Tree Farms Vs. Crop Farms

Last Fall while attending a protest of the Crush Timber Sale on Washgington State lands I had a conversation with an older man about how tree farming is not good for hydrology and not good for carbon sequestration. He once was a wheat farmer in Eastern Washington and in my opinion knew more about growing crops than foresters know. It wasn’t until later that I realized the person I was talking to was former Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. He used to run the very agency that we were now protesting against. This conversation got me thinking about the difference between real farmers and tree farmers.

The biggest difference between industrial tree farming and industrial crop farming is that in crop farming, with rare exceptions, they get a measure of harvest value each year and optimize their growing plan the following year based on that feedback. They also use weather forecasts for the upcoming growing season to optimize the investment in their probable yield. As crop farmers often explain: every decision they make creates both benefits and drawbacks and figuring out that puzzle defines if their farm continues to be profitable through the next harvest or not.

Contrast that with tree farming, where the feedback from harvest yields takes many decades to realize and the people who plan the next rotation of trees to be grown rarely, if ever, are the same people who planted and grew that site’s previous rotation. This means that rather than site-specific knowledge of growth rates, tree farmers depend on text book knowledge / dogma to plan their next harvest rotation.

for example, no tree farmer in California planted their tree farm decades ago knowing that the weather forecast for the early 2020’s was going to be a mega drought that’s the worst documented in 1,200 years. Tree farmers decades ago also didn’t know about a whole body of new science directly correlating a huge increase in fire severity is due to climate change, which in California’s case has led to one 1 of every 8 acres of California burning in past decade, as well as over a hundred thousand homes lost:

If tree farmers had known these details when planting their next rotation decades ago, there’s huge areas of land they would of not risked the high cost of investment to grow trees on.

This goes to the heart of why us enviros are so hated by the timber industry. In a word it’s called “feedback.”

A crop farmer will fail and go out of business in a matter of years if they don’t analyse feedback on growth rate to successfully keep their yields profitable. But if a tree farmer fails it could be decades before they realize they failed on their investments and the only feedback they get to avoid that are based on outdated harvest rates / text books about how to grow trees, as well as us enviros telling them they’re doing it wrong.

So when us enviros explain to them that they aren’t paying attention to the slowly approaching demise of the profitability of their operation, it’s easy to shoot the messenger and treat us like we’re the ones who are wrong and that the text books are guiding them on a path of certainty towards maximum sustained yield.

And so now here we areā€¦ The chickens come home to roost and tree farming is fast becoming an unworthy investment compared to other more profitable types of land use and we have an abundance of data to prove it. Perhaps the most significant data point is seedlings sold for reforestation. Quite simply tree farmers are giving up based on the severity of fire they’ve experience in recent years:


  1. Good article – needs to be shouted from the rooftops – or possibly from the top of the forests!!

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