Get to know your fellow members in the profiles below.
Is there something about you or your land that other MFA members would find interesting? Send an email to Editor@MinnesotaForestry.org.
Get to know your fellow members in the profiles below.
Is there something about you or your land that other MFA members would find interesting? Send an email to Editor@MinnesotaForestry.org.
“I wrote up the first management plan in ’89. Timber had been harvested in the 60s and replanted in red pine, so when we became owners 22 years later, our first priority was the 85-acre red pine plantation.” Fetzer focused on thinning aspen and other species that were severely suppressing the pine. Meticulous records from the time indicate that 922 trees per acre (mostly aspen and birch) were cut during the red pine release, spending 21 hours/acre at a cost of $147/acre. Pruning the red pines was also a part of the plan, with 18 hours/acre amounting to $129/acre. “The boys were pretty young then, and I would tie ribbons on the trees that I wanted them to limb up. They would prune up to the ribbon and get 50 cents for every one they brought back.”
In 2014, Fetzer hired consulting forester Chris Brokl to supervise a large timber sale on 76 acres. “I had been out of forestry for a while. Chris had the experience, and he knew the loggers in the area better than I did. I spelled out what I wanted and I knew he would do whatever needed to be done on my behalf,” said Fetzer. “I wasn’t looking to make top dollar. It was a balance between harvesting timber and the aesthetics we’re trying to achieve on the land. This is a family forest, and that plays into the management decisions I make.” The sale produced 1,860 cords of timber, about half of them mature aspen harvested from the pine stand, and half from selectively harvesting pines to thin the stand. Other harvests over the years have included around 300 cords of pine, firewood, aspen and salvage wood. a Swiss chalet-style home that was inspired by their trip to Europe, and by a cabin of this type that Fetzer and his brother built long ago in Pennsylvania. While not all of the timber comes from his land, some does, as Fetzer uses his own tractor, skidder, circle sawmill and one-sided planer to work on the home. “I hired out the cement, electrical, and plumbing work. Most of other work I could do myself, from the floor joists to the paneling to the rafters.”
When asked what the future holds for his woodlands, Fetzer is quick to mention family. “Nita and I hope that we can pass the land on to our children, but taxes are a concern. My compliments to MFA, and in particular Bruce ZumBahlin, for the work they do for the private woodland owner. SFIA is an important program for me, and I know MFA works to keep it in place.”
MFA member Nick Gulden is quick to acknowledge that he was blessed to follow his childhood interest in nature into a career as a DNR Wildlife Manager, using his skills and education primarily in southeastern Minnesota. Since retiring in 2002, he continues to apply his passion for the outdoors to his own little corner of Minnesota — 81 acres of mixed hardwoods and bluff prairie overlooking the Mississippi River near Minneiska. He’s come full circle, starting out and ending on land near a river.
“I spent much of my childhood in the outdoors exploring fields and forests, or fishing on the Cottonwood River near our home in New Ulm. I was fascinated by bugs and butterflies, and when it came time to decide on a career, I thought about either entomology or forestry.” Gulden eventually decided on fish and wildlife management and graduated with a BS degree from the University of Minnesota in fall of 1961. Prior to graduating, however, he found the other major piece of his life’s puzzle near the wetlands of central Minnesota.
“After my first year of college, I was hired for the summer by the Minnesota Conservation Department to assist in surveying wetlands, including those involved in a duck study area near Fergus Falls. One weekend, a member of a duck banding crew also working in the area, unexpectedly had to head home to the Cities and asked me to stand in for him on a date he had lined up for the weekend. I said I might, but I wasn’t going to go on a blind date! We went for a root beer at the A&W where Geri worked at so I could see what I was getting into. We ended up eloping a year later.”
After a short stint in fishery research at Yankton, SD, Gulden was hired by the DNR for a position in the Rochester area where he spent a lot of time working with the giant Canada goose population. Eventually, he was promoted and moved to the Twin Cities, living there from 1966-69, but desk work didn’t sit well with him. “I didn’t like office work or the crowds, so I took a voluntary demotion…best career move I ever made.” The Guldens and their three children settled in Winona where Nick worked as the Area Wildlife Manager. Over the years, he was involved in several significant projects for the state.
