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What I Know Of Farming

Growing Timber Tree-planting

In my judgment, the proportion of a small farm that should be constantly
devoted to trees (other than fruit) is not less than one-fourth; while,
of farms exceeding one hundred acres in area, that proportion should be
not less than one-third, and may often be profitably increased to
one-half. I am thinking of such as are in good part superficially rugged
and rocky, or sandy and sterile, such as New-England, eastern New-York,
northern New-Jersey, with both slopes of the Alleghenies, as well as the
western third of our continent, abound in. It may be that it is
advisable to be content with a smaller proportion of timber in the
Prairie States and the broad, fertile intervales which embosom most of
our great rivers for at least a part of their course; but I doubt it.
And there is scarcely a farm in the whole country, outside of the great
primitive forests in which openings have but recently been made, in
which some tree-planting is not urgently required.

"Too much land," you will hear assigned on every side as a reason for
poor farming and meager crops. Ask an average farmer in New-England, in
Virginia, in Kentucky, or in Alabama, why the crops of his section are
in the average no better, and the answer, three times in four, will be,
"Our farmers have too much land"--that is, not too much absolutely, but
too much relatively to their capital, stock, and general ability to till
effectively. The habitual grower of poor crops will proffer this
explanation quite as freely and frequently as his more thrifty neighbor.
And what every one asserts must have a basis of truth.

Now, I do not mean to quarrel with the instinct which prompts my
countrymen to buy and hold too much land. They feel, as I do, that land
is still cheap almost anywhere in this country--cheap, if not in view of
the income now derived from it, certainly in contemplation of the price
it must soon command and the income it might, under better management,
be made to yield. Under this conviction--or, if you please,
impression--every one is intent on holding on to more land than he can
profitably till, if not more than he can promptly pay for.

What I do object to is simply this--that thousands, who have more land
than they have capital to work profitably, will persist in half-tilling
many acres, instead of thoroughly farming one-half or one third so many,
and getting the rest into wood so fast as may be. I am confident that
two-thirds of all our farmers would improve their circumstances and
increase their incomes by concentrating their efforts, their means,
their fertilizers, upon half to two-thirds of the area they now skim and
skin, and giving the residue back to timber-growing.

In my own hilly, rocky, often boggy, Westchester--probably within six of
being the oldest Agricultural County in the Union--I am confident that
ten thousand acres might to-morrow be given back to forest with profit
to the owners and advantage to all its inhabitants. It is a
fruit-growing, milk-producing, truck-farming county, closely adjoining
the greatest city of the New World; hence, one wherein land can be
cultivated as profitably as almost anywhere else--yet I am satisfied
that half its surface may be more advantageously devoted to timber than
to grass or tillage. Nay; I doubt that one acre in a hundred of rocky
land--that is, land ribbed or dotted with rocks that the bar or the
rock-hook cannot lift from their beds, and which it will not as yet pay
to blast--is now tilled to profit, or ever will be until it shall be
found advisable to clear them utterly of stone breaking through or
rising within two feet of the surface. The time will doubtless arrive in
which many fields will pay for clearing of stone that would not to-day;
these, I urge, should be given up to wood now, and kept wooded until the
hour shall have struck for ridding them of every impediment to the
steady progress of both the surface and the subsoil plow.

Were all the rocky crests and rugged acclivities of this County
bounteously wooded once more, and kept so for a generation, our floods
would be less injurious, our springs unfailing, and our streams more
constant and equable; our blasts would be less bitter, and our gales
less destructive to fruit; we should have vastly more birds to delight
us by their melody and aid us in our not very successful war with
devouring insects; we should grow peaches, cherries, and other delicate
fruits, which the violent caprices of our seasons, the remorseless
devastations of our visible and invisible insect enemies, have all but
annihilated; and we should keep more cows and make more milk on
two-thirds of the land now devoted to grass than we actually do from the
whole of it. And what is true of Westchester is measurably true of every
rural county in the Union.

I have said that I believe in cutting trees as well as in growing them;
I have not said, and do not mean to say, that I believe in cutting
everything clean as you go. That was once proper in Westchester; it is
still advisable in forest-covered regions, where the sun must be let in
before crops can be grown; but, in nine cases out of ten, timber should
be thinned or culled out rather than cut off; and, for every tree taken
away, at least two should be planted or set out.

