Brunswick County Timber & Agriculture Conference

Forestry is the 3rd largest industry in Virginia (Agriculture is #1 followed by tourism). Brunswick County is Virginia’s leading timber producer and has been for the last decade. My forest lands are in Brunswick County, so I was delighted to go to the Brunswick County Agriculture and Timber Conference on February 20.

Brunswick County depends on agriculture & forestry
Brunswick County officials were there to show their appreciation and concern for the County’s biggest industries. They seemed sincerely interested in how to make the place more forestry-friendly. Everything could be better, but Brunswick is already a pretty good place for forestry. That is why I chose to buy land there. Much of that is not easily within the immediate control of local officials, however.

Human ecology
Favorable human and business ecology are the main reasons Brunswick is good for forestry. An ecological paradigm applies to human relations. We have enough loggers, mills nearby, decent infrastructure for moving timber and a supportive local culture, i.e. people are comfortable with the odd things that we do to manage and harvest trees. There are challenge with all these things that I will address later, but compared to most other places, we are doing well.

Forestry a big deal for Virginia
Bettina Ring, Virginia Secretary of Forestry and Agriculture, was the keynote speaker. Ms. Ring was Virginia State Forester before becoming Secretary and was involved with Tree Farm and sustainable forestry before that. She reiterated that agriculture & forestry are Virginia’s biggest industry. Together they produce $91 billion of annual value for the Commonwealth and directly support 450,000 jobs, and many more indirectly. Forestry and agriculture also contribute mightily to tourism, our second biggest industry. Besides contributing to natural beauty, I was interested in some of the ways Virginians are using the production of the earth. We have 300+ wineries and cideries, 250+ brewers & 70+ makers of spirits, all of these attract tourist and support tourism. Who doesn’t want to have a nice drink in a beautiful setting?

We do have the perpetual challenge of land transfer.  Much of the Commonwealth’s land is held by old people like me. In fact, I am a little on the young side. We will not live forever and what happens to the land when we shuffle off this mortal coil? We must recruit a new generation of active landowners who want to keep their land in trees or crops. I am concerned when I see the fingers of the cities reaching into rural land but selling often makes sense to landowners. I have no plans to sell my land, ever. I hope my kids learn to love the forests, but who can say? On the plus side, this challenge is perpetual, as I note above. Forest landowners are usually older than average, for the simple reason that you must be old enough to inherit land or to have saved enough to buy it. I have owned my land for almost fifteen years, and I was 50 when I got it, already not a young man. Virginia has a special designation of “Century Forest,” a forest that has been in the same family for at least 100 years. My great grandchildren could apply for this in 2105, but there is a lot that can happen between now & then.

The triple bottom line
Finally, she got into the triple bottom line, although she did not use that term. For a project to be truly sustainable it must be worthy from the ecological, economic and social/cultural perspectives. If it fails on any of these factors, it fails generally. There is a challenge in meeting all three, since there are inevitably tradeoffs. But it is a challenge that can be met and is being met in most of Virginia forestry.

When thinking about the triple bottom line, I do not like the idea of compromise among the factors. Compromise implies a zero-sum game, where one loses to the extent that the other wins. I believe in synergies. Applying intelligence and accumulated practical wisdom, we can do better in all the factors, where one does not take away from others but rather each grows with the other.

Virginia ports and railroads
Daniel LeGrande, talked about Virginia ports. He explained something I wondered about, but never really followed. How is it that Virginia has a “port” at Front Royal, hundreds of miles from the sea and not on a navigable river.  Virginia’s inland port is a hub for rail and roads. Virginia’s ports at Hampton Roads is the third largest and deepest on the East Coast and is well served by rail and road. Ships can also go up the river as far as Richmond. Agriculture and forestry serve this by filling empty containers going out. All this logistics is fascinating for me, but well above my competence. I am glad somebody got it figured out.

Forestry panel
We broke into separate forestry and agriculture groups. The forestry group featured Virginia’s State Forester Rob Farrell, as well as local forestry business leaders including Owen Strickler, Thomas Evelyn, Frank Meyers & Vance Wright. It was a very congenial group, guys who have known each other for many years and know their business.

More wood than ever in Virginia
Rob started off with good new and bad news about forestry in the Commonwealth. We are harvesting more wood in Virginia than ever, but we are growing those trees on fewer acres and more wood is growing each year than is being harvested. Why is that good and bad news? Harvests are good. That more wood is coming off fewer acres may be good, but it probably means that we are growing more intensively. That is good, right? Not sure. I know this is only my opinion and it is based on the luxury I have of an income not only from forestry, but I like a little LESS efficiency.  My farms are a little lazy. The trees are too far apart for maximum production, but they are the right spacing for wildlife, for example. I am not sure the longleaf experiment ever will pay off. Intensive loblolly would be better. I cannot scoff at better results, however. Well … I can but I recognize that mine is a curmudgeon opinion. I am not offended knowing that many people would think I was just nuts.

The more wood factor is more clearly economic. Prices for timber are low and the fact that more wood is growing every year than is being harvested implies that they will not improve. On the other hand, it does show that we have a practically limitless supply of southern pine. No worries about a wood famine for at least a generation.

