lowell carlson


Guest Columnist

I had a history professor in graduate school who owned 140 acres of long-leaf pine in east Texas. Dr. Cravens knew how much growth the trees had put on that year, what the volume of wood on that worn-out cotton farm was worth that week, and when it was ready to harvest. It was an investment that converted sunlight into biomass, like compound interest. 

Cravens’ example stuck with me, and when we bought the home farm west of Andrew we began planting trees. I wish I could say it’s all been a big success. It hasn’t. In fact, virtually every one of those plantings has been either a qualified success or a partial failure.

Yet somehow, in spite of too many deer, droughty summers or straight-line winds, we’ve added hundreds of new trees. There are black walnuts and now oak and hickory filling in openings and edges in the woodlot and on odd spots unsuited for crops.

When someone asks me what is the best time to plant trees I always reply, “Last year.”

Planting five walnuts in the backyard will be a disappointment. Unless you have the mother of all walnuts, no logging outfit is going to dedicate machinery and crew for one or a handful of walnuts and you won’t be happy with the price offered to purchase.

Yes, the tree of choice on our farm is Juglans nigra, black walnut. The trees growing on the farm may never become the mythical $20,000 veneer log you read about but premiere stands of this valuable species can gross $100,000 per acre, if the quality is there.

Someone will realize some substantial revenue from the trees we’ve planted beginning three decades ago, either family or a new owner. They may not know the story behind the trees or who even planted them, just that they represent a substantial source of revenue from the farm in perhaps 50 years.

A well-managed stand of black walnut can return in the range of 14 percent annually. While the grain may not be as tight as timber buyers would prefer, a properly spaced and thinned 16-inch saw log is possible within 30 years.

This is not get-rich-quick. Hardly. It’s more like get paid well in the future often on land that cannot be farmed. Because I plant to fill out woodlot openings and odd spots, I am not planting in deep black dirt but rather whatever is available. Growth rates are thus all over the board.

Black walnut is an investment that sits out in the weather and has the potential for disease and insect loss. Sometimes bad things happen in the woodlot. We have had saw-log quality trees reduced to splinters in the woodlot following windstorms.

I will likely never see a dime from the trees I plant as nuts in the fall but that is of no concern. The important thing is plant a tree. There are plenty of reasons to plant trees, especially now with concern for the environment ramping up. 

With black walnut, financial rather than esthetic reasons tend to dominate the decision to plant.

As an experiment, a friend in Lewis County, Washington, will plant a five-gallon bucket of black walnuts from our farm this fall at 4,000 feet elevation in the foothills of the coast mountains. He is intrigued with black walnut as a long-term investment, in his case, for his grandson. Instead of deer damage to young saplings though he can look forward to elk.

If you do begin to plant black walnut I think your goal should always be high quality. As a rule of thumb, high quality will always make it out of the woodlot regardless of species. Walnut is remarkable for holding value on the stump even during the worst of the Great Recession but only high-quality trees.

Long before you meet a log buyer and become interested in log grading you will be involved in nurturing young trees. 

I may have neglected to mention black walnuts are a lot of work. It’s periodic, but it’s work. My lower back is on fire today, mainly because I have been using the pole saw to prune some high limbs.

Pruning is the intersection of art and science for me. To simplify the process, I think of it as all about the number three.

Try to never remove more than a third of the tree’s crown at a pruning.

Take off lateral branches before they are 3 inches thick so the wound can heal properly.

And while you’re standing at the base of that tree, cut off every vine on and near the stem. Vines are killers of quality trees. Wild grape and ivies are the most likely but keep them off your trees. It’s easy money.

You will probably curse the ground deer walk on at some point in growing walnut. Once, a buck in the rut went down a row of 5- to 8-year-old walnuts and killed over 20 of them in one night. We let deer hunters on the farm for the full range of seasons but absolutely no tree spikes for deer stands and most are good observing the request.

Once you put a tree seedling or a nut in the ground you’re a different person. Life goes on as usual, but you begin to measure time in height instead of length. You link your progress to the trees and that is a good thing for you and the world.

Lowell Carlson is the retired, longtime editor of the Bellevue Herald-Leader. He now splits his time between Andrew, Iowa, and Washington state. He’s also a retired professor.