“When I first moved here, there really wasn’t much of a deer population and hunting was pretty poor. Following the implementation of special deer regulations in the early 70's, we increased that harvest five-fold. I worked to procure public hunting lands, including the 3,000 acre Mc Carthy Lake WMA in Wabasha county. We paid $17/acre for swamp land, $25 for woodland, $75 for pasture and $100 for cropland back in the early 60's!”
Gulden was also involved in the original release of turkeys in Minnesota in the late 60's and early 70’s. “The initial release involving the Merriams subspecies from western South Dakota eventually failed, but when we obtained the Eastern subspecies from Missouri, they really took off. I also spent time trapping, or more accurately, trying to trap, ruffed grouse in an exchange program with Missouri. They’re not easy to trap!”
Today, Gulden can most often be found working on the land he purchased in 1984. “I always wanted to manage my own land for wildlife.” One of the first things he did was build access roads through a cost share program. The steep country would be hard to manage without them. “Quite a bit of our land has a 45 degree slope, so there’s more like 1 1/2 acres of surface area per one acre. We’ve put in 1.7 miles of roads and trails that require a lot of maintenance.” A shed is the only structure on the property, housing the DR brush cutter, grader and log splitter, and other tools that Nick uses on the property. “I do a lot of pruning and cutting to release trees and eliminate undesirable growth, including over 55,000 buckthorn”. Most of the land had been farmed or was in pasture from the previous owners, while the rest is hardwoods.
“When I first retired, I spent almost every day up here. Geri loves to walk in the woods and look for morels or wild raspberries, and the kids have all helped in one way or another. Besides the road work, we planted white spruce for Christmas trees, but we really didn’t pursue that too far. I also planted red and white oak, ash and sugar maple, but it’s been a challenge since this is prime deer habitat. The previous owner planted black walnut in the 60’s, some of which have become beautiful trees, while others haven’t done well because of poor site placement.” In addition to planting trees, Nick planted native prairie grasses in two different open fields with help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Gulden’s have held three different timber sales, the first one in the late 80’s for oak veneer and railroad ties, followed by a salvage sale of black walnut after a big wind damaged the trees in 1998. The last was a large sale in ’07, harvesting 40 walnut that produced 9,000 board feet at $2.51/board ft., and 20 oaks that produced 6,400 board feet at $0.38. “I had done some forest cruising and written up management plans before, but because I was dealing with high value walnut, I didn’t feel like I knew enough to handle the sale myself. I didn’t hesitate to go to DNR Forestry to do it. A private forester would have worked out fine, but I felt comfortable with these guys because I had worked with them.” Other projects included 3 aspen regeneration cuts for ruffed grouse, and planting high-bush cranberries which are highly relished by wildlife.
The entire 81 acres is now enrolled in the Minnesota Land Trust, establishing a conservation easement and ensuring that the property will be free of certain types of development. “Once Geri and I decided we didn’t want to build our own home there, we knew that we wanted to preserve this land as it is now. We’re very happy with the program. It really hasn’t restricted me; I still follow a normal management plan, but now I know it will be protected from development and subdividing.” The property is also enrolled in the SFIA program, and in 2007, Nick received the Wabasha Co, SWCD “Woodland Manager of the Year” award.
Ultimately, Nick and Geri hope that the land will remain much as it is today and eventually pass on to the next generation. “Our son, grandson and nephew enjoy hunting out here. It would be wonderful to keep it in the family. I’m not going to be the one that reaps the benefits of good stewardship on this land. You do it for the enjoyment of working with God’s creation, and for passing it on to the next generation, hopefully in a little better shape than you found it.”
It’s not difficult to get MFA members John and Vicki Riester to talk about the family, friends, foresters, soil and water conservationists and contractors who have worked with them over the years to improve their 602-acre property near Red Wing, Minnesota, nor is it hard to get them share stories of the many people and organizations who enjoy their land. What is tough is to get them to take credit for their years of work and commitment to improving their tree farm. That will have to change, however, since being recognized as Minnesota’s 2016 Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year. It’s a spotlight that they’re quick to share with others.
planting or pruning trees, planting wildlife
feed plots or installing water retention ponds. They deserve recognition as
much as we do, especially our kids, Ryan, Kevin and Katie. And our neighbors,
Charlie and Diane Grabow, had started conservation practices before we even
bought land from them,” said John. Indeed, the Riester’s property has been a
hub of outdoor work and activity for many people from the Red Wing area.
