Farmer invests lifetime in trees

CANFIELD, Ohio – Russell Garber once heard someone say foresters would probably outlive their neighbors, just so they could see their trees reach maturity.

The Mahoning County tree farmer hopes to live long into the future, cutting and processing timber on his Calla Road farm.

After all, he’s only been at it for 50 years – and it takes most trees at least 75 years to mature.

Garber’s commitment started over half a century ago when he bought property in Green Township. In 1950, he knew the 80-acre parcel had “a good young woods” on it. Unfortunately, the woodland had been clear-cut in 1932, and all loggers left were “junk trees,” Garber said.

After he purchased the farm, he immediately fell in love with the woodland and started working to improve its condition. His tasks included cutting “scrub trees” into firewood and clearing grapevines from the 35-acre lot.

He also farmed the remaining acreage and raised livestock. Five years ago, he retired from raising grain and decided to focus entirely on his trees. He now rents the crop land to a nearby farmer. His barn, once filled with hogs, is now filled with stacks of firewood and cut lumber. Land once used as open pasture is now dense with several types of trees and wildlife.

Novel approach. Garber’s crop is a unique one, because he has never planted a single seedling in his forest.

“Most tree farms that I know of in the area raise pine to begin with, and those all have to be planted and pruned and tended. I don’t plant trees,” he said.

He allows nature to run its course, and lets the hardwood seedlings grow wherever they can. When the need dictates, Garber thins out the trees by selective cutting.

His practice includes frequent low-grading, or cutting out trees that have defects or are less desirable for timber production. The popular method of timberland management, according to Garber, is high-grading, or cutting out the best trees in a forest. He disagrees with the technique.

“If you’re cutting out all the good trees, then you’re taking away all the good seeds,” he said. “I’d rather take out the bad trees that might not be as good for boards, and let the better trees have more of a chance,” he said.

Crop management. His method also keeps the trees where they rooted naturally and offers a ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to farm management. Trees that are often culled include red maple and beech, which tend to overcrowd others.

Garber tries to keep as many cherry and oak trees as possible in his stand; he sells the high-priced lumber from those trees to Baird Brothers Sawmill, also in Canfield.

“My thinking is a little different from others, but I would rather have two trees in the ground instead of one bigger tree,” he said.

Garber has disagreed with foresters, who criticize his forest for being “too thick,” but offers his own reason to strive for more thinner, taller trees – upward growth means less outward growth each year. For the seasoned tree farmer, thinner growth rings inside the tree produce logs that have more density and are sought after by furniture builders.

Along with the help of Jim Elze, Ohio Division of Forestry service forester, Garber has marked several trees for removal in the near future. Most of the trees are from the original stand – ones that have also survived years of drought, extreme rains, and fire.

Garber estimates he will remove nearly 60,000 feet of lumber in the coming months.

“Cutting the old trees will let the young ones come up. I’ve got more young trees than I need,” he said.

Threats. In his opinion, his trees have got more enemies than they need – the worst are multiflora rose bushes, which are sprayed and removed from the forest frequently.

“The bushes were a good idea in the beginning,” he said, “because they were good for the wildlife. For anyone else, including me, they just get in the way, and crowd out good trees.”

His crop is rarely threatened by wildlife, he said, noting that the deer and squirrels are good for dispersing seeds for his crop.

Another threat for his crop includes the local power company, which clear-cut a strip through the forest for high power lines in the early ’70s. Every few years the company returns with herbicides to control growth around the towers, and trees along the corridor sometimes die from the concentrate.

Garber doesn’t see those trees as a huge loss, though.

“The trees along the open space mostly grow crooked or bowed because of the light, and aren’t good for boards anyhow,” he said. Those trees, and other dead trees, make perfect firewood, he said.

Like many landowners, one of Garber’s biggest challenges is finding a good logging company to help him remove trees.

“You’ve got to watch who cuts. There are some companies I won’t even let bid on a job around here,” he said, noting he mostly works with a company in Southington.

Sawmill recreation. He chooses to cut many of his own trees himself and, with the help of his wife, Diane, processes them with a sawmill he added to his operation in 1974. Garber estimates he runs the machine 30 days each year to cut rough boards for fence posts and horse stalls.

“I like to work in the woods when there’s nothing else to do. It’s relaxing for me to cut trees. That’s my recreation,” he said.

He uses his connections with other members of the Northeastern Ohio Forestry Association to keep updated on the latest silviculture news, and has hosted tours for the group at his farm. His farm is one of more than 1,800 certified tree farms in Ohio, representing more than 400,000 acres of timber stands, according to Jerry Williams, area two tree farm chairman for Ohio.

Tools of the trade. Garber, who claims his legs “don’t quite work like they did years ago,” used to walk his woodland and make inspections more frequently, but now relies on an old tractor to help him with the task.

The Oliver also carries his tool box, filled with a chain saw and fuel, protective helmet, tree wedges and a sledgehammer. A forklift mounted to the back also lends help in moving cut trees and stacks of firewood.

Garber prefers working in his woodland during the winter months despite the beauty of the trees in autumn.

“The leaves are nice, but when the trees have a lot of them, you can’t see which way to cut and fell the trees as easily,” he said.

Farming ease. At the end of the day, Garber sees his forest much like more traditional grain farmers view their crops – as a source of money and enjoyment. But tree farming, he says, is much easier.

“More woodland owners should take better care of what they’ve got. A lot of farmers around here also have woods on their land, but they don’t do anything with the trees. They can be another crop,” he said.

He figured that he’s made about the same amount of money on his tree crop as he had with his grains – but with much less work.

“The only thing is that you’ve got to be patient, because tree farming takes years,” he said.

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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