There’s nothing really new under the Attala County sun – which has risen and set 50,000 times since the farm has been in the family for 135 years.
As I walk a hillside to inspect the harvesting, the earth vibrates in my bones and stirs my soul, which, I discover a couple of days later, has been invaded by an unholy host of chiggers. The little devils are a reminder of my brother and me roaming these hills in the summers when our parents turned us loose in paradise.
Trees are just another crop on the old place, though one with a very long growing cycle.
They fall in the historical line of fields of cotton and corn, and patches of sugar cane, peanuts, watermelons and sweet potatoes.
They have taken over pastures where cattle had grazed, and mules and oxen moseyed when they weren’t in harness or yoke.
Pulling back the curtain of trees reveals what appear to be copses, clumps of fruit and maple trees that indicate domesticity, where people lived in small houses as they eked out an existence working the land under the indifferent and thus at times merciless sun.
Now I feel like I am a farmer, in a manner of speaking, joining a long line of farmers.
Tree farming is hardly labor intensive, and farming in general is much less labor intensive than in the not too distant past.
Tree harvesting is beyond manual labor. Monster machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each have taken over, and made forestry a major player in the Mississippi agriculture.
It accounted for $1.2 billion of the state’s $7.5 billion agricultural economy last year.
Unengineered native trees of every imaginable variety took over the farm after plow and mule were put to rest 60 years ago.
(My grandfather and his brother and business partner, “Boss,” farmed 1,000 acres but never mechanized. My grandfather was faced with taking the next logical step in agriculture, but decided: why invest in the future when my only son majored in business at State and took a job in the city?)
Eighteen years is a bit longer than the average, but there was a reason for that. The marketplace.
Small operations are dictated by the local markets – pine prices are like politics. They’re all local. A year ago, pulpwood – which is most of a first cut – was going for $1 or $2 a ton in these parts, if it was going at all.
Now it has risen to several times the middle of that range, thanks to the slow recovery of the national marketplace.
Next comes two five-year plans for us. Another thinning, then a clear-cut, followed by replanting. It is, indeed, a renewable resource.
As Barry Dismukes, co-owner of Vaiden Timber Co., leads me on a tour, he shows me the strategy of getting the wood out.
On the northeast quadrant, corridors are being cut from the road, which splits the property into three parts, all the way to Hosspen Creek, the eastern boundary of the land.
These lanes allow the crew to reach the right trees, the smaller or less desirable ones with forks or disease that won’t let them mature into good specimens. Tree farming is like a beauty contest.
The crop is beginning to look more like woods rather than thickets, though the latter in this case are not like nature’s way, in which the pines propagate themselves and get “thick as dog’s hair,” as Dismukes put it.
This is my kind of farming. Sit back and let ‘em grow. Of course, it has its own risks. Lose one of these crops – through the Southern pine beetle, fire or tornado and you’re looking at a long row to hoe.
One that you might not finish in your lifetime.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.
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