Confessions of a Steward with Joel Salatin


Most farm properties have a woodlot. Certainly many of us self-reliant types glean firewood from it but little else. Too often we don’t see that little forested acreage as a serious asset; it tends to be the hands-off part of the property. Let’s change that.

Trees play an outsize role throughout the Bible. From the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden to the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem, trees figure prominently in story after story. Diminutive Zaccheus climbed a sycamore tree. Absalom hung his long locks in the boughs of a tree. Abraham dwelt by the oaks of Mamre. God prohibited the Israelites from cutting down fruit trees when they entered the land of Canaan. David procured cedars from Lebanon for the temple. Noah built the ark out of gopher wood. Jesus was a carpenter and died on a wooden cross. 

Although pastured livestock dominates my farming rep-utation, working in the woods energizes me just as much as grass. Woodlands respond just as dramatically to the human touch as pastures do. Let’s dive in with some woodland principles.

Perhaps the most important principle is that any given acre can only grow a certain amount of biomass. The question is what kind of biomass is growing there. Several factors influence growth potential. In the northern hemisphere, south-facing slopes tend to be more limited than north-facing slopes because the hot afternoon sun dries out southern aspects. Northern aspects stay moist longer, encouraging more growth. Of course, rainfall, frost dates, and soil fertility influence growth.

Foresters measure trees by diameter at breast height (DBH). If you wrap your arms around a tree (tree-hugging, yes), that’s the dimension. Overall basal area is determined by the total square footage of all the trees’ DBH. In other words, if you took a measurement of DBH of all the trees growing in a given acre, you could figure a total occupancy rate or square footage of basal area. 

Virtually every forested acre in the U.S. is overcrowded. If the optimum basal area on an acre is 80, for example, and it actually has 120, everything is being stunted. Weedy woods are the norm. What that means is that the acre’s carrying capacity has too many undesirable stems on it. Just like weeds in the green beans, weedy trees clog our woodlots.

A weed tree can be identified by numerous characteristics. The most obvious is disease. If it’s full of sores or dripping rosin, has a big split, or sports lackluster leaves—all of these indicate a tree in distress. Trees are living things and are susceptible to all sorts of diseases and bugs. Culling the clearly struggling trees in your woodlot not only reduces disease transmission to other trees, but it also opens up the canopy to give more precious light and soil resources to the remaining healthy trees.


“The rule of thumb for proper thinning is to select your keeper trees, measure their DBH in inches, change that into feet, double it, and cut everything in that radius.”


The next culling criterion is deformity. Who among us isn’t awed by magnificent cathedral trees, growing straight and stately into the sky? But then nearby might be numerous crooked, twisted, slanted, doglegged trees that will never amount to anything. Culling those enables the remaining good trees to grow to their genetic potential.

The final culling decision rests in overall space. While we don’t want to turn our woods into a monoculture of a single desirable species, we also don’t want to stunt the good ones by allowing too many ill-fitted competitors to take up sunlight and soil resources. The rule of thumb for proper thinning is to select your keeper trees, measure their DBH in inches, change that into feet, double it, and cut everything in that radius. 

A 12-inch DBH tree that’s a keeper, then, would have a radius of 24 feet cleared and no more. As beneficial as thinning is, over-thinning is worse because deciduous trees have thousands of dormant buds up and down their trunk that can sprout if shocked with sunlight too fast. This is why you often see fuzzy trees in housing developments in formerly forested areas. The landscapers take most of the trees and leave a few pretty ones, only to have these residuals sprout suckers up and down the trunk the following year…


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Joel Salatin co-owns, with his family, Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm, and his farm services more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, and a farmers’ market with salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry, and forestry products. When he’s not on the road speaking, he’s at home on the farm, keeping the callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, mentoring young people, inspiring visitors, and promoting local, regenerative food and farming systems. Salatin has published 15 books, and he is the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, granddaddy catalyst for the grass farming movement. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm.


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