Timber sets — simply called the “woods” by most farm youngsters — are an integral aspect of country life. They offer wildlife habitat, firewood for heat, forage for animals, shade, wind protection and so much more. Often overlooked and thought of only in timber terms, there are multiple ways to create income from a small woodlot beyond selling saw logs. Read on and get the most from your wooded acres — be it for pasturing pigs or harvesting the occasional whitetail deer.
If your woodlot is loaded with briars, vines and overgrown understory, pasturing pigs will help clear the mess out so grasses or more beneficial trees and plants can be propagated. We pasture about four pigs per acre of woods, but with more grain and the right soil conditions, you can seasonally keep up to 25 pigs per acre, depending on breed size and other variables. Or if you have a sufficient area of mixed eastern hardwoods, you can let one pig roam three to four acres all summer and feed very little grain. Folks lucky enough to have an orchard (or one nearby) might consider allowing the pigs to keep the orchard grounds free of windfalls.
Grazing other livestock
While pigs are an excellent option because they root and clear space, woodlands can be grazed by any livestock. Goats and cattle are excellent options. Goats can be used to clear out growth that other animals won’t eat. Some breeds of cattle are better at eating the shrubs and such than others; our Dexter cattle will eat just about anything a goat would consume.
Grazing your woodland will give you more pasture, and you should be able to market your beef, goat meat and offspring locally. Pastured meat production commands a higher price in most cases. Laws vary by state for selling meat, so be sure to check the rules and regulations for meat inspection.
With no animals grazing, a diversity of plants can be cultivated in the understory of forests. In the more southern reaches of the United States, one might consider planting galax, ginseng, tea trees, or other medicinal plants. Decorative native shrubs such as azaleas or rhododendrons can also be grown and sold to homeowners or nurseries for landscaping use.
Ginseng is by far the highest paying understory plant, but it takes about six years to reach a marketable size. It requires a north-facing slope for optimal production. However, ginseng’s growing environment can be simulated. This plant grows wild as far west as the edge of Nebraska and as far north as Maine. You can grow ginseng by purchasing stratified seed or rootlets. Some farms offer starter packages for growers that include rootlets and seeds.
Tea trees are an excellent understory plant. Leaves can be harvested for green tea, pressed into tea tree oil — a common ingredient in many of the healthier cosmetics and cleansers — or cured for black tea. Processing tea is easy to do at home.
There are many varieties of tea trees available, just make sure the variety you are getting is suited to your U.S. Department of Agriculture growing zone. Tea can be grown as far north as Delaware, or USDA Zone 6B. With the popularity and price of coffee and tea continually rising, growing your own tea can save a lot of money over the years, and you can sell cured teas.
Dead or dying trees can often be more useful as firewood. Leaving a few standing dead trees to provide wildlife habitat makes sense for encouraging beauty through wildlife and a more diverse set of woods. But, if you don’t see any foliage on a tree, it’s best to make a decision as soon as you can as to what to do with the tree — weak or diseased trees can be more vulnerable to pests and parasites; diseased trees can also pose a health risk to other trees in your woods. If a tree stands for long enough, it will rot, so it’s often best to cut it down and stack it up for firewood as soon as you notice it is dead. Firewood can provide an occasional windfall throughout the year. If a tree gets blown over in your forest, cut it into firewood. Good firewood is worth more than $100 a cord, and several folks in rural America make a significant supplemental income selling it.
The quality of different types of wood will be region-specific, but typically Osage orange (if you’re in the Great Plains), red and white oak, hickory, ash and hard maples are among the best in terms of British thermal units (BTU — our measurement for quantifying the heat value of fuel). However, a type of wood with a lower BTU rating isn’t all bad and will still sell — for instance, hackberry doesn’t burn as hot, but some folks would rather cut, split and burn it over Osage orange simply because it’s easier to work with. Consider what wood you have, and then see how it ranks and how it’s priced in your area. You’ll also most likely need to season it for at least a year before selling it for the highest price.