John and Vicki both grew up near Wabasha, meeting in high school. The nine Riester siblings learned conservation practices early in life from their parents, Leonard and Mae, as they pruned and planted in the woodlands surrounding their farm. John considered pursuing a degree in forestry, then attended Rochester Community College until enlisting in the military and serving in Korea for two years. During this same time, Vicki attended Winona State, graduating with a degree in Art in 1975. After the service, John went through the MN State Southeast Technical College’s Refrigeration program, and the couple married in 1975, settled in Red Wing, and started their business, Riester Refrigeration, that same year. The business still occupies a great deal of their time.
If you ask John how they came by their knowledge of woodland management, he smiles sheepishly and says, “We were just too busy to attend workshops, even though we wanted to. I had learned some fundamentals from my dad, and after that, we learned by doing, and by getting a lot of advice from Soil and Water and DNR people. I can’t say enough about how knowledgeable they are, and how good they are at what they do. People like Terry Helbig, Chris Fritz, Tom Steger, Larry Westerberg, Bruce Zumbahlen, Mary Perala, Keith Jacobson, Paul Callas, and Beau Kennedy played a big part in teaching us what we needed to know to manage our land.”
Currently, the Riesters have 230 of their 324 woodland acres certified in the Minnesota Tree Farm program. They rent out an additional 270 tillable acres to Hadler Farms and Balow Farms, who are committed to following good conservation practices. Some of their woodland management practices include an initial planting of black walnut, oaks, and ash interspersed with soft maple to encourage rapid, straight growth, followed by pruning and removal of the maple as the crop trees mature. John also sprays Garlon on the lower 12 inches of box elder trees to eliminate these trees and encourage more desirable species. Removal of buckthorn is planned for this summer.
“Our parents and grandparents on both sides of the family really instilled a love of the outdoors in us,” said Vicki. “Living out here, working with our friends and kids, and now our grandkids on the land, teaching them to identify birds and care for the woods and wildlife, I think we’ve been able to pass on that love to them. That’s really the most important thing we can do with the land, is pass on that passion to others.” With grandchildren in the area, that part of the plan seems likely to succeed. “I hope that our kids can enjoy the property like we have. They’re all pretty young yet, but they’ve already helped haul firewood and plant trees. I think that having them help with these things will teach them a good work ethic and help them appreciate the outdoors and the property. My parents learned these values from their parents and they taught us the same. We plan to continue that trend with our children,” said Kevin.
For their efforts in conservation, woodland and wildlife management, and their willingness to share their land and outdoor experiences with others, the Riesters, (and their family and friends!) embody all that the American Tree Farm program represents. Congratulations, John and Vicki!
Sit for a while at the kitchen table with Dale and Suzanne Rohlfing of rural Zumbro Falls and you’ll learn three things. First, they care passionately about their small corner of Minnesota woodlands and prairie grasses. Second, a sense of hospitality runs deep, and they see their home and surrounding acres as a gathering place to enjoy with friends and family. And last, don’t mess with their land. They’ve been known to out-organize and outlast some pretty big opponents.
“We wanted to raise our children in the Midwest, and we fell in love with this area while visiting,” said Suzanne. They moved to Rochester in 1986, working and raising their three children. Their dream of living in the country simmered on the back burner until a friend’s proposal came out of the blue.
“A client and friend of mine came to show me pictures of his property north of Rochester,” said Dale. “Cliff and Dorothy Laging loved this place and had poured a lot of time and energy into it. Over the years, they planted 17,500 red and white pine, spruce and black walnut seedlings. They had hoped to pass it on to their son, but Gregg was in a serious accident that eventually took his life.” The tragedy forced the Lagings to reevaluate their plans. “Cliff came right out and said, ‘Would you like to purchase my tree farm?’ I was speechless. He gave me the keys to the gate and told us to go take a walk.” That was all it took. The Rohlfings purchased the 50 acre site in 2002, continuing to live in Rochester and spending as much time as possible on their new found passion.
“It was definitely the honeymoon phase,” said Suzanne. “We were finally living our dream of owning forest land. We spent every moment we could up here, even though there wasn’t a structure on the property. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we sure enjoyed ourselves while we learned!”
