Tree grower honored for teaching farming techniques

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Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Bobby Watkins at his Coontail Farm where he grows timber.

ABERDEEN — At the end of a long, curving driveway lined by tall pine trees just outside Aberdeen city limits, lives one of the United States’ best tree farmers and the Mississippi Forestry Association’s Tree Farmer of the Year, Bobby Watkins.

Watkins’s grandfather bought the land where Coontail Farms sits shortly after World War II. He passed it onto Watkins’s mother, who then passed it to him. In the mid-1980s, Watkins ditched traditional farming of cotton, corn, and soybeans and began tree farming because of the condition of the land.

“It’s not one of the best farms; it’s a highly erodible cropping system,” Watkins said. “The government had something called CRP, Conservation Reserve Program, that allowed you, and actually helped pay, to plant the trees to help you convert the poor farm land into highly profitable timberland.”

Since that time, in the mid-1980s, Watkins has become a Certified Tree Farmer, and his style of farm has gained him some attention. As a part of the American Tree Farm System, sustainable forest management and community involvement are key. John Kushla, a Mississippi State University Extension forestry specialist, says Watkins does both exceptionally well.

“What makes his farm special is that Bobby has demonstrations of what different forestry practices will do,” Kushla said. “He has used these outdoor demonstrations to teach sustainable forestry to his neighbors.”

That’s what led to Watkins becoming Mississippi’s Tree Farmer of the Year in 2015 and, later, the South regional Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year.

Tree farmers like Watkins are important to Mississippi because, along with other forms of agriculture, forestry contributes greatly to the state’s economy. In an analysis by Mississippi State University Extension Service, agriculture and forestry accounts for more than 18 percent of jobs in the state and the total value-added of the two industries tops $6 billion.

“They’re actually very important. Nationwide, most of our raw materials are owned by tree farmers such as Mr. Watkins,” said Kushla.

Kushla added that in the Southeast the number of private citizens that contribute to the production of raw goods is even higher, with nearly two-thirds coming from private citizens.

Still, according to Kushla, the forestry industry could do better in the state. Tree farms have a lot of inventory because of lack of demand in recent years.

“One thing that has happened as a result of the recession, and because so many of our land owners that own commercial forests are private, they haven’t been selling that timber,” Kushla said. “Short term, that is OK because that’s one of the flexibilities forest land owners have when owning timber. It’s money in the bank, and if they don’t need that money then they don’t need to be selling that timber.”

Also, in places like the Mississippi Delta, lack of infrastructure prevents new mills from being built, according to Kushla. Those mills are crucial for farmers to start selling off more of their tree inventory.

“Some of it is with infrastructure, I know in Northwest Mississippi, they’re reconnecting a rail line from Canton up to Memphis,” said Kushla “which should be a big help, because one reason industries gave about not moving into that part of the state was the lack of rail service.”

Bobby Watkins at his Coontail Farm where he grows timber.

Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Bobby Watkins at his Coontail Farm where he grows timber.

Tree farming can mean a lot of money per acre that compounds over the years depending on market value.

“A lot of people say we’re generating between $60 (and) $100 per year per acre in tree growth,” Watkins said. “That’s a very profitable long-term thing, so in 10 years you’ll have about $600 to $1,000 worth of fiber grown there. In 20 years, double that. It’s real money there, and it’s well worth managing.”

Watkins hasn’t thinned, or cut down select weaker trees for about five years. Even though his farm has gotten some national recognition, in those five years he’s had some difficulties selling his pine timber that makes up 100 of his more than 200-acre farm.

“Pine timber is depressed. They’re not taking a lot of pine timber,” Watkins said, “so you have to kind of wait out that market cycle, and so there is some challenges on deciding when to cut and not to cut.”