By Anita B. Stone, North Carolina — Planting trees for profit in the future begins with finding new energy sources. Because energy crop growing is an investment, it is crucial that the right choice is made from among a variety of options available, preferably based on land availability. One popular energy commodity is Short Rotation Forestry (SRF), the practice of cultivating fast-growing trees that reach their optimum size between eight and 20 years, compared to the usual 30-year wait for harvest. Reforesting property offers substantial income from timber. A typical rate of return for a well-managed forest is about 12% annually. And that’s not to mention the benefits of hunting, protecting water quality and offering habitat for critters. There are several ways in which income can be realized from timber property. You may receive ordinary income from rent for the use of the property itself or from other services that the property offers, including hiking and resource materials. Income can also be derived from the sale of logs, lumber or other forest products as medicinal plants, moss, and ferns. Several loggers receive income from the disposal of standing timber (stumpage) or by cutting the timber as a sale, including firewood. On the homestead, trees can offer a variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers, perfumes, sugar, syrup, spices, gum, paper, furniture, tea, and coffee, all of which can make planting trees for profit a success. Sometimes it is best to specialize in one or two crops and focus on profitable income.
For instance, a stand of trees restores the environment, grows more food and builds a sustainable future while providing a diverse income. Trees not only provide shade, renew and stabilize the soil, but they increase crop production. This is also sustainable and becomes an income generated product. By using a process known as Short Rotation Forestry, the tree is cut back to allow the growth of multiple stems on a regular cycle of two to four years. It consists of planting a site and then felling the trees when they reach 10-20 cm (roughly five to eight inches) diameter. This has the effect of retaining high productivity of a young plantation, but increasing the wood-to-bark ratio.
Depending on the species chosen, single or multi-stemmed trees can be grown on agricultural land, previously forested land, or reclaimed land. These selective trees do not compete with food crops. Several fast-growing species grown on a reduced rotation length are primarily grown as a low cost, low maintenance harvest energy crop, used in conventional power stations or specialized electricity generation units, thereby reducing the amount of fossil fuel-derived carbon dioxide emissions either alone or combined with other fuels, including coal. Once harvested, the energy crops are used to make biofuels such as bioethanol or combusted for the energy content to generate heat, resembling the wood-fuel concept.
Homesteaders who are planting trees for profit can grow the perennial willow tree, which has a long harvesting cycle along with dense plantings of very tall crops. Weeds are kept at bay during growth and after cutbacks. Typically no insecticides or fungicides are used.
The potential effects of this type of plantation are tourism, rural employment, family farm futures and a farming infrastructure. Biomass can be grown from a variety of woody or herbaceous crops, including miscanthus, switchgrass, and bamboo. Eucalyptus has the potential to deliver greater volumes of biomass from the same land area than alternative crops. Using the SRF methods you can also grow poplar and sycamore, which can produce an energy source. If you select willow, the second harvest (in about nine years) will fill the landscape; thereafter, the willow plantation will be extremely profitable when the market develops and the crop does well. Willow has a high potential for enhancing biodiversity in the agriculture environment as it can support large numbers of invertebrate species.
SRF production is also expected to be significantly beneficial to improve water quality and result in proactive water conservation. The main benefit to water quality would be using the strong nutrients of crops and saving water. SRF could be an effective option for mitigating nitrate leaching by maximizing nitrogen removal while providing a high yielding crop for farmers. The environmental impact varies. Some species including eucalyptus have a high water usage, a major concern due to changing climate areas. There can also be impacts on biodiversity and the effects of large-scale SRF on flora and fauna which are unknown.
Due to excessive amounts of natural fertilizer contained in the soil, a fertilization program is unlikely to be required for the first and possibly second rotation, which saves money and protects the environment. Normally there is sufficient ground nutrition until the soil becomes depleted.
Another benefit with the establishment of SRF in an agricultural landscape is providing additional cover by the tree crops for mammals and future nesting areas occur with the protection of the crops. Certain areas will provide forage for small ground species. With SRF as a maintenance plan for crops, it also incorporates biodiversity of the land area.
Species such as the red squirrel are unlikely to find suitable habitat in SRF because of the lack of the mature trees needed for nesting sites. But fox, weasels, and badgers thrive within the habitat stability. Deer are able to forage while seed-eating birds are likely to nest as well as birds that feed on litter and worms. A balance of nature is provided for the forest animals to select their method of survival and requirements.
A major facet to SRF is exemplified through Short Rotation Coppicing (SRC). Historic fuel wood coppice systems have been used as energy for hundreds of years. Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management which takes advantage of the fact that many trees produce new growth from the root or the stump which resembles a stool-like chunk of wood. The reduction of tree size promotes the growth of multiple stems on a regular basis. Once a tree is cut and the stump remains, several short stems begin to take root. Southern beech, aspen, sweet chestnut, ash, birch, eucalyptus, and sycamore perform as energy crops which are great varieties to use when planting trees for profit.
An average SRC plantation should be visible for 10 years before it needs replanting. Harvesting takes place during the winter and provides employment opportunities for agricultural workers at a quiet time of year.
Farmers who are planting trees for profit are not limited by tree species. Experimentation with known and unknown tree varieties allow for quick growth and easy harvesting. Trees are usually felled when they are approximately 15 cm (5.9 inches) wide at chest height, which takes from 8-to-20 years. This compares with 60 years or more for standard forestry crops. The trees are replaced by new plantings or allowed to regenerate from the stumps as coppice. The wood chips produced are preferred in the power industry because they do not contain bark and wood and wood is more homogenous than chips provided by SRC. The financial potential includes profit after transportation and is estimated to be around $15– $30 per ton.
Another way to make money when planting trees for profit is by selling firewood. You can sell whole logs to a buyer, cordwood that you have already cut and split for the consumer or cut-up lumber. Some of the best trees for firewood include maple and ash. They’re excellent for burning in wood stoves. Soft woods like pine are good for short, hot fires like those in fire pits or wood burnning cook stoves. Their sap does create a lot of creosote, though, so they should not be sold as a primary heating wood. If you don’t already own wood-cutting gear, you can purchase or rent a chainsaw with extra chains, a log splitter, a truck for delivery an axe and a hand splitter and wedges. A covered shed or barn is the best way to store firewood with tarps covering it. If you are selling scrap lumber, talk to owners of woodworking shops or lumberyards and make a deal to purchase their unused wood. Before you stack and sell your wood, cut it into saleable lengths. Most consumers require wood to be in 12-16-inch lengths and no more than six inches around, which is comfortable to pick up by hand. Once cut, simply split the wood into suitable lengths, bundle or stack it.
Once the wood is ready for sale, place a sign in front of your home, lot or near a heavy traffic area. Many folks use shopping centers and the intersections of main roads to display their wood piles. Place fliers on community boards, use a local newspaper and spread the word by mouth. To get above the competition, you may want to offer free delivery or extra wood with a certain amount of purchases.
With the advent of plastic becoming less advantageous and the conscience of buyers turning to more sustainable, green and organically grown energy crops, sales have increased over the past few years in the area of seasonal trees, including a selection of fir, pine, oak or spruce for Christmas sales. When planting trees for profit, also keep in mind the high income that may be derived by planting homegrown trees, not only for the season but for the yard and decorative purposes.
Whether you find a logger to swap trees for crops or plant timber, planting trees for profit may become an extremely successful journey when natural resources are used and conservation plays a major role in the career of energy.
Have you been successful planting trees for profit?
Originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.