The main focus during the first years was thinning and pruning to manage blister rust and open up the forest floor. Eventually, the couple started building a home, moving permanently to the property in 2014. “We are so much more thoughtful in our impact, and hopefully, we’re making more intelligent decisions,” said Suzanne. She now gravitates to the pruning and thinning of black walnut, while Dale tends towards work in the pine stands. Trees aren’t their only focus, though.
“We have about 10 acres of prairie that we’re working to restore,” said Suzanne. “We recognized some of the plants that were here, but decided to bring in an expert to identify what we had. There are 28 species of native prairie plants, and the challenge is to suppress the non-native and invasive species while helping the natives thrive. Once again, we found wonderful resources and experts to help with that process, including the MN DNR and Wabasha SWCD.”
In 2008, the Rohlfings faced a different kind of “invasive species.” Xcel Energy was making plans to run a west-east high voltage transmission line in the area, and one of the proposed routes came right through their land. Rather than give in, a group of neighbors organized to participate in the process. “We hired legal counsel and fundraised with raffles, polar plunges, even set up booths for hair braiding and massages.” The North Route Group attended hearing after hearing, wrote news releases and did radio and tv interviews. Ultimately, they were successful. “It was really grass-roots activism at its best,” said Dale. “We gave up a lot of tree farm time, but it was all worth it.” In the end, five tree farms were spared.
By Linda K. Dinkel, Editor
“Allemande left, do sa do! Swing your partner, ‘round she goes!”
The art of square dancing is in how smoothly a person moves with their partner, moves away from that partner, and then moves back once again to the home position. For Mary and Bill Bailey, that description is about more than the dance. It’s about life.
Initially, visits to the Mayo Clinic brought Mary and husband Leonard to this area. “We just fell in love with the land and planned to retire here, having found the ideal 58 acre piece of property in 1992,” said Mary. “We established hiking trails and installed bluebird boxes, and finally moved to Chatfield from Indiana in 2002. Sadly, Leonard died suddenly just 2 years after we moved here. It was just devastating. I considered selling and moving back near family. Instead, I got lots of help and good advice from neighbors and friends and realized I couldn’t leave here.”
For Bill, who lost his first wife to cancer in 2006, leaving the area was never a consideration. “My great-grandfather homesteaded near here in 1884. The land I farm now with my brother Steve was bought by my grandfather in 1917, passed to my dad, and then on to us. On our 2000 acres we raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and a 200-head cow-calf herd. We also have 300 acres of woods that we manage, along with some woods that the cows rotationally graze, though I never met a cow that was much of a forester,” quipped Bill.
Mary watched a demo square dance during a local town festival and contacted one of the dancers about lessons. “It seemed like a good, safe way to meet people and socialize.” It also happened to be a good way to meet a new partner for life. Bill and Mary were married in September, 2008, and continue to square dance three to four times per week. So, how does this match made on the square dance floor end up as the 2015 Minnesota Tree Farmers of the Year? It really began in Bill and Steve’s childhood.
The Baileys have hosted field days on their property and have a unique way to show the advantages of thinning. “One of my favorite things I’ve shown people is a wedge I cut from a basswood we harvested in 2014,” said Bill. The area around the tree was thinned in 1984 and again in 2000. Bill used colored pins to show the impact of thinning on growth rate. The first 35 years of growth resulted in 9% of the total volume of the tree. In the 16 years after thinning in 1984, the tree added 26% of its total volume. Fourteen years of growth from 2000 to 2014 resulted in 65% of the total volume. “Many woodland owners are missing out on a great opportunity if they don’t thin their stands,” said Bill. “You need to thin out that low-value tree in a timely manner to give your more valuable ones room to grow!” Even though Bill has a forestry background, he recommends building a relationship with a local forester. “DNR forester Jim Edgar has really helped us a lot with advice and expertise, and that would be even more important for someone new to forest management. It’s a good investment to find a reputable forester to oversee your timber sale.”
With chainsaws, tractors, a Finnish-built PTO winch and occasionally a rented skidder, Steve and Bill spend their winters in the woods, thinning and harvesting a wide variety of species: black walnut, hard maple, red, white and burr oak, red and gray elm, cherry, basswood, poplar, ash, hackberry and cottonwood. “Keeping the forest healthy is kind of like healthy eating,” said Steve Bailey. “No matter how good one food is, if you only eat that one, it’s not going to be healthy. That’s why we have lots of different tree species, because that’s more healthy.” Root River Hardwoods of Preston and Albert Lea, MN, grades and marks the logs for length, with most of them going to local Amish sawmills for pallet production. Premium logs are used for veneer, flooring, barrel staves, and finish wood sold in commercial stores.
