Centuries in the making: A bicentennial farm’s ‘tree-mendous’ treasure

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Curtis Cook
Haskins Farm owner Curtis Cook won Geauga County's Big Tree Contest with his champion tuliptree. (Submitted photos)

The smell of coffee from his morning thermos was strong and satisfying, filling the cab with promise as we headed deep into the heart of the Haskins Farm. Passing the large barn, farmhouse, paddocks and bordering pastures, we headed through the fields in a big truck until we could not drive any farther.

Coming to a stop, we parked beside a large wooden sugar house, which we learned was built in 1939 and was still producing award-winning syrup today. “This way,” said Curtis Cook, as we jumped out and continued our journey on foot. He started into the woods, and we followed.

Having grown up here, he knew exactly where to go. Curtis is a sixth-generation farmer, and he and his wife, Deborah, are the owners of this land called the Haskins Farm.

Throughout the years, decades and yes — centuries — this bicentennial farm has produced a generously abundant bounty including corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, beef, milk and maple syrup. But we were not in search of a typical farm commodity. We were looking for Geauga County’s biggest tuliptree.

Lucky tree

As luck would have it — for the tree that is — this particular tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) found itself growing snug in the middle of a 40-acre giant sugarbush. Saved from axe and storm, the longevity and historical significance of this family’s prized sugarbush gave all the trees within these woods the advantage of an aesthetic value that no timber buyer could touch.

Many years ago and in typical tuliptree fashion, this native tree shot up rapidly toward the sunlight growing a straight trunk and branching into a beautifully symmetrical shape. The environmental conditions and the tree’s genes must have been good because through the years it just kept on going … and growing!

Today, this tree is impressive and immense, standing at approximately 174 feet high, with a crown spread of 69.5 feet and circumference of 188.4 inches. Watching this tree grow and admiring it for decades, Curtis entered it in this year’s Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District Big Tree Contest.

The district began sponsoring this contest in 2016 to promote the beauty and benefits of Geauga’s biggest, oldest trees, along with their contributions to clean water and healthy soil. Using ODNR Division of Forestry’s Big Tree Program procedures, trees are measured and receive a score. Each year, Geauga SWCD features a different species, and this year, Curt’s tuliptree was given its chance to shine.

With reverence and awe, we admired this tree, recorded our findings, savored its sheer size, snapped some photos and begrudgingly headed back. Over the course of three days, the district’s natural resource technician and I continued traversing colorful autumn landscapes to “size up” 24 other tulip trees that were nominated in Geauga County’s 2022 Big Tree Contest.

As luck would have it for us, we had indeed found our champion growing on private land at Haskins Bicentennial Farm. Standing next to a tree of this size can initially take your breath away. It is enormous. It is magical. It is incredible and rare. Most importantly, it is still standing.

Curiosity and wonder give way to a flood of questions: How old are you? What historical events have you witnessed? Who climbed your limbs? How did you survive this long?

Big trees

Throughout the world, big trees hold tremendous cultural, ecological and economic value. While most of us can easily rattle off a list of the benefits of trees, the value of big trees has only recently been brought to light in scientific research and our understanding.

According to the Center for Urban Research, we know that dollar-for-dollar, larger trees provide more economic benefits than their compact counterparts. Large-statured trees have more impact on conserving energy, reducing stormwater runoff, improving air, soil and water quality and increasing property values.

Big trees comprise less than 2% of the trees in any forest but can contain 25% of the total biomass. They lock up massive amounts of carbon, recycle soil nutrients, regulate climate, supply abundant food, produce genetically superior seeds and provide critical wildlife habitat.

When it comes to the benefits of big trees, it’s critical to realize that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. One enormous oak tree, for example, is generally able to sequester more carbon than many smaller oak trees combined.

The Haskins Farm was established in 1818 and at a time when encountering really big trees was not uncommon. Though the age of this champion tuliptree is unknown, one could surmise that perhaps it has been here for much of the farm’s 204-year existence.

In the last century, however, these massive and monumental trees are becoming more rare. As our landscapes and climate continue to change, more forests are lost to development, wildfires, severe storms and land use conversion. At all latitudes and in many ecosystems throughout the world, we are losing our oldest, largest trees along with their contributions. Take time to look up with renewed appreciation as you walk through the autumn leaves.

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