Pining for the harvest: Tree farm offers benefits on paper and for environment

Though she’s been a farmer for more than a quarter of a century, Bessie Shockley has never produced crops for anyone to eat. But many people still use the end products of her farm every day. Shockley owns nearly 30 acres of tree farm located next door to Camp Barnes and the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to use your land if you don’t want to grow crops,” Shockley said.

Tree farming allowed Shockley to live her late husband’s dream of farming the Sussex County land he purchased in 1953 but never inhabited. Her father-in-law was a traditional farmer, but Shockley didn’t consider tree farming until around 1988.

“All of this land that you see now in trees was plowed land. It was cultivated in either soybeans or corn,” said Shockley, who moved to the area from New Castle County. “When I came down to live part-time … I could stand out here in the wintertime and watch the soil blow across, because there was nothing in the land. The crops were gone.”

After asking the state forestry service for advice, Shockley found herself with 17,000 loblolly pines and a small source of income.

“It’s a group of forest landowners that grow trees and, basically … they are good stewards of the land,” said Brian McDonald, who helps Shockley though the Delaware Forest Service. “She’s one of the more active landowners.”

The trees grow freely but not entirely wild. Shockley monitors their growth and gets forestry advice from the State.

Poison ivy and thorns dash along the forest floor, and “You’d be surprised how quickly the pines will seed themselves,” Shockley said.

“They start fighting as they get older, for some light and space,” said Todd Berman, Eastern Shore district manager for Glatfelter paper company, which harvests the trees for its products. “If nature just took its course, the trees would fall down and rot.”

Instead of the weak, crooked or beetle-infested trees just falling down among their neighbors, they are harvested usefully so the larger, healthier trees can continue without competition.

Glatfelter is based in York, Pa., but has operated on the Eastern Shore since the late 1960s. They completed a major thinning in 2010, removing a third to half of Shockley’s 400 to 600 trees per acre.

“It’s amazing to watch how they cut the trees,” said Shockley, describing how a three-person crew cut trees, trimmed off branches in a machine and loaded them onto a truck. “They did beautiful work.”

Once cut, the harvest travels to Glatfelter’s Delmar chipping facility, which can shred four tractor-trailer loads of trees per hour. The wood chips then zip up to a paper company in Spring Grove, Pa.

“We’re a specialty paper company that makes anything from Post-It notes to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers, Swiffer heads and playing cards,” said Berman. “So the final product is paper products.”

Those remaining trees in the forest will eventually become saw timber, treated to become decking, piers and docks.

Sussex County produces soft wood naturally, while upstate Delaware has hardwoods. Pine can be used within 17 to 19 years of its planting, which is “fairly fast in tree talk,” Berman said.

But the trees are more than a 25-year paper product. They’re grown for wildlife conservation, providing animals with shelter and purifying the air and water.

“I enjoy having them here. They’re beautiful, but I don’t go out there very often because of ticks,” Shockley admitted, noting that the wildlife visiting the land includes wild turkeys, deer and rabbits.

Although real estate is valuable in coastal Delaware, Shockley said she is pleased that the trees haven’t been cleared for development.

“You don’t do this to get rich. It has saved our land, and no one has asked to buy the property for building,” Shockley said.

That means more fresh air, cleaner water and thriving wildlife for everyone to enjoy.