By the way, any article about the Baileys would be remiss if it didn’t mention two other things. First, a large portion of the six-mile Lost Creek Hiking Trail meanders through their land. Opened in October of 2011, the trail is maintained by the Bluff Country Hiking Club, and the Bailey’s cooperation and enthusiasm was crucial to the success of the project. Complete with educational signs, the trail is a wonderful marriage of recreation and forest education. Second, there’s this thing about Mary and bluebirds. For more information on that, see the article on the Bluebird Recovery Program in this issue.
For their efforts in conservation, public education, forest improvement, and making their woodlands available to the public for recreational activities, Steve Bailey, and Bill and Mary Bailey are certainly worthy recipients of the Tree Farmer of the Year award and an inspiration to all woodland owners.
By Linda K. Dinkel, Editor
If you stand in the middle of Peter and Debra Jensen’s land just west of Princeton, on and rotate in a slow circle, you don’t have to turn very far before your eyes fall upon another work in progress. Right beside the huge firewood pile is a mortise and tenon shed under construction, rising up next to the portable sawmill, which sits next to a solar kiln, which overlooks an octagon-shaped yurt in the pasture with the donkeys. A walk in the woods would take you past carefully logged forests replanted, direct seeded or regenerating on their own, ongoing battles against buckthorn and oak wilt, and a prairie restoration project. With Peter just retiring this past June from his medical practice, one can only imagine what projects will be next!
“The first time I saw this land, I was canoeing the creek with the owner, Jack Grill (sp?). I just thought it was an incredibly beautiful piece of property, and I let Jack know I would be interested in it if they were ever ready to sell. Jack and Dorothy really didn’t want to see the land developed even though they were approached numerous times. In 1990, we bought the first 80-acre parcel and built our home,” said Peter. Over the next 10 years, Peter and Debra bought the remaining 110 acres, developing a close relationship with Dorothy Grill, especially after Jack passed away. “Dorothy is still a part of this property,” said Debra. “It’s been fun to share with her what new projects we’ve undertaken on the land that she and Jack loved.”
New projects, indeed. After building their home and settling in, the Jensens spent some years enjoying the land and learning about what they had. Much of the focus for the beginning phases of work was laid out in their first land stewardship completed 12 years ago. “The Grills had planted 20 acres in mixed pines in the late ‘50s, and it needed work. We pruned and thinned, and seven years ago, hired loggers to clear-cut the stand of scotch pine. “We’re amazed how the birch have regenerated in the clear-cut,” said Peter. “It’s really becoming a beautiful woods without much input from us.” In fact, while they did plant over 10,000 Norway and white pine seedlings in 2001, Peter has become a huge fan of regeneration and direct seeding as opposed to planting bare rootstock. “If I fill out a tree order now, I try to cut it in half when I get to the end. My plans are always bigger than my time and energy, and for the investment, it just doesn’t seem worth it. There are other ways to regrow trees.”
In 2014, Jensens worked with Sherburne County Resource Conservationist Gina Hugo to write up a new Forest Stewardship Plan. “There is significant oak wilt in the area and that’s a huge management challenge as the Jensens have large stands of red, white and burr oak,” said Gina. This fall, loggers have been selectively harvesting oak to increase spacing in hopes of slowing the progress of the disease. Everything from the harvest is sold as firewood or mulch.
While three of Debra’s four children have moved west in recent years, Luke has found a broad canvas on the land for his varied interests. “Luke is behind the yurt, the solar kiln and the mortis and tenon shed,” said Debra. “He loves to read and research new projects, teach himself any skills he might need, and then build something new. Most of the building projects you see here are Luke’s brainchild.” While Peter enjoys these new endeavors, his focus tends toward the more typical pursuits. “Cutting firewood is my main form of mental health maintenance. It’s straightforward, mindless work that I enjoy.”
According to Gina Hugo, the Jensens have been a joy to work with. “Peter and Debra are genuinely kind people and are so rewarding for me to work with,” said Hugo. “They are motivated by the simple pleasures that sustainably working their land brings, and have taken steps to preserve their legacy by enrolling a significant portion of their property in the Minnesota Land Trust.”
