Pasture to Forest

America’s farmers are some of the most hardworking people, but it is getting harder and harder to make ends meet. Small dairy operations are going bankrupt at record pace. Factory farming and oversupply of milk has decreased the number of dairy farms from 650,000 to 40,000 and the ones still operating are caught between falling income from milk and rising food costs. Add to that the increase in milk substitutes from soy, almonds, rice and cashews and the future looks really bleak. And science is just a few years away from artificially producing milk proteins to create bio-identical milk that is cheaper, cleaner, and healthier than the real thing and tastes the same.

The median age of farmers is 58 and there will come a day when the hard work is just not do-able any more.

In European tradition, the ownership of forests was a privilege of the ruling class and guaranteed lifelong income. Forests were solid assets that survived times of economic hardship, political upheaval and even war. But over time those assets were cut down all over the world to create short-term profits.

Over many decades, forests have been turned into pastures. Not always successful. Sometimes, like in the Amazon, the soil left after burning the jungle is so poor that it cannot sustain crops for long. Many modern agriculture methods disregard soil almost entirely and provide all the nutrients artificially while degrading the soil.

Switching back to growing forests may be an option for some farmers, but the downside is the long growth period. Basically a forest is planted for the children or grandchildren.

There are, however, some fast growing trees that are now offering an alternative to ailing farmers. One of them is the Life Tree, also called Paulownia, Kiri or Empress Tree. It is unique in that is uses the C4 photosynthesis pathway that is used by some grasses and tropical plants. It is more efficient in warm weather than the C3 pathway that all other trees are using. This makes it possible to grow trees in just 2 years for firewood and 8 years for lumber. The Life Tree is also a nitrogen fixer, which means it nourishes the soil.

All that makes planting these trees an interesting income source. Additionally, the roots keep active and will regrow Trees for up to 80 years. As soon as a tree is cut, numerous new ones sprout from the stump.

As a farmer approaching retirement age, planting Life Trees may be the ideal option to setup the farm for future generations. It takes an initial effort to plant the trees and nurture them, but the workload drops drastically in the next years. Mostly the trees need to have a reliable source of water and the lower branches should be cut to create more even wood.

After the harvest, which may be contracted out, there is a period of weeding and choosing the strongest sprouts, but no soil preparation and replanting is necessary. Future generations may enjoy a laidback farming lifestyle.

It has been shown that such a tree farming operation is better handled in the context of a family farm than a mega operation. Large plantations with low-skilled workers seem to be unable to flourish and give the necessary attention to the trees.

The good news is that a tree farm is positively profitable. In 8 years each tree produces a cubic meter (424 board feet) of wood. An acre can hold 400 trees valued at $40,000 or more. A 200 acre farm produces wood valued at $8 million every 8 years.

The problem is to finance the initial planting and care for the first 8 years until the first harvest. For old-timers, the local bank may be supportive. Or someone pre-purchases the harvest at a discount. But a new option is opening up.

More and more people, companies and corporations are interested in reducing their impact on the atmosphere. A London airline, Easyjet, committed to paying $50 million each year to neutralize their exhaust fumes and that money goes partially into planting trees.

The trees on a 200 acres farm neutralize $80,000 to $320,000 in exhaust fumes per year. An airline or company could pay that amount to the farmer. That money should be enough to plant the trees and care for them. (This is calculated from 20 metric tons CO2/acre/year and a value between $20 and $80 per ton – however a new calculation from WorldTree suggests that it could be 103 metric tons CO2/acre/year).

This may be a useful model to support family farms, giving hard working farmers a solid income and a legacy that extends to their grandchildren. WorldTree gives support to farmers who want to embark on this option.