Growing mushrooms is another way to use dead or dying trees. Many options are available depending on your climate. Perhaps the most commonly cultivated mushroom in woodlots is the shiitake. The shiitake grows best in hardwood, particularly oak. On our farm, we have found that thicker-barked oaks work best, but any oak is an outstanding medium for shiitake cultivation. In the Western states, one might consider growing chicken of the woods on Douglas fir. A thinning of stunted or otherwise inferior trees for mushroom cultivation material might help open up your woodland for better grazing or any of the other possible understory uses.
Mushroom cultivation can be started with a small investment. A bag of shiitake sawdust spawn costs $19 to $25 and will inoculate approximately 25 logs averaging 4 feet in length and 4 inches in diameter. You will need an inoculation tool and a drill bit when using sawdust spawn, but the cost is well worth it if you plan on inoculating more than 100 logs in the near future. Logs can be left leaning against other trees in the understory after inoculation. If you have poplar or other softer woods, oyster mushrooms are another option. Logs are usually inoculated as they would be for shiitake.
There are also other methods for cultivating oysters, such as cutting out wedges in logs, stuffing the empty space with spawn and nailing the wedge back in. The totem method is another option. This is simply cutting two sections of log approximately 18 inches long, packing spawn on top of the log that is sitting up and placing the other round on top of it. Generally the top is secured with several long screws or nails. After the incubation period, mushrooms will start growing where the two wood rounds meet.
If you are cutting down larger trees, the remaining stumps can be inoculated as well. There is a product that bears mentioning called MycoSpored Oils. This oil is used in a chainsaw in place of bar oil, inoculating wood; you inoculate everything you cut with the saw. This is a convenient and economical way to grow mushrooms and also to decompose stumps in your woodland. Just be sure to order the formula that is right for the type of woodland you have.
General woodlot and game management
Many people are interested in managing their woodland for game. Deer prefer open understories or meadows near the edge of forests, as well as farmland — especially corn, alfalfa or soybean fields. You might create a forest management plan including the following steps:
1. If the woodlot is very overgrown, consider pasturing pigs on it. The pigs will root up the understory, helping fertilize and aerate it. This makes perfect conditions for planting a forage crop in the understory, called a food plot.
2. Plant a good understory grass such as ryegrass or any good shade blend mixture.
3. Consider thinning out larger trees if your forest seems overcrowded. It is better to have two or three healthy, mast-producing trees rather than half a dozen stunted, poorly producing trees. Cutting down low-quality trees with many limbs is a great way to add a bunch of firewood and help the development of your timber lot.
Leasing hunting rights
If you have woodland that is sufficiently remote, you might consider leasing out hunting rights. There are plenty of hunters who will pay for the right to hunt your land. Paperwork should be drawn up to protect you from liability, specify the length of the lease, and so any rules and regulations you stipulate are understood. I would recommend leasing on a year-to-year basis. A long lease agreement can cause problems if you ever want to sell the property or use it for a different purpose.
Leasing hunting ground is becoming popular, and it can provide significant supplemental income, at the price of friends or strangers gaining access to your land and the animals on it.
As time goes by
The improvements you’ll see in your woodland might seem subtle at first, but over a few years, an overgrown woodlot can undergo dramatic improvements. Part of this, like so much, depends greatly on how much you put into it. Grazing pigs or other animals through your woodland will help better forage come back in the understory, but it will happen a lot sooner if you invest in some good shade grass seed. The type of grass in such mixtures will vary depending on your growing zone. You might be able to save money by mixing your own grass mixture for planting. Buying a pound or two each time you go to the feed or hardware store will make a dramatic difference over the years.
These are by no means the only ways to make money from your woodland, but they are some of the more realistic options for the woodlot owner who is working with a smaller budget. For those able to invest the money and who live in a suitable area, building a few rustic cabins to rent seasonally might also be an option, or some other form of agritourism to draw folks out your way. Whatever you choose, just know that those trees on your property are worth much more than the wood they produce.
Read more: Check the BTUs of the woods on your land with our firewood rating chart, Find the Best Firewood for