Mathematician Michael O’Neill strives for sustainability with 2022 Tree Farm of the Year

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A man stands in a field
Michael O’Neill stands in the floodplain area on his tree farm, in Howard, Ohio, Aug. 11. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

HOWARD, Ohio — The bottom of a pine cone isn’t just the bottom of a pine cone to Michael O’Neill. It’s a design. A Fibonacci sequence, to be exact, formed by the spirals extending out from the center, with each scale increasing in size to continue the pattern without covering the one before it.

It’s just one of the patterns he sees in the nature around him at Bald Eagle Pass Tree Farm, in Howard, Ohio. O’Neill, a mathematician by trade, views the way the patterns in nature build on each other as a physical example of what he strives for on his farm: sustainability.

“The design of it — that’s where sustainability is. It’s growth,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill has spent the last 30 years bringing the property up from a “state of disrepair” to a tree farm that can grow and be sustainable into the future. It hasn’t always been easy, but after several decades, he’s seeing more and more benefits of all of his hard work. This year, O’Neill’s farm is being recognized as the Ohio Tree Farm of the Year, by the Ohio Tree Farm Program.

Starting out

When he bought the 20-acre tree farm property with his wife, Merlene, in 1992, it was “kind of a messed up campground,” O’Neill said. It’s on the Kokosing River, and a lot of the land is in a floodplain.

The floodplain section of the property next to the river, in particular, was a mess when he started work on the farm. There were beer cans lying around, and weeds like canary grass covered the ground.

So, he started planting trees on the property. He didn’t have much experience with trees, and when he first called to order some in the spring, all he could get was sawtooth oaks. He planted them along the driveway, where the ground was mostly rock, and did his best to build up the ground there with clay and mulch.

Since then, some of the other trees he’s planted include white oaks, black walnuts and swamp oak. Early on, he also added on to a cabin on the property, with wood harvested from trees on the land. That remains one of his proudest accomplishments on the farm so far.

A man points to a branch on a tree
Michael O’Neill at Bald Eagle Pass Tree Farm, in Howard, Ohio, Aug. 11. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Background

Long before he started planting trees, O’Neill studied mathematics and actuarial science at Ohio State University. He worked a range of jobs, from valuating pension plans to working as a broker, over the course of his career — sometimes holding two jobs at the same time.

Tree farming may not sound like it would have a lot in common with math and actuarial science. But O’Neill sees similarities. Like his work with pensions and retirement plans, tree farming involves making investments that, hopefully, grow over a long time frame.

“Compounded interest works a lot like the compounded interest that takes place when you’re growing trees,” he said.

Perseverance

It didn’t all go well right away. The floodplain, in particular, was a challenge to get trees established in. That ground often ends up under 10 feet of water in the springtime. When it floods, more canary grass seeds get washed into that area.

But O’Neill has been able to find a few types of trees that do well there. The swamp oak and black walnut trees are starting to grow enough to create a canopy that can help him get rid of the invasive weeds he’s fighting against.

“He’s shown a lot of perseverance,” said Jake Peer, of Peer Family Forestry Consulting, who nominated O’Neill for the tree farm of the year award. “He hasn’t stopped working on it.”

After a few trials and errors, O’Neill got certified through the American Tree Farm System and started working more with both state and private foresters.

To get certified, foresters need to own at least 10 acres of woodland and have a management plan that addresses air, water and soil quality, invasive species, wildlife, special sites and integrated pest management, in accordance with the program’s sustainability standards.

“I decided to get certified because I had failed at some things, and I wanted to not make mistakes,” O’Neill said. “I learned a lot from a lot of people.”

Peer has worked with O’Neill on his property since 2017. O’Neill’s perseverance and passion for growing trees and prairie plants are what led Peer to nominate him.

“I was humbled and honored by the nomination,” O’Neill said. “It’s hard for me to believe.”

People walking on a path in the woods
Michael O’Neill gives a tour of his tree farm to members of the Ohio Tree Farm Committee Aug. 11, in Howard, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Diverse

Tree farm field day planned Oct. 1

The Ohio Tree Farm Program will hold a tree farm field day Oct. 1, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Tiverton Timber Tree Farm in Coshocton County. Tiverton Timber Tree Farm is hosting the event on behalf of the 2022 Tree Farm of the Year winner, whose farm can’t accommodate large crowds for tours.

The field day will include seminars, walking tours and educational displays. Michael O’Neill, the 2022 Tree Farm of the Year award winner, will discuss his farm, Bald Eagle Pass Tree Farm. There will be forester-led informational hikes, a tour of a recent timber harvest and kids’ activities.

Topics for hikes and seminars include invasive species control, clear-cutting and its impact on wildlife, tree planting, harvesting, deer management, bird watching, forest legacy planning, Ohio forest tax law, selling timber and woodlands as an investment. There will also be demonstrations of tree felling, horse logging and a portable sawmill.

Food and beverages will be available for purchase. Attendees should wear hiking boots. The event will be held rain or shine.

The farm is across from the Tiverton Baptist Church, 31699 Township Road 352, Brinkhaven, Ohio. Attendees will be directed to a parking spot at the farm. For more information, contact Jake Peer at jake@peerfamilyforestry.com or 740-801-0458, or visit the Ohio Tree Farmers Facebook page.

Bald Eagle Pass Tree Farm is somewhat unique in how diverse the property is. Peer said most tree farms he sees tend to have one type of ecosystem throughout the whole farm. Between the floodplain and wooded, hilly ground that makes up the rest of the property, O’Neill’s farm is a little different.

“It’s a smaller property, but it has so much diversity,” Peer said. “He’s got three very unique ecosystems.”

The tree farm includes a range of trees from hemlocks to oak and walnut trees. O’Neill has also been planting prairie plants for pollinators in some of the more open areas of the property.

Sustainability

Stewardship is one of O’Neill’s main focuses on the farm. He’s working on clearing invasive species, like honeysuckle and multiflora rose, off of the property. And he’s continuing to establish trees and prairie plants around the farm.

In addition to picking up litter on the property, he also participated in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources adopt-a-waterway program and took canoe trips on the river to help clean it up.

“I love Mother Earth,” he said. “I might not be here past 30 years, but you know, I care.”

O’Neill will be talking about his farm to attendees at the 2022 Tree Farm Field Day, at Tiverton Timber Tree Farm, in October. He’s planning to focus on sharing the work he’s done on sustainability and stewardship at the event.

“Those are the kinds of things that I value,” he said. “I think I can help to encourage people, and maybe give an example of what can be done.”

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