Landowner finds value in tree application

22Charles City County ‘s population today is only about 1,500 more than it was when our country gained its independence in 1776.  It is still a county that has as its border the historic James River, and an economic foundation grounded in agriculture and forestry.

One of many farms that populate the historic land in Charles City is located near Bachelor’s Point – an area roughly equal-distant between Richmond and Williamsburg on historic U.S. Route 5.  The farm is owned and managed by William Tyler, great grandson of one of two U.S. Presidents born in Charles City County, President John Tyler.

It consists of roughly 3,000 acres of a typical eastern Virginia forest, hardwoods of varying species and pine that’s been planted through the years for its value to the saw timber and pulp market.  Tyler’s forest is actively and sustainably managed for its value to the broader forest ecosystem, the forest products industry and to hunters.  Tyler says the land has been in the family “forever.” He manages another 1,000 acres in King William County.

What is not so unique about Mr. Tyler, though, is his enduring and relatively recent passionate and enthusiastic support about the use of biosolids as a soil nutrient and fertilizer for his loblolly pine forests. It began with a recent biosolids application in 2014.

“I was walking through our woods with our consulting forester and mentioned to him that the trees should be a lot taller.  The trees were planted in 1997.  I noticed they were big in the base with skinny tops – certainly not ideal for any market,” Tyler said.  “We tested the soil and discovered it had very little Phosphorous, so there was a reason the trees just were not gaining height.”

In fact, the soil test revealed a pH of 4.5 with very low levels of Phosphorous.

The property he manages was heavily forested during the Civil War, most likely during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, when Union Gen. George McClellan drove his troops toward Richmond.  Sherwood Forest, home of President Tyler, was damaged by occupying troops’ during that campaign.

At the time, Tyler was aware of biosolids applications on plantations in other areas of the southeast, and contacted Nutri-Blend, which is headquartered nearby in Henrico County and applied biosolids to row crops at his farm in King William County – choosing to investigate other options versus a very expensive application of commercial fertilizer.

The actual application on his trees occurred throughout the late spring, into summer and then through the fall of 2014, following the development of a unique piece of mechanical equipment made specifically to apply biosolids. “We initially applied biosolids to about 900 acres, and in our area we were one of the first tree farms to do an application.

“We applied material from DC Water, and while it might smell a little during and not too soon after application, after a short while there was no smell and the material that would stick to the trees would break off easily and smell more or less like dirt.”  He indicated there was no issue with odor, and he did not get any complaints from his neighbors.  His friends, who also managed their own forests, were more curious – not about biosolids but about its impact to the health and value of  Tyler’s forest.

The spreading rate for the biosolids was 200 pounds/acre of Plant Available Nitrogen (PAN), a rate researched by the state’s Department of Forestry (Comparing Biosolids to Traditional Fertilizers for Loblolly Pine – Age 7 Update) to achieve approximately a 30 percent increase in volume. That rate is also referenced in the state’s Nutrient Management Standards and Criteria, a program overseen by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Soil and Water Conservation.

What happened following the application was significant, according to Tyler. “Stuff grew like wildfire.  We had exponential and new growth in an understory that wasn’t there before (the application), and our trees grew rapidly,” he said.  And there were other benefits.

A forest understory is that underlying layer of vegetation in a forest or wooded area growing between the canopy of a forest and the forest floor.  It typically is comprised of bushes, shrubs and seedlings. It’s the forest understory that attracts wildlife.

This brings Mr. Tyler to the second part of his enthusiastic story.

“So essentially we got healthier, bigger trees and a better understory,” he said.  Before the application there was very little wildlife in his loblolly pine forests, which had a great deal to do with the lack of vegetation. “The application not only grew our trees, but it grew our deer and turkey populations too – in fact our forests have become a breeding ground for deer and turkey.”

Tyler manages his forest for multiple uses, and so in addition to managing for ecosystem health and market value, he also leases land to hunt clubs.  The new understory, which resulted in an increased wildlife population, created an unexpected income. Land that previously was only marginally hunted became prime hunting land. “I was able to more than double the price per acre I charged hunters – it’s a market-based price that was created by the improved health of our trees and our understory,” he said.

Biosolids, Tyler enthusiastically says, fuels the income of a portion of our forest that was previously just lagging – in health and in projected revenue. “With the growth that we’ve seen we’re now able to sell into a competitive marketplace – and we expect to get top dollar for the trees that we harvest that we couldn’t before we began our biosolids application,” he said.

The more interesting aspect, he said, since the use of biosolids does have its occasional detractors, is the reaction of his neighbors in Charles City County.  “They are totally sold on biosolids, since they have watched with great interest the growth and development of the trees that have received the application, and seen the overall improvement of the health of our pine forests,” he said.

It’s why he is such a believer in biosolids.  “it works – and well – and I am a huge enthusiast,” he said.