Talking to Peter, he easily sums up their views of land stewardship. “I know that I won’t see these white pine become lumber, but someone has to plant them and tend them. Someone has to take care of today’s forests for tomorrow.”
By Linda K. Dinkel, Editor
Take equal parts physicist and science teacher. Place in a beaker marked “retirement”, shake vigorously and release on 160 acres of Minnesota farmland. Stand back…at a safe distance, in fact…because this is not your grandparents’ idea of retirement.
David and Carole Cartwrights both grew up in the Twin Cities area, but work took them far afield. After living for a time in California, David spent many years working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as a physicist, (he is quick to point out that he never worked on weaponry). Carole taught junior and senior high science and operated a pre-school in Los Alamos while raising their 3 children. When retirement time came in 2003, they had already laid the groundwork for moving to 174 acres they had purchased in Oregon. Before they could make the move, however, Carole found herself the inheritor of her grandparents’ farm on the north-shore of East Rush Lake. It’s beautiful country, with rolling hills gently sloping to the lake and abundant wildlife. After weighing their options, they sold the Washington acres and started making plans.
Of course, with two science-minded retirees, one shouldn’t be surprised that “growing trees” means more than just putting some seedlings in the ground. In fact, on visiting the Cartwrights, one immediately senses the exceptional team they make, with the intensity of Dave’s passion for experimenting, the down-to earth (literally) satisfaction that Carole gets from working the land, and enjoyment they both get from working closely together. It’s obvious that they’re equal partners in the work of bringing their plans and dreams to fruition.
One of the Cartwright’s ongoing experiments focuses on tree zone hardiness. “Zone hardiness is a ‘bell-shaped’ curve,” said David. “Trees at the upper end of the curve will survive in colder climates while those in the lower end won’t. I’m experimenting with a variety of trees to see which ones will survive here and which ones won’t. I want to know by empirical evidence that a given species of tree can or can’t grow on our farm.” To that end, they’ve collected seeds in Oregon and North Carolina that are then germinated in their sun room and planted in the spring. “We started growing Allegheny Black Cherry here on our farm in 2007. Our conclusion is it grows very well in Minnesota!” You can also find Persian Walnut, Shagbark Hickory, Shellbark Hickory, Grimo Hazelnuts, butternut and hybrid butternut, all pushing the zone hardiness on the gentle slopes and fields of the farm. In addition to these experimental trees, Dave and Carol also plant trees more common to Minnesota. In all, they’ve planet over 22,000 trees since 2004. And yes, a few Ponderosa pine can be found on the Cartwright’s spread.
Like so many woodland owners, they’ve had their fair share of battles with the likes of buckthorn, Asiatic bittersweet vine and ironwood. However, their war on prickly ash came to an abrupt halt after a meeting with Olaf Runquist, professor of Organic Chemistry at Hamline University. “Runquist told us to stop killing prickly ash because it has medicinal properties,” said David. “It intrigued me so much that I knew I had to start my own experiments.” To make a tincture of prickly ash, David cuts the stem and branches into 12 inch sections and then into 1 inch pieces, peels the bark, and packs it into quart jars. He covers the bark with vodka and lets it sit in a cool, dark place for 10 to 14 days, shaking it every one to two days. The mixture is pressed and filtered, then stored in a dark jar for up to two years. The tincture is used topically. “What prickly ash does, very effectively, is dilate capillaries and increase circulation to remove ‘poisons’ from sore muscles and joints.” He’s anxious to see the results of prickly ash experiments being conducted this fall at Hamline.
The Cartwrights will continue to experiment with all things “trees”. They enjoy applying their first careers as scientists in a beautiful setting with a long family history. And for what purpose? “We look at this farm as a long-term investment that goes far beyond David and me living here” said Carole. “We’re concerned that the land remains undeveloped.” To that end, the Cartwrights are looking into the Conservation Easement program.
