Like many in the agriculture industry, Harlan Palm has taken the term “retirement” as more of a suggestion than a command. After a lengthy career at DuPont and the University of Missouri, he bought several acres of Missouri woodland and began to learn about timber stand improvement. Today, he’s one of the preeminent experts on the subject.

“Education is really important,” he says. “How do we reach out to owners of timber? What can and should be done with their timber instead of letting it grow willy-nilly?”

Most farms in Missouri and neighboring states have small areas along creeks that aren’t in production, Palm says. Oftentimes, these 2- to 5-acre plots are sitting on well-drained alluvial soils in creek bottoms well-suited for walnuts or other potentially valuable hardwoods.

“If a logger came and told you he’d take a few walnut trees off your hands for a couple hundred dollars, maybe you’d say yes,” Palm says. “But what if I told you a veneer-grade walnut could be worth a couple thousand dollars each?”

A recent survey of Missouri woodland landowners reveals only 5% are doing any sort of timber stand improvement. It does take a bit of work and planning, Palm says. Walnut, oak and cherry need full sunlight to flourish and become dominant. Otherwise, “junk” trees such as sycamore, cottonwood, maple and hackberry take over.

The first step is simple—take a walk in the woods, says Warren Hale, a Missouri farmer. “Pick the trees you want to keep, and then try to identify what’s competing with them,” he adds.

That process is part art, part science, Palm says. Ideally, black walnuts should be spaced about 35' apart at maturity, which is room for 35 trees per acre. Competitive trees are then girdled with a chainsaw and given a small precise herbicide application at the girdling site.

Picking which trees to keep can be a bit of a guessing game. Oftentimes, two good trees are too close together, which means you have to pore over the details, looking at knots, doglegs and other imperfections, before choosing which one to keep. 

Mother Nature is all too happy to throw in the occasional wildcard, he adds. “You never know which ones are going to get hit by lightning,” he says.

Hale notes timber stand improvement is a long-term commitment—something that will more likely benefit his children or grandchildren rather than himself. It is also one of the more peaceful routines on his farm.

“Some people want to sit on the couch and watch football on Sunday afternoons,” he says. “I’d just as soon come out to the woods. A lot of people would look at this land and wonder where they’d put the deer stand, but they wouldn’t see any cash crop potential beyond that.”

Missouri ranchers Kent and Lori Deimeke say timber stand improvement is not a project that can be conquered over a long weekend and then left unchecked.

“Some people don’t want to wait 20 years for this, but that’s really what it takes,” Lori says.

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