Farmer for December: Johnny Walker
Interview with Adam McClary, Farmer Support
Johnny Walker is one of our youngest farmers and was also one of our founding members within the Eco Tree program. He grew up in rural Alabama and has been around forestry and logging his whole life. Besides attending college for forestry, he has worked in the private timber industry as a timber buyer.
Thanks for meeting with us today for this interview Johnny. One of the first things I like to ask is how you found out about World Tree?
I found you in a farmer show magazine. I think it was the 2015 issue.
Awesome, so what made you decide to go ahead and plant this tree?
Well, I reached out and talked with World Tree and my first thought was wow, I have to try this! The way I see it a lot of people are afraid of risk. And I think that is all timber holding is and all that investing is: an assessment of risk verses possible future reward. So, I looked at my options and thought that this timber would be a good resource to invest in.
Yeah, neither of us know what the timber markets will do in ten or twenty years, but when you look back at historical data the timber returns have constantly out preformed the markets. So how was that first year working with World Tree?
It was great. When I started with you all they would not ship out a full contract in the first year. Back then, they used to send out ten trees and see how you did with them the first year before sending you the rest the second year.
Oh wow, that was before my time.
Yes, but everything went smoothly that first year. Your agronomist and all of your assistance was really helpful in the step by step learning process. What I found though is that I had a steep learning curve with this tree that words can’t teach. No one can prepare you with how to handle a tree that grows ten feet in six months!
No, I suppose not! It is interesting to hear you say that even though you grew up with timber in your blood. What were the major differences you noticed between the Empress tree and pine?
Well the difference is that with pine, you plant it and leave it. You may do a controlled burn or spray it once, but for the most part you just leave it alone. This tree, on the other hand, needs some maintenance. If I needed a comparison, I would say it is like bottle feeding a calf. In order to maximize your potential return in year ten, you need to be on top of pruning this tree for the first three, possibly four years. That is not constant work, but you need to be observing your trees and making sure the branches don’t get larger around than a quarter. I have worked on crews harvesting these trees and one thing we noticed is that we would find these tall straight trees that looked perfect. They were about 25-30” in diameter, but when we cut into the log ten feet up we would find marks about three to four inches from the center. That mark was left by a branch was left to grow too large. When you don’t prune on time, you are directly lowering your lumber grade and the price you will get for that timber.
So, at harvest you could see where people had not pruned their trees in a timely manner.
That’s right. You know that branch could have gotten larger than a quarter in year two and you cut it off in year three. The scar will heal over and everyone will forget about it till harvest. You know one thing that I learned early with these trees is they respond really well to pruning. If you constantly keep removing branches as it grows up, the tree learns to keep moving up and keeps getting taller. But if you really want top dollar at harvest, you may need to get a pole saw or a lift or some way to make sure you can continue to prune the branches as the tree grows. Because it is the branch scars more than anything else that lowers your board grade at harvest.
Thanks for that Johnny. I am curious, after growing up in Alabama, how does the Empress tree compare to what you are used to seeing in forestry?
Compared to other trees, I would say this tree is very vigorous. Once it is established, it grows so fast. You know one of the fastest growing trees in Alabama is a sweet gum and I have one on my field that was growing next to an Empress Splendor tree. Your tree grew 100% faster than my sweet gum. There is almost no comparison.
Well thanks for meeting with us Johnny. Any last words you would share with someone who might be on the fence about working with us and planting this tree?
I would say do it. No one knows what the markets will be like in ten years, but based off the speed of growth this tree seems worth the time and cost to grow it. Even if the market is paying half of what we expect I will be very happy. Overall my experience with World Tree has been very positive. They have provided all the support and help I have needed, and I really enjoy watching this tree grow.