TIVERTON CENTER, Ohio – Mark and Wayne Hochstetler are patient men.
Tree farmers by trade, these Amish brothers are aware they’ll never live long enough to see the payoff from the long hours they put into their operation. But that doesn’t stop them from getting out there each day, hiking the plantations and walking fields they’ll someday turn back into plantations, and figuring how to best manage it all.
For them, this work is good work, work that will pay off 100 years down the road, when they’re gone and their children’s children are at the helm of the family furniture company.
There are always visions of the future in their minds.
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A cross section of a white oak stump is one of Wayne and Mark Hochstetler’s most prized forestry tools. It always gets attention from visitors to their tree farm in northwestern Coshocton County, just off the crossroads called Tiverton Center.
The tree, cut north of Walnut Creek in 2005, was an estimated 100 feet high with a 4-foot stump. That’s big.
The brothers sold 27 feet of veneer from the tree and kept the wood slice as a talking piece.
And Wayne, with his everlasting patience in mind, saw a perfect use for the slice: He’d use it as a tool to talk about tree farming.
Tree farming, he explains, is a lifelong proposition. It takes management, work, a touch of science and good old-fashioned sense when it comes to planting and harvests.
Someone along the way saw something good in this tree, letting it stand and grow for some 300 years. When the brothers cut the tree in 2005, Wayne hunkered down with a magnifying glass and counted and recounted every last ring on that tree to figure just how old it was.
Nearly three dozen miniature flags stand in the rings today, charting history’s course as the tree grew. There’s a flag for 1675, the best date Hochstetler can come up with as to when the tree was ‘born.’ Flags along the way mark when George Washington was born, when the Civil War ended, when Ohio became a state, when the Indians won the World Series.
Farming trees, indeed, is a job that outlasts us all.
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Eli and Verna Hochstetler and their six children – Anna, David, Ivan, Mark, Tim and Wayne – and their 26 grandchildren were named Ohio Tree Farmers of the Year for 2006.
The recognition goes to a landowner who’s first nominated by a state service forester for excellent forestry practices, outreach and education, and overall promotion of forestry. The honor, given by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Tree Farm program, is truly a family honor, Wayne Hochstetler explains.
“It’s very rewarding work, something we all do as a family.”
Mark and Wayne’s grandfather was a lifelong farmer with an interest in furniture. Eli built his father a woodshop to work in, and the place turned into a haven where the boys got their first feel for sawdust and rough-cut lumber.
Today, that 40-by-80 shop where they worked with their grandfather is now the company’s main office.
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Eli Hochstetler founded Hochstetler Wood in 1973. The company first made door sills and stair treads, but in the early 1980s, when interest rates went through the roof, business came nearly to a halt. No building meant no business.
And so they diversified, with the wood company making furniture pieces. The Hochstetlers started H.W. Chair, the arm of the family business that builds a complete chair from top to bottom. At the time, they were one of only two furniture shops in Holmes County, before ‘buying Amish’ was a tourist attraction that let a new furniture shop turn up every week in the county.
They still make dining room chairs and bowbacks and frame chairs, and sell them wholesale to shops around the country.
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In the early 1990s, the Hochstetlers started looking to buy land where they could plant more trees.
Their furniture-making business was growing, and they wanted to be able to say their homemade chairs were truly theirs, all the way from seedling to sawmill. They diversified again, starting Tiverton Timber Ltd.
Nearly 30 miles away from Mount Hope, their home base, they found the perfect parcel, and in 1995, they bought 270 acres.
Part of it was wooded, and part of it was open. They immediately planted 130,000 seedlings on the open fields, white pines and red oaks and poplars and cherries. And then they waited for them to grow.
“We made some pretty bad mistakes. We just weren’t educated enough,” Mark said.
They planted too early that first year. It was muddy, then snowed, and their rows of white pine turned into a salad bar for deer.
State service forester John Kehn, who now guides the family’s forestry decisions, says the number of deer around the farm is about double what it is in other parts of the county or state.
Amazingly, many of the trees survived.
“We found out if you plant more than the white-tail can eat, you’ll get ahead,” Wayne said.
In 1997 and 1998 and again in 2000, the Hochstetlers bought more land. Today there are 527 acres here, 100 acres at another spot in Coshocton County, nearly 200 in Monroe County, and about 500 acres of woodlands in West Virginia.
And yet they’re only producing about 5 percent of all the wood they need to build furniture in their shop.
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Forestry is a natural fit for the eastern part of the state. It’s said to have some of the best soils for hardwoods, but is underutilized, Kehn said.
“Many people look at the woods and don’t see any value,” he says. But it makes sense to learn how to grow high-quality commercial timber on purpose. That’s what the Hochstetlers are doing, and they’re spreading the good news throughout the Amish community.
The landowners, with free help from state-provided foresters like Kehn, are learning to make good decisions about their woods: when to cut, what to cut, what to let grow, how to maximize income.
And even if it means cutting out lots of ‘bad’ trees that will give a minuscule income to let the better trees grow in size and value, it has to be done.
“It’ll be a long time until they’re worth anything, until we see a return on the investment, but we wait.” Wayne said.
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It’s rewarding for the Hochstetlers to be part of this process, where they watch and grow seedlings and then will eventually cut them and saw them into chair legs and tabletops. They know they won’t live to see it. If they’re lucky, they say, it will be during their children’s lifetimes some of these trees come into their prime.
“Too many people are looking for instant gratification. Those people shouldn’t be tree farmers,” Wayne asserts.
“Doing something that will outlast you isn’t a bad idea.”
* * *
The brothers and their forester trudge through tree plantations on a rainy afternoon, chatting about bugs and blight and checking to see which trees the deer have ruined since their last trip through.
Some of those trees they planted 10 years ago are now 30 feet tall.
“It’s not that our woods are all that great, but we’re making progress,” Wayne says.
And then they go to a pasture they’re reverting into woodlands. Acorns planted there have sprouted into trees, and even though they’re marked them with red flags, they’re hard to find among all the underbrush that guards them from the deer.
Perhaps these trees will make it too, to see a day when the Hochstetler children will only have a faint memory of this being anything but a woods.
All it takes is some patience.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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