Virginia forestry is green, good and growing
Unambiguous good news is that Virginia forestry is doing a great job of protecting the environment. Department of Forestry inspects every harvest and they do a sample for deeper study. In this years sample 95% of the sampled met 100% of their Best Management Goals (BMP), and 100% of the samples found no significant sediment leaving the tract. You cannot do better than perfect. Virginia’s BMPs are more stringent than those imposed by EPA.

My experience fits with what the State Forester told us. In May of 2018, I went along for tree farm inspections on 20 randomly selected Virginia Tree Farms. The inspector found zero violations of standards of sustainability. We harvested on Freeman this year. I am very particular about how it is done. I inspected the harvest in every way I could.  I found a few things I did not like, but absolutely nothing that I could reasonably complain about. The loggers left the site clean and beautiful. The only things I did not like was that the ground was compressed where they had assembled the logs. This was unavoidable. I can, and I am addressing this by making them into pollinator habitat.

Solar farms growing but not green
Thomas Evelyn spoke about rural economic development in New Kent County. The thing I took away from his presentation was the danger of solar farms destroying forest ecosystems.  I have noticed these monstrosities popping up like a rash in Virginia and the Carolinas.

The following is what I was inspired to think about, but as I read it, I see that it is a bit of a rand and I will not saddle Mr. Evelyn with it.

IF you think that using energy from solar farms is “green” you are badly mistaken. Solar power from solar farms is obscenely destructive. Solar farms are more like strip mining than they are like regenerative. They tear town existing forests and cover the land with solar arrays. Nothing grows there. The soil underneath erodes. The land underneath dies.
And then consider the aftermath. You have to dispose of these solar panels when they are done. Solar panels require lots of toxic materials to make and disposing of them creates a toxic waste situation.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is worried about this. Lawmakers want to require solar purveyors to come up with a plan to dispose of the panels when they are done and restore the soils, the flora and fauna – just as they would have to do with strip mining. Virginia has an estimated 200,000 acres of land easily suitable for solar farms. One of my worst nightmares is that solar is put on these acres.

I have received unsolicited offers to lease my land to solar firms. I tear them to pieces & throw them away. There is no way I would EVER do this to my living forests. I would consider it immoral to ruin the environment like this. I love my land too much. Yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, and solar farms are going to to be a big problem, maybe not today but soon. The irony is that we are paying taxpayer money to finance and subsidize this future ecological disaster.

Solar energy can be, often is, good. Like most things, however, it depends on where, when, how and how much. The race to appear green is sometimes harmful to being green. Don’t fall for that green electricity canard. If you demand 100% renewable energy currently, YOU are part of the problem, not the solution.

Questions about Virginia forestry
Frank Meyers gave a great talk. (I have a semi-disclaimer here. Frank introduced me to the guy who sold me the land in Brodnax. I have been pleased with the purchase and grateful to Frank for the opportunity.) He did not answer so many questions, but he posed lot to think about. Some of the things I think that I have thought about, but I am not sure. Frank worried about merging of mills. We have a lot of mills in the near Brunswick, but maybe not the competition that will give landowners the best prices. Frank praised the reforestation tax. Loggers pay it and the Commonwealth matches it. The proceeds go into reforestation of pine. Frank wonders if we may not have done too good a job. Maybe we need to go into hardwoods. We worried about a shortage of pine. Maybe not.

Frank also was concerned about solar farms. He mentioned them in Fluvanna County. Solar farms do NOT respect stream management zones or BMPs. The rain that falls on solar farms washes sediment into streams. Will forest owners need to pick up the slack? Will we get blamed for the silting of streams and estuaries from the sediment of those solar farms?

What about Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs are like REITS but for timber land). TIMOs own or control a lot of forests land these days. Their goals are investment more than forestry. What if they find better returns for their shareholders?
Finally, Frank talked about something I never even thought about. Evidently loggers have to pay taxes on their equipment, while farm equipment is exempt. This is making it hard for loggers. They have a fixed tax unrelated to their income.

Vance Wright pointed out that forestry is Virginia’s first green industry. He also took a swipe at the solar farms. He said that there are just two ways that we humans can get anything. We can dig it out of the ground, or we can grow it from the earth. Forestry grows from the earth. Solar panels are made from materials dug from the ground. Make your own judgement.

Owen Strickler said that we need another pine saw mill east of I-95. There is lots of supply. Virginia is exporting raw logs. This is okay, but it is better to add value with Virginia jobs. He made an interesting point that just had never occurred to me. He talked about how a pine saw mill could ease a shortage of hardwood logs. Some of the best oak and popular comes as a collateral harvest to mature pines.

What is happening in the state legislature
After the panel and after lunch we had a few presentations. The one I recall best was by lobbyist Ben Row. He talked about several of the bills in the legislature. Two of special interest, IMO. One related to timber theft. Many landowners sell timber only once in a lifetime. They are not sophisticated about the sales and can get ripped off. One scam is for a crooked logger to sign a contract paying 50% of up front and the other 50% when the job is done. Sounds fair, but what the crooks do is pay the 50% and then harvest up to 90%. Then they stop. They never finish the job and so never pay the rest of the bill.
Another bill related to those hated solar farms. It would allow localities to require owners to present a plan to decommission the solar farm when it is finished. The danger is that solar owners will leave the mess of panels, denuded soils and toxic waste.

I greatly enjoyed the conference. I attend lots of such events. Usually they are good, but this one was so very well targeted to my local issues. I hope they do it again and remember to invite me back.