With their vision, enthusiasm, and work ethic, their retirement keeps them busier than ever, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Life has a funny way of taking you down paths you don’t plan nor expect. “I grew up in south Minneapolis and, at the time, didn’t like talking to people much,” recalled Carl Wegner of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “We owned a lake place in Wisconsin where my dad taught me to hunt and fish and just spend time in the woods. In high school, I started thinking that a career in forestry was pretty appealing because I would be surrounded by trees, not people.” Well…at least he got the career part right.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1964 with a degree in Forestry, Carl was hired by the North Central Experimental Station in Grand Rapids to teach their 6-month Forestry Tech program. “Here I was, a guy who didn’t want to talk to people, standing in front of a classroom full of students teaching them to be Forestry Technicians. Needless to say, after 12 years of that, I became a lot more comfortable talking to people.” By 1967, Carl was in a joint position, continuing to teach classes as well as becoming the Itasca County Extension Forester where he worked on Tree Farm management plans, held logging and maple syrup workshops, and supervised the Christmas Tree Growers educational programs.
“At some point, one of the Christmas tree growers asked me, ‘How can you teach us about growing Christmas trees if you don’t grow them yourself?’ And that’s how I got in to growing Christmas trees.”
In 1970, Carl entered a partnership with Hugh Beaumont (yes, of Leave it to Beaver fame) who owned an active Christmas Tree farm in the area. They sold their first trees in 1972. By 1979, Carl and wife Jillaine purchased the 140 acre farm and never looked back. “When we started, we followed the most current specifications. In the 1970s, that meant 6 by 6 foot spacing. Now we know that’s way too narrow, but once you start an area with a certain spacing, you’re pretty much stuck with it,” said Carl.
While many practices have come and gone over the years, the love of tree farming is a constant along with an ever-present interest in improving his product by pursuing a better Christmas tree. “Bill Sayward at Itasca Green House used to live on the east coast and was instrumental in creating a system of critiquing trees for the best Christmas tree characteristics. When he moved to Minnesota, he brought that expertise with him. In 1988, I attended the National Christmas Tree Growers convention in New Hampshire where I first saw the New Hampshire blue balsam. I purchased 1000 seedlings and brought them back here to plant. Working with Bill, we’ve saved the best trees from that planting for taking scions for grafting to other root stock and for collecting seed,” said Carl.
Every August 15th finds Carl at his New Hampshire Blues, testing their cones for harvest. “By squeezing the cones and listening, you can tell how close they are to being ready.” When the sound it right, which Carl describes as a dry, squeaky sound, he picks the cones and places them on burlap in the shop where they continue the dry down process. Once they’re ready, he places a screen over a 5-gallon pail and rolls the cones, collecting the seeds in the pail.
“In mid-October, I broadcast seed the bed, and in spring we put a shade tunnel over them. They grow there for three years before I transplant them to another bed with more space to grow for another two years,” said Carl. After 5 years or more, the seedlings are ready for the field. “During planting season, I dig enough seedlings for planting the next day, trim the roots, and eliminate multiple tops. The next morning they’re ready to be put in the ground,” said Carl. Besides the blue balsam grown on site, Wegner orders other varieties of conifers from the DNR. Son Eric also works in the operation along with one other employee, taking care of most of the planting, shearing, harvesting and marketing. Currently, they have 50 acres in Christmas trees, selling around 2,500 trees per year in northwestern Minnesota, Duluth, the Twin Cities, and eastern North Dakota.
Wegner continues to use his forestry and educational background in various ways, including field days at their farm featuring sawmill clinics and Christmas tree workshops, and in 2005, hosting the National Exotic Conifer Conference.
Though retired from Extension work in 1997, Carl has yet to slow down. In May of this year, he was recognized as the northern region Tree Farmer of the Year. He laments the fact that few young people are going in to the Christmas tree growing business. “The market is good and there are a lot of opportunites for Christmas tree growers, but there isn’t a lot of new blood getting in to it. For one thing, you have to have the land, and it’s just too expensive if you don’t already have it in the family. For another, it’s pretty labor intensive. You have to be willing to work hard and want to be around trees, just like I did as a kid.”
Since retirement, Carl has come full circle and now spends much more time surrounded by trees than by people. He certainly seems to be comfortable in both environments, but you won’t hear him complain that he’s finally living out the job description he planned on over 50 years ago.
