendations from folks, talk to a number of foresters so you can see who will work best with you. You have many options, here are a few.

  • Call your County Forester. County Foresters can visit, look at the woodland and give you some unbiased ideas on how to best manage the land. They can also provide you with a list of consulting foresters who work in your area and explain the Use Value Appraisal program (commonly referred to as "Current Use") and how to enroll.
  • If your land has been conserved by the Vermont Land Trust, contact the VLT Stewardship Forester for your area. VLT's stewardship staff will work with you on any forestry questions you might have. If you don't have conserved land, call anyway. VLT foresters will try to answer your questions and will refer you to someone who can give you more information.
  • Call a forester from the Consulting Foresters Association of Vermont (CFAV)
  • Call the folks at Vermont Family Forests (http://www.familyforests.org/index.html). Vermont Family Forests is a non-profit family forest conservation organization that promotes the conservation of forest community health, and when appropriate, promotes careful cultivation of local family forests for community benefits. At VFF, they believe that the three great conservers of family forests are well-informed forest stewards, sound economic returns from ecological forestry and a community-shared land ethic. VFF promotes management which provides for human needs while preserving the forest's capacity to maintain itself as a healthy, natural ecosystem.
  • Contact Vermont Woodlands Association (http://www.vermontwoodlands.org). Vermont Woodlands Association is a non-profit organization advocating for the management, sustainability, perpetuation, and enjoyment of forests through the practice of excellent forestry that employs highly integrated management practices that protect and enhance both the tangible and intangible values of forests - including clean air and water, forest products, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, recreation, scenic beauty, and other resources - for this and future generations. VWA also offers educational opportunities for those interested in learning more about their woodland, or taking a more active role in management planning.

Last modified January 03 2011 03:55 PM