We have pretty well outgrown the folly of letting every apple-tree bear
such fruit as it will; though in the orchard of my father's little farm
in Amherst, N. H., whereon I was born, no tree had ever been grafted
when I bade adieu to it in 1820; and I presume none has been to this
day. By this time, almost every farmer realizes that he can't afford
to grow little, gnarly, villainously sour or detestably bitter-sweet
apples, when, by duly setting a graft at a cost of two dimes, he may
make that identical tree yield Greenings or Pippins at least as
bounteously. I presume the cumulative experience of fifty or sixty
generations of apple-growers has ripened this conclusion. Why do they
not infer readily and generally that growing indifferent timber where
the best and most valued would grow as rapidly, is a stupid, costly
blunder? It seems to me that whoever has attained the conviction that
apple-trees should be grafted ought to know that it is wasteful to grow
Red Oak, Beech, White Maple, and Alder, where White Oak, Hickory,
Locust, and White Pine, might be grown with equal facility, in equal
luxuriance, provided the right seeds were planted, and a little pains
taken to keep down, for a year or two, the shoots spontaneously sent up
by the wrong ones.

North of the Potomac, and east of the Ohio, and (I presume) in limited
districts elsewhere, rocky, sterile woodlands, costing $2 to $50 per
acre according to location, etc., are to-day the cheapest property to be
bought in the United States. Even though nothing were done with them but
keep out fire and cattle, and let the young trees grow as they will,
money can be more profitably and safely invested in lands covered by
young timber than in anything else. The parent, who would invest a few
thousands for the benefit of children or grandchildren still young, may
buy woodlands which will be worth twenty times their present cost within
the next twenty years. But better even than this would it be to buy up
rocky, craggy, naked hill-sides and eminences which have been pastured
to death, and, shutting out cattle inflexibly, scratch these over with
plow, mattock, hoe, or pick, as circumstances shall dictate, plant them
thickly with Chestnut, Walnut, Hickory, White Oak, and the seeds of
Locust and White Pine. I say Locust, though not yet certain that this
tree must not be started in garden or nursery-beds and transplanted when
two or three years old, so puny and feeble is it at the outset, and so
likely to be smothered under leaves or killed out by its more favored
neighbors. I have experiments in progress not yet matured, which may
shed light on this point before I finish these essays.

Plant thickly, and of diverse kinds, so as to cover the ground
promptly and choke out weeds and shrubs, with full purpose to thin and
prune as circumstances shall dictate.

Many farmers are averse to planting timber, because (they think) nothing
can be realized therefrom for the next twenty or thirty years, which is
as long as they expect to live. But this is a grave miscalculation. Let
us suppose a rocky, hilly pasture-lot of ten or twenty acres rudely
scratched over as I have suggested, and thickly seeded with hickory nuts
and white oak acorns only: within five years, it will yield abundantly
of hoop poles, though the better, more promising half be left to
mature, as they should be; two years later, another and larger crop of
hoop-poles may be cut, still sparing the best; and thenceforth a
valuable crop of timber may be taken from that land; for, if cut at the
proper season, at least two thrifty sprouts will start from every stump;
and so that wood will yield a clear income each year while its best
trees are steadily growing and maturing. I do not advise restriction to
those two species of timber; but I insist that a young plantation of
forest-trees may and should yield a clear income in every year after its

As to the Far West--the Plains, the Parks, and the Great Basin--there is
more money to be made by dotting them with groves of choice timber than
by working the richest veins of the adjacent mountains. Whoever will
promptly start, near a present or prospective railroad, forty acres of
choice trees--Hickory, White Oak, Locust, Chestnut, and White
Pine--within a circuit of three hundred miles from Denver, on land which
he has made or is making provision to irrigate--may begin to sell trees
therefrom two years hence, and persist in selling annually henceforth
for a century--at first, for transplanting; very soon, for a variety of
uses in addition to that.

* * * * *

--But this paper grows too long, and I must postpone to the next my more
especial suggestions to young farmers with regard to tree-planting.

Next: Planting And Growing Trees

Previous: Trees Woodland Forests

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