Tom Pollock, Senior Manager of Forest Products at GreenBlue, sat down with Dianne and Dr. Salem Saloom to talk about their experiences running a tree farm in Alabama. The Forest Products Working Group will be visiting their farm in June as part of a joint project with the American Forest Foundation.
GreenBlue (Tom Pollock): What first made you decide to become tree farmers?
Salem Saloom: When we moved back to Brewton, Alabama in 1979, I had just started turkey hunting and wanted my own piece of property. I started purchasing land, and as we worked and managed this land over the years, we become more interested in tree farming and realized we had developed real personal ties to the land. One of the things that hit both myself and Dianne was a strong and inherent land ethic and appreciation for the land as we got our hands dirty and wore off some boot leather.
Dianne Saloom: On a side note, I think it’s interesting you started with the word “farmers” rather than “owners.”
GB: What is the best word to describe you and Dr. Saloom?
DS: Farmers is what we consider ourselves, and I ask because your question brings up an important point. Some woodland “owners” feel like the best thing to do is to do nothing – whether it concerns invasive species, thinning, etc. The word “farmer,” however, suggests an active management or participation, which definitely describes ourselves.
GB: Saloom Properties totals 2,200 acres of forestland in Evergreen, Alabama. How would you describe your forestland?
SS: We are located in the upper coastal plains of south Alabama. There are slightly rolling hills, no mountains. Since 1983, we have purchased 1,840 contiguous acres. Back in the 1980s the primary species of pine were loblolly and shortleaf with generous hardwood bottoms and a few scattered longleaf. This area historically — during European settler times —was in the longleaf range. Our species are primarily loblolly and shortleaf with a generous amount of hardwood.
DS: Originally the land was a mostly a loblolly pine that was not indigenous to the area and was planted primarily for making paper. After purchasing the first 160 acres of property in 1983, some part of the soil were eroding because of row cropping agriculture farming. We decided to plant loblolly pine in that area, thus solving the erosion problems.
SS: In 2004, Hurricane Ivan devastated south Alabama, impacting much of our forest. It was then that we started transitioning into longleaf pine for many reasons. This is also a way to use Best Management Practice – or BMP – to manage for water quality and other ecosystem benefits. Our land is in the largest watershed in our county and is the tenth largest watersheds in our county with 178 miles of springs and creeks. That is a lot of water. The keystone species for a longleaf ecosystem is the gopher tortoise which is listed as threatened by the US Dept Fish and Wildlife. Managing for gopher tortoise will pay dividends by helping to keep that species from being listed on the endangered list.
GB: What do love most about being tree farmer today that you didn’t expect when you first started out?
DS: Having grown up in the city of Chicago, I had no idea how much appreciation one can have for an ecosystem in all of its entirety. Responsible and active management is critical for the health of these ecosystems and they really need to be well cared for. You are providing habitat for wild animals and all types of biodiversity. It’s all integrated to have healthy ecosystem.
SS: Through the seasons, like Aldo Leopold talked about in “A Sand County Almanac”, there is a permeating sense of a land ethic on the property. Our stewardship has become a lot about sharing God’s creation. We share our forests through education, on-site tours, and educational programs.
DS: All of the 5th graders in the county visit our land annually for the past 10 years. Last week we had 150 kids.
GB: What is the most challenging aspect of being a tree farmer?
SS: One of the things we talk about and are concerned about is one that is shared by many tree farmers. That is, how are we going to pass on this piece of property? For both of us this is a big challenge.
DS: And it is not just a matter of changing the title, but it is also a matter of how to engage that generation to manage that land responsibly and with a land ethic. We know this is a challenge for many land owners.
SS: Another challenge is creating healthy markets for all landowners. Timber markets going down right now, especially for fiber for paper products. I did not time my logging operation just for prices, I could have, but it was more important to me to log for silviculture and forest health. Might have gotten better economic return, but better for forest to do it now rather than wait two years. It is expensive for tree farmers to stay in business, and it can be disheartening to grow for years – 1979, 1986 timber – and manage through so many challenges like natural disasters and pests – and then receive less than half the original stumpage. That’s tree farming. Tree farmers living off their farms need to make enough money to continue to manage and plant it.
SS: I also want to speak up on behalf of our relationship with ATFS. We have been members for a long time and that relationship has been huge for us. It has definitely given tree farmers an effective voice and provided help for many of these challenges.
GB: Most people don’t realize that most of the forests in the United States are owned by families, not the federal government or industry. What would you like people to know about family woodland owners and what they do?
SS: There are benefits to owning woodlands. Many Americans enjoy the benefits but don’t realize it. Jobs that come out of forestry [that help] our economy. Aesthetics, clean air and water, recreation. We need to carry that message better and more so.
DS: As we have explained to the 5th graders that visit our woods, there are so many things that we use that they are unaware of it being made from wood cellulose. Makeup and toothbrushes. The kids were amazed to hear that computer and TV screens are made from cellulose. Apple iPhones screens as well. All from trees.
SS: Another thing we would like people to know about tree farmers, and Dianne and I have travelled all over, walking woods with other farmers, is that there is an overwhelming and pervasive passion we see throughout the entire tree farmer community for caring for property and doing whatever is needed to care for the land in the best way possible.
GB: Family woodland owners are key contributors to protecting wildlife, clean air and water, and fighting climate change. How do we change misperceptions around forest management and using forest products?
DS: I also think that the public should know some of the basic facts — for example, for every tree cut three are planted. Active responsible forest management means a continuation of the cycle. For areas not managed – the idea that doing nothing is better as in some parts of the northeast – they found that because the tallest trees closed off understudy and bushes there was a decrease in songbirds. Bald eagles rely on rodents and other critters to hunt and without the understory that doesn’t happen. Management helps the wildlife versus non-management. Misperception is a big problem. The public doesn’t know we have the same goals. Actively managing is ensuring the future.
SS: Telling our stories together with brand owners will also pay a lot of dividends. That will have many positive outcomes. Forward thinking brand owners and woodland owners share the same goals of supporting wildlife, clean air and water, and mitigating climate change. The more we can have people on the ground walking the woods with owners, letting public interact with landowners, the better we can do.
GB: Your family has done a tremendous amount of work to promote tree farming and the ecological benefits forests provide. What important developments do you see on the horizon for family woodland owners?
SS: We need more markets for more varieties of ecosystems. More research and innovations. Tall buildings are coming on. Using Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) in a house building. Those are the types of things are going to be more and more important. Biomass not being utilized right now because natural gas is so inexpensive.
GB: What are your plans for your own woodlands in the future?
SS: We have lots of plans! Dianne and I have visited old growth longleaf and think it would be nice to have natural regeneration of longleaf. Being able to have high-quality longleaf product that would be beneficial for architecture. For example, the highest value architectural heart pine timber today is coming from reclaimed wood from factories and textiles mills. There is not enough heart pine to go around so one of our future goals is to have a diversity of uneven age loblolly and longleaf to be able to produce wood for a market on a consistent basis.
DS: We are also continuing to improve habitat so the gopher tortoise can thrive. We are going to do that through active management for gopher tortoises such as thinning and prescribed fire. We are also working on the best way to pass the torch on to our son so that he has the means and know — how to pay for and upkeep of of our forest.