One can’t help but feel a warm welcome when walking into Jim and Linda Mielke’s home just outside of Center City, Minnesota. Part of it comes from the home-harvested wood that lines the walls and forms its cabinets and furniture. Part of it is the earth-sheltered home they built, nestled against a south-facing slope. But underneath it all is Jim and Linda themselves and the vision and stewardship they’ve poured into the woods surrounding their home. Like so many MFA members, the passion for trees and working with wood started long before they bought their own land. For Jim, it started in his dad’s workshop.“My Dad taught high school biology and horticulture and had a large green house, so he certainly played a part in planting an interest in me for things that grow. But it was his wood working skills that really caught my attention. He built our entire staircase at home, turning every spindle himself.” As a youngster, Jim spent a lot of time in his dad’s shop, cultivating a love for woodworking.
Years later, when Jim and Linda found themselves employed by the North Branch school district, they looked for a wooded acreage to set up a home and raise their family. They found an ideal spot with 13 acres of red and white oak, maple, basswood and ash, eventually purchasing adjacent land that brought their total land to just under 20 acres.
“We built the house in 1978 and then spent a number of years finishing the inside,” said Linda. By the early 80’s, they had their first forest management plan written up and began harvesting the mature red and white oak trees and sawed them on their first sawmill. Jim remembers cutting a 16’ and 14’ log from one huge, red oak whose boards now enclose the beams in their open living room. “It took two tractors just to load them up on the hay wagon,” said Jim. During this time, the Mielkes and their sons Aaron and Curt set up a road side stand, selling firewood to the people visiting Wild River State Park.
Jim spent many hours finishing their home in the lumber from their woods, using figured hard maple to build the drawers in their dining room hutch, and green ash and red oak in the two bedrooms’ closets and furnishings. The centerpiece of their home is a beautiful maple table and 6 chairs, all built by Jim. “Each chair has 28 mortise and tenon joints. It took years to finish them.”
In the late 80’s the Mielkes purchased an hydraulic Woodmizer and also built a kiln from a pattern found in American Woodworker. They continued to harvest and sell lumber to other carpenters and wood workers. But of course, the work of forest management continues. “The understory species of maple and basswood took off a little too much after we harvested the mature oaks and opened up the canopy. Unfortunately, so did the buckthorn. I harvest a few basswood every year for carving, and we’re working to re-establish the oaks. The buckthorn is an on-going battle.”
Just because you inherit land, doesn’t mean you’ll inherit a love for it. Fortunately, Peggy Meseroll’s father, Ray Maki, was adept at passing on both, and his legacy lives on through his children.
“I remember playing in the woods when I was a kid, and that’s where my love for trees started,” Peggy reminisced. “All of us kids spent time in the woods helping Dad make firewood for an indoor wood stove and a sauna we had in the basement.”
Ray and Katharine Maki bought a 120-acre farm outside of Esko in northeastern Minnesota in 1946, adding to it over the years. After several years as a small dairy farmer and beef producer, Ray went to work full time off the farm in the late 60’s. “Dad had raised oats and hay for feed, and he didn’t want the fields to go to brush. That’s when he started getting trees from General Andrews Nursery. He planted thousands of trees every year, mostly red pine, with some spruce and fir, too, depending on the terrain.”
As a welder/pipefitter for Conoco with a flair for inventing, Maki put his skills to use in his reforestation plan. “Dad put a tree planter on the back of our tractor that us kids sat in, planting thousands of seedlings. To combat weed pressure, he invented and welded his own stainless steel attachment for the front of the tractor that applied herbicide on either side of the seedlings.” The newly planted trees got a head start on the competition, and Maki’s invention went on to be used by other tree planters.
When her folks passed away, Peggy and siblings Scott and Mary put the land in an LLC. “Each of us live on a piece of the original farm. I joined MFA in 2008 and contacted the DNR to set up a new forest management plan. In 2013 we started implementing part of the plan with some thinning in one 40 acre plot, and a clear cut in part of another 40. This year we worked with Jan Bernu, a private forester I met through the Woman’s Woodland Association. Jan helped us contract with Bell Timber to selectively harvest red pines for utility poles in two other 40-acre sites.”
Asked what advice she might like to pass on to others, Peggy was quick to respond. “I get a lot of good information from the meetings I go to and the publications I read, but I don’t have much time to share it with my siblings. There are things we could do to manage our land better. Our first priority should be to talk with all of our own children about their interests in the land so we can start making plans for the future. Hopefully, we can pass on my dad’s dream and hard work to the next generation.”
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