The Joy of Virginia Forest Land

People own lots of things but we form special relationships with the land we own.   Wound up in land is the concept of connection of our ancestors’ to the earth and our legacy for future.   There is no surprise that people have deep feelings for land that has been in their families for generations, but it is astonishing how fast the same connections form with adopted land.

I have loved forests and wanted to have my own part of one for as long as I can remember.   But buying a forest is not something most people do.   Most forest owners inherit them.   I would have to borrow the money to buy my forest so I couldn’t afford to do it as a mere indulgence, so I started to study on the economics of forestry.   I was surprised and encouraged to learn that forestry was an excellent, if illiquid, investment.    According to Forbes magazine, timber investments from 1990 – 2007 timber produced a compounded annual return of 12.88%.    You just cannot beat that if you have the time and the inclination to wait for nature to take its course. 

Most people who invest in forestry do so through REITs and TIMOs.   That option didn’t appeal to me.   That makes forestry just another investment.   My logic was the reverse.  I was looking for a lifestyle choice, not a mere investment vehicle.   I wanted to own a forest and I needed to justify it as an investment, not the other way around.   And I wanted my forest that I could stand on and manage.    After investigating the economics, I decided that I felt secure enough in my judgment on this matter to base my retirement savings on growing trees rather on a capricious stock market. 

Of course finding the right forest is harder to do than buying stocks or mutual funds.   I needed to find a place close enough to my house that I could visit but far enough from Northern Virginia that I could afford the land.   My research took me to Southside Virginia on the Piedmont south of Richmond.  This is the land of the loblolly pine.   The soils of the region were denuded by generations of cotton and tobacco farming and the land has been returning to forest for more than a century.   The decline of the tobacco industry, which pushed people off the land and the distance from growing cities kept land prices lower.   

Successful forestry on one tract of land requires successful forestry in the neighborhood.  Wood is heavy and hard to transport.   Unless you have enough forested acres in a roughly 60-100 mile radius to sustain a forestry industry and mills, you really cannot grow trees profitably.   The forests of Southside Virginia meet this need.   I knew this was where I would find my forests. 

I called a rural real estate broker called Rick Rawlings in Lawrenceville.   He didn’t think I was serious when I called him and probably didn’t change his mind when I showed up at his office in Lawrenceville.   He wanted to steer me to small tracts of land suitable to building a getaway cabin.    I told him that I didn’t care for such things.   I wanted a place for forestry – real forestry.    He told me that he had some tracts that were 100+ acres, but they were isolated and it would cost me a fortune to bring in things like electricity.  “You would never be able to build,” he warned.   He smiled when I told him that is exactly what I wanted. 

He showed me several tracts of well developed timberland and then told me about a recent clear cut.   It was 178 acres of clearcut plus 2, but there was good site preparation and I could see the tops of the little pines poking above the weeds & old brush.   I also liked the streams and the mature hardwoods left near them.   That was my first tract. 

The first thing an absentee landowner needs to do is get to know the neighbors and make some local allies.   They are the ones who can protect your land … or not.   Fortunately, the land had a hunt club already associated with it and they were happy just to keep on with the previous relationship.   The hunt club maintains the gates and the no trespassing signs.   Their presence on the land also discourages squatters or some clowns planting drugs, which can be significant problems.    In this rural area, everybody knows everybody else and they all knew about me.    I had to overcome a bit of a stereotype when I drove up with my Honda Civic Hybrid, but when they figured out that I knew about the trees and wanted them to keep on hunting, everything was okay.   A couple of the guys took me around and showed me the various thinning and timber operations they were working on.    When I got stuck in the mud, the local farmer came and pulled me out with his tractor.   I was really interested in hearing their stories about the land and their experiences.   

I also joined the Virginia Forestry Association and got the communication director job for the tree farm project.   My job mostly consists of writing an article for the Virginia Forests magazine four times a year and I get to interview and write the story of the tree farmer of the year.   I learned a lot from these things.   Forestry is kind of an art form.   Local conditions make a big difference and by local I mean difference of a few yards or a change in the slope of a hill.   The more successful tree farms you see, the better feel you get for understanding your own.    I have never met or even heard about a tree farmer who didn’t love his forest, and everybody you meet is eager to talk about their particular places.   I know I am.

I don’t depend on my forest for current income, so I have the luxury of experimentation.   I have done pre-commercial thinning and biosolids application.   I am reasonably certain that these things will make the forest grow faster, be a better place for wildlife and just look better, but I am not sure it will actually be worth the outlay in terms of actual income.

Anyway, I have been happy with my forestry investment choice.  You cannot rush the trees, so I sometimes wish I had got into the business sooner and been further along.   But I then I remember that I couldn’t.  Besides the obvious lack of money (or more correctly credit), I didn’t have enough understanding of the forestry business.   Liking trees is not sufficient.    I also do not think I could have done this deal in the pre-internet world.  It is amazing what you can find on the Internet and all the research you can you do.   For example, Southern Regional Forestry Extension has online courses.   You can download these on ITunes.