The Magazine of South Carolina

Good Wood
Money Grows on Trees for Farmers


   Prescribed burning

Waterfowl at Cypress Bay Plantation

Carnivorous hooded pitcher plants

False garlic

Cypress trees

By Daniel E. Harmon; Photos by Gail Burris

Young Charlie Burris was amused and amazed. Why did his Beaufort friends and their parents have so much trouble lighting fireplaces? His own family always started with splinters split from an old log in the woods at their Hampton County tree farm. One match. By the time the lighter wood was spent, the logs on the grate had caught flame. Never failed.

For Christmas gifts several years ago, Charlie tied a few bundles of lighter slivers in ribbons and gave them to his friends. They were the hit of the neighborhood. Word spread. Today, Charlie’s One-Match All Natural Firestarter is literally a "hot" product. The 14-year-old entrepreneur bundles pencil-size lighter sticks by the pound in plastic bags (to retain the resin scent) and sells them both locally and, via mail-order, internationally.

Dr. A.G. "Skeet" and Gail Burris are delighted that their youngest son has found yet another practical use for their treasured woodlands. Their 1,100-acre Cypress Bay Plantation, which they’ve nurtured lovingly since 1986 outside Cummings, earned them the National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year title for 2000 from the American Tree Farm System. That’s no small honor, considering there are an estimated 67,000 tree farms in the United States. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton named Skeet, an orthodontist by profession, 2001 Private Conservationist of the Year for the wetlands restoration at Cypress Bay and for the family’s efforts to create and maintain habitat for wildlife, particularly wood ducks and other waterfowl.

A diverse rural paradise, Cypress Bay is toured frequently by conservation groups and attracts video crews producing both documentaries (SC-ETV and ESPN have been here) and commercial projects. Meanwhile, it yields fair profits in both pine and hardwood sales. The Low Country acreage is a showcase of South Carolina woodlands, demonstrating many of the tree varieties that do well here and the spirit of natural stewardship that typifies this breed of farmer.

Wood is good. It provides housing and storage structures. It provides the raw material with which crafters shape and construct beautiful furniture and breathtaking works of art. It provides the pages for this magazine and the newspapers you read. It provides winter fuel - including the fire-starting material for which Charlie Burris has found such an eager market.

It’s certainly good business for South Carolina. Timber is one of the state’s leading cash crops, reports Gary Spires, state legislative coordinator with the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. The Palmetto State’s 12.5 million acres of commercial forests (more than twice the acreage of all other crops combined) bring more than $650 million annually. And, he points out, "there are more forest acres in South Carolina today than there were 50 years ago."

About 45 percent of our commercial tree stands are pines: loblolly—the most common—as well as short-leaf, long-leaf and slash. Another 40 percent are hardwoods: oak, gum, maple, ash, poplar and other varieties. The rest of the state’s timber harvest comes from mixed stands.

Most harvested timberland is owned by individuals, not paper companies or government entities. "If you ask who owns the biggest tree farm in terms of acreage, it probably would be one of the paper companies," Spires says. "But 72 percent of the state’s commercial forests are privately owned."

By contrast, corporations own only 18 percent. The remainder is government land.

Private tree farms range from several acres to thousands. "I’ve harvested trees off of two acres," Spires says. "Some of these farmers own tens of thousands of acres. A hundred or 200 acres can generate significant income."

"It’s not something you would start today and get a return on next year," explains Charles O’Quinn, a forester and adviser in Kingstree and member of the SC Farm Bureau Federation board of directors representing Williamsburg County. Depending on your variety of trees, the return could begin with the first harvest in about 15 years. It’s basically an investment, much like the stock market - but perhaps more lucrative and secure. "The return on well-managed timberland," O’Quinn says, "is probably better than tobacco and cotton in good times."

Interestingly, the majority of the state’s harvestable timber acreage is in natural, not human-planted, stands, O’Quinn distinguishes. "Good management of natural stands can make them just as profitable as planted stands."

Good management is the key. "In forestry," says Gail Burris, "we have a renewable, natural product. We plant a ratio of about five trees to every tree harvested. So the forest industry in the United States is in excellent condition."

She and her husband bought 95 acres of abandoned "scrubland" and transformed it into the nucleus of Cypress Bay Plantation. In the past 15 years, they’ve bought more acreage and planted more than 100,000 trees. Most are loblolly pines; some are hardwoods. Part of their intention in choosing variety is to nurture the wildlife habitat. Deer, foxes and other furry critters commonly are seen around Cypress Bay, while sky-darkening flocks of waterfowl rise from the wetlands the family restored. "We built 16 ponds," Gail notes. "There was no water on the property." Natural plant life, once choked out by thick scrub growth, has returned in colorful splendor.

The Burrises drew up a five-point forest "pact" early in their project and got each of their five boys to sign it. Its tenets: restoration, conservation, preservation, education and perpetration. As they grew up, each youngster acquired not just outdoor skills but a deep appreciation of natural resources.

Tree farming is not without challenges and uncertainties. While drought has been the bane of all South Carolina farmers for the last three years, none take the problem more seriously than timber growers. One of the purposes of prescribed burns is to eliminate undergrowth that can fuel a forest fire for mile after raging mile.

Southern pine beetles are another dread. Growing from origin to adult in 30 days, they bore beneath the bark and leave behind a brown-needled corpse, rotting as it stands. "Beetles hit spots," O’Quinn says. "Overall across the state, they’re not a huge problem. Of course, if they hit your stand, it’s a major problem for you."

Knowing how and where to market a timber crop is as important as good management. Says O’Quinn: "Marketing is critical. If you don’t do a good job of marketing, the rest of it doesn’t matter. The timber market is extremely complicated, and if you’re not thoroughly familiar with it, you need to get some advice. It’s not a do-it-yourself thing."

Timber growers typically engage a consultant to bid out a tract to paper companies and other entities. "That’s the smart thing to do - try to get as many bids back as possible," Spires says.

Some of today’s tree farmers converted their land from other uses. "I used to farm tobacco," says Elmore Bellamy, an Horry County member of the Farm Bureau Federation’s Forestry Advisory Committee. "When I stopped with that, I had it set up in pines. I like to see pines grow."

Bellamy’s pines are 12 years old. He expects to harvest them in four years.

Christopher Blackwell’s family have harvested pines in Lancaster and Kershaw counties for three generations. In total, they presently own about 1,000 acres of loblolly and long-leaf stands. "It’s usually between 16 and 30 years between planting and harvesting the timber," Blackwell says. "Different plots are in different stages. We count on doing a big harvest about every 10 years."

Meanwhile, they earn money to pay for regular maintenance and upkeep by leasing the land to deer hunters.

Where do the trees go after they’re harvested? "The market for fiber, or pulp - your smaller trees - goes to paper," says Hodge Harmon of Newberry County, a retired area forester with the South Carolina Forestry Commission and chair of the Forestry Advisory Committee for the Farm Bureau Federation. "Some of the producers are Westvaco, International Paper Company, Willamette. Georgia Pacific has a plywood plant. And then you have numerous sawmills in the state. They take larger trees and saw them up into one-by-twos, -fours, -sixes, -eights and -tens. While they’re cutting these logs up, they send the chips to the pulp mill and the bark to a pulp mill or another mill. The entire log is utilized.

"With most of your hardwoods - oaks, gums, yellow poplar - the crooked ones end up as pulp. The straighter ones are used as lumber and furniture."

Uniquely functional while aesthetically pleasing, wood is a natural product whose health must be monitored and managed carefully in an expanding society. Forests provide a mainstay of the state’s agricultural economy. South Carolina tree farmers, in return, are good stewards.


This article is from the "Rural Lifestyle Series", made possible through a partnership between Sandlapper Society and the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.  SCFBF's mission is to promote agricultural interests in South Carolina and to optimize the lives of those involved in agriculture while being respectful to the needs and concerns of all citizens in our state.

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