How To Start a Tree Farm


cherry birch tree

High-Value Bark for Crafters

If you own a few acre, consider becoming a tree farmer. It’s earth-friendly and more profitable than you might imagine when you grow high-value trees.

Traditional tree farms are much like a plantation with one primary crop, saw and pulp logs. In the South, most tree farmers grow loblolly pines, in the Northwest, douglas fir and elsewhere a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees grown primarily for pulp and lumber.

To succeed and profit as a tree farmer today, it is important to shift from commodity trees that take years to grow and pay little, to planting, growing and harvesting ‘niche’ trees that can produce more income faster. You need trees that are :

  • Easy to grow – Choose trees that can be planted with low up-front costs and low maintenance and harvest costs. In most instances, that means native trees, the species that grow naturally in your region.
  • Fast growing – A stand of Douglas fir, for example, takes about 50 years to grow to timber harvest size, while a stand of the same species, grown for Christmas trees can be ready for harvest in 7-8 years. This means growing Christmas trees makes a tree farmer about ten times more profit per acre. There are other fast growing trees that can produce a regular income from boughs, shoots, sap, cones, fruit or nuts.
  • Produce high-value products – The right trees can produce an abundance of usable items, such as craft fibers, decorative wood, food, ornamentals and live plants. While most of these high-value products are of no interest to big corporate tree farmers, they can bring a substantial income to small tree farmers who have the time and market knowledge to plant, maintain and harvest these trees.

Let’s take a closer look at each one:

Craft fibers – Craft fiber is simply wood that can be woven. It includes the bark, splints, strips and shoots of a tree. These fibers are prized by basket weavers, and other fiber artists. For example, splints, made from the delaminated layers of a tree log, can produce as much as $500 worth of product from one small tree. A favorite species for this is the Black ash tree, also known as the ‘basket tree.’

Another example of a profitable craft fiber is willow shoots. Willow trees grow just about anywhere they can get enough moisture, and are easy to establish and maintain. Each year, the willow shoots can be pruned, and the next spring, you will have a new crop of shoots ready to harvest in the fall. The fresh willow shoots and catkins are in demand from florists and floral wholesalers, with an even bigger demand from crafters who use the rods to weave baskets and other fiber arts.

Decorative wood – Decorative wood is sawn wood that is valued for it’s unique appearance. Burls, figured wood and colored wood are three types of decorative wood always in demand for arts and crafts, cabinetry, furniture making and musical instruments. Best of all, decorative wood has no expiration date. A harvested log can sit in your shed or barn for years, and chances are good the value would be increasing each year. One timber dealer says the price of decorative wood has increased 15% each year for the past 30 years, because it is in short supply.

According to timber experts, an acre planted in big leaf maple and trained to produce figured wood could be worth $500,000 at maturity, in addition to income from periodic thinning. Other tree species can be equally valuable as well. Bitter cherry, considered a weed tree by loggers, produces horizontal bands of bark that is sold to crafters in short strips.

Fruits and nuts – Many trees, such as walnut, can produce fruits and nuts while growing to timber size. Also, modern agroforestry practices allow growing other fruit crops, like berries, as an understory crop with the right tree spacing. Ginseng, another high-value crop, can be grown under a canopy of trees. Ginseng prices have been about $300 a pound for mature roots in recent years.

Ornamentals – Woody ornamentals are trees and shrubs that grow back after cutting, and are popular with floral designers, who use them for filling out large bouquets. Popular woodies include lilac, forsythia and corkscrew willow. All are perennial, so once they are established, they require almost no maintenance other than harvesting the branches every year.

As you can see, growing high-value trees on a tree farm can bring much higher profits to growers. Start-up costs are low, and demand is growing every year. To learn more about growing high-value trees, read Growing Trees For Profit, available here.