Timber Farms in North Carolina: Growing and Sustaining our Forests

Farming comes naturally to North Carolinians today as it has for centuries.  When European settlers wrote home to describe what they saw throughout the territory that was to become North Carolina, it is easy to see why they chose the words, “The Goodliest Land.”

Land in North Carolina is fertile across much of the diverse geography, thanks to the climate, topography, and of course lots of rivers and streams to move minerals right where they are needed.  Because of our state’s beautiful terrain, we are also able to enjoy its rich and diverse forest lands.

Foresters have also enjoyed the state’s tree plantations for many generations.  Growing trees for a living may not sound glamorous or even possible, but the timber business is big business for North Carolina.  There are several organizations dedicated to the business, the preservation, and the scientific study of our timber resources.

According to the North Carolina Forestry Association, the state’s private land owners represent nearly 85 percent of the state’s 18.6 million acres of forestland. Our forests are known to be a rich resource for the construction, paper, chemical and non-petroleum fuel industries, but what most intrigues researchers is the value of natural and plantation forests for their medicinal potential, air quality contribution, and habitat for wildlife of all descriptions.   Leasing out timber land to others for hunting clubs or mineral rights is another potential means to a business end.  Whether you are interested in selling the real estate, selling the trees and replanting, preserving forests as habitat, or leasing out the hunting or mineral rights, you will find your business kindred spirit in the NC Forestry Association.

It’s no secret that North Carolina is a great place to live, and it’s no secret people are moving here in large numbers.  Over the last three years, North Carolina has added more than 300,000 people, and more than 55% of them have moved here from other states or even other countries, according to UNC Chapel Hill’s statistical clearinghouse called the Carolina Population Center.  With all the people moving to the state, there are growing concerns about preserving and conserving the land and its resources, including timber resources.  Add to that global warming concerns, political change, and deforestation across the world, North Carolinians are proactively implementing strategies to protect this land, its resources, and its value.  Several organizations exist, including the NC Wildlife Habitat Foundation, the Triangle Land Conservancy, the North Carolina Forestry Association, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.  These and other organizations provide many ways to get involved regarding your own land or timber farm.

Many timberland owners are individuals, owning only one parcel – often the family farm or ancestral homestead.  However, one of the most effective ways of creating sustainable forests – and cash flow – is through the ownership of several different tracts, not too far apart from each other, for some really good reasons.  Spreading out your parcel purchases, harvests, and operations on a scheduled rotation can make for a smoother, more consistent income plan.  Mitigating your risks from weather damage, fire, or disease is another reason to own multiple tracts of timber.  Controlling tax impacts and wise estate planning are also reasons for considering owning multiple parcels.

Start with a plan.  Identify your choicest locations for land ownership based on your personal values, not just the obvious stands of timber.  Is it an easy drive you value?  Quality of the view?  Resale value of cut timberland?  Proximity to major bodies of water or rivers?  Once you’ve decided how you evaluate quality land tracts, you can then start to dig deeper.

Do the research.  Land may be least expensive in XYZ County, but is it because the timber doesn’t grow as well, or that disease, hurricanes and tornadoes have destroyed significant stands?  If you harvest timber off a tract, where’s the closest mill, and what are the transportation costs?  Do you want the additional work of being manager of your own maintenance and even logging crew, or do you want to simply broker that out?  Many successful tree farmers are multifaceted and perform these services themselves; others seek out the professional forester to assist.  If you want to “farm out” that work, is there a significant cost differential between locations?  If so, add those factors into your plan.  Consider tax implications for your age group, income level, and long term vs. short term holdings.  It is imperative to research thoroughly your options.  See the links to the various organizations above and delve into their rich statistical resources to make intelligent investment decisions.

Map out your plan.  Identify a series of potential locations where you would like to invest in timber land and start finding parcels which match your criteria.  Hiring a real estate broker for this can save you countless hours of searching.  Start looking at the parcels that best suit your criteria.  Consider getting timber appraisals on parcels which are currently wooded.  Equally important, if you are selling your timber farm, identify potential investments into which to roll your sale.  Again, a broker can help you with this process.

Implement your plan.  Pull the trigger and put in your offers.  Get busy doing your due diligence – soils tests, historical weather data, land sales and timber sales.  Select your parcels and purchase.  Strap on your overalls – or hire your manager – and get busy with the timber farm business.

North Carolina can be such a rewarding place to live and work, but not all our work is done within the four walls of a cube farm.  Some work is reserved for the wise timber farmer, making a living with their investment in the great outdoors.  Quite literally, you could indeed have it “made in the shade.”