Joe & Jean Crocker, Isanti

For Joe Crocker, 73 of Isanti, harvesting 35 cords of pine last winter was a highlight in an adventure. It began in the late 1970s when Joe and wife, Jean, mentioned in conversation that, “We should buy some land.” A short time later, a friend told Joe about 70 acres for sale near Isanti and the adventure began.

Joe and Jean had the land but no plan until a few years later when they said, “Maybe we should plant some trees.” Five years after that, 20,000 mostly red pines were in the ground. Those that the pocket gophers didn’t get are now ready for a second thinning, which Joe started this past winter.

For Joe, thinning his pines is a meticulous, one-tree-at-a-time process. He starts by selecting the individual trees to be taken, leaving the best ones to grow further. Almost all the trees he cuts get hung up on nearby trees so out comes the chain and come-along.

Once on the ground, limbs are removed and the trunk is skidded with his 35-horse John Deere tractor to a mini-landing, where it is cut into 100-inch lengths and sorted into three piles by size. The pile with the largest diameter wood will go for saw logs. The other two piles will go to a local log furniture maker whose business is so good he can’t get enough wood. He particularly likes the small diameter wood, down to 1-1/2 inches, for his furniture.

Working four to five hours per day, Joe says, “I was amazed at how much I was able to get done thanks to our great weather this past winter. Two more winters like this one and the second thinning will be completed. I’ll then do a third thinning in eight to 10 years and the best trees remaining will be left for future generations to enjoy.”

Joe spent the bulk of his career selling overhead hoists and cranes. Some were big units used in huge industrial plants. Others were smaller, used in auto repair shops. “I started out as an employee and then, in the late 1980s, had a chance to buy the company. I was very fortunate that, for the next few years, the American economy was doing very well. By 1998, two of my employees bought the company from me and Jean and I made plans to move from the Twin Cities to our Isanti County land.”

The first year and a half on their land was spent living in a garage as they build their new home. The home is a 40-foot square, two-story, energy efficiency building. The roof is timber frame made from second growth white pine. The walls are 10 inches of concrete. Facing south, the solar gain in winter is so strong that a small wood stove is all that is needed for heat.

The entire second floor of the house is used for Jean’s studio. There she does various kinds of artwork including painting with water colors and making decorative windows with stained glass.

The Crockers have four grown children and 10 grandchildren who live in Minnetonka, Brainerd, Seattle and Wakefield, Rhode Island. “We had the whole family here on one occasion,” Jean said, “and it was pretty crowded. More recently, we’ve had one or two of our children and their families at a time.”

Joe and Jean are serious about energy efficiency. They tried heating with solar panels on the roof but that didn’t work. Now they have one large panel that supplies their hot water and an array of solar panels installed out in the yard that supply up to 1/3rd of their electricity. In addition, Joe built a root cellar using 120 old truck tires and concrete where they store potatoes, carrots and other vegetables over the winter. They have a 500-gallon waste water treatment plant that does such a good job no mound system is needed. Then, Joe recently installed a geo-thermal system that will heat the house.

That casual conversation of some 40 years ago, when the decided they should look for some land, has resulted in a very happy retirement for Joe and Jean.