Small-scale landowners benefit from forestry extension

Linda Benedict, Bogren, Richard C.  |  6/17/2014 8:51:55 PM

Rick Bogren

Forestry management has a long heritage in the United States, and the earliest focus of extension in Louisiana was on regenerating forestlands.

The 1920s was a period when the South had been logged over and not replanted. “For the most part, what came back was whatever naturally seeded back in, which can be unpredictable,” said LSU AgCenter forestry specialist Michael Blazier. “And with the very large clearcuts of the day, there often wasn’t much left to provide that seeding.”

Extension forestry came into its own in 1926, developing the concept of forestry as an agricultural activity. At that time, more than half of the land in Louisiana was in forest. Much had been badly treated by continual burning and clearcutting without remediation. Landowners as a rule had little practical knowledge of appropriate forestry practices.

Early extension specialists set up a program for instructing county agents in forest conservation methods developed by the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station. This involved management practices in cultivation, fire protection, selective harvesting and marketing.

In the 1800s in Louisiana, much forestland was logged and then converted to cotton production. But cotton wasn’t a rotational crop, so production eventually tailed off and didn’t give good yields. And because north Louisiana is hilly, cotton farming practices led to runoff and erosion.

Even today, some forests still show evidence of erosion from cotton if you know what you’re looking for, Blazier said. Reforestation led to the return of a more-natural ecosystem of pine and hardwood forests, and the housing boom after World War II created a strong demand for timber.

During the mid-1950s farm commodity surpluses were increasing, and net farm income was declining. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administration was philosophically opposed to production control through either acreage allotments or marketing quotas. But Congress and the administration did agree on an alternative – voluntary land retirement through acreage rental payments to farmers.

The Soil Bank had multiple purposes – reducing production of basic crops, maintaining farm income and conserving soil. In Louisiana, Soil Bank cost-share programs drove the conversion from farmland to reforestation. In many cases, the decision was easy because the north Louisiana hills didn’t lend themselves to mechanized farming.

“We’re now in the third and fourth generations of planted forests when you consider a 30-year lifespan from planting to harvest and the reforestation programs starting in the 1940s,” Blazier said.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the move from mechanical weed control and burning to chemical control of weedy vegetation to restore forests. As herbicides went through the developmental phase, extension provided information to practicing foresters.

The dominant landowner in Louisiana is still the small, nonindustrial private landowner, Blazier said. Though they are not in the full-time forest business, they still want to learn about thinning schedules and how to generate income between initial planting and final harvest of a stand.

They’re interested in harvesting, cost-share programs and managing reestablishment. AgCenter area agents conduct forums to as many as 300 landowners at a time. Ricky Kilpatrick reaches landowners from Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma as well as Louisiana, for example.

Extension professionals can be looked on as investment advisors, helping landowners make the most of their investments, Blazier said. “In addition to giving information ourselves, we provide information on how to get good resources, such as tax advisors and consultants.”

Components of forestry extension today include information on reforesting nonindustrial lands and outreach devoted to how best to navigate the intricacies of tax issues. The Southern regional extension forestry program provides webinars, and the system used by extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service is wide-reaching, Blazier said.

Forestry extension specialists and agents are the “boots on the ground” who answer specific questions from landowners and homeowners.

“We used to do more service work – mark timber, visit landowners, that sort of thing,” said area forestry agent Steve Hotard, who has more than 30 years’ experience. “Now we do more forums, email, newsletters.”

Most landowners don’t live on the land but generally in urban areas and even out of state, Hotard said. He works with landowners whose holdings range from about 40 acres to 200 acres. He also deals more in urban forestry, answering questions about tree problems from homeowners and commercial businesses.

“The most satisfying part is to get to know landowners and actually see them apply what they’ve learned,” Hotard said. “Forestry isn’t all that easy. It’s a long-term endeavor and sometimes it’s hard to see the results.”

From initial planting to any financial return takes 10 to 12 years, he said. “But it’s a good investment.”

Extension foresters now reach a larger audience with more communication tools, and landowners have become more aware of the opportunities they have with their holdings.

“We reach more people now,” Hotard said. “Extension forestry used to be less known than it is now.”

Rick Bogren is a professor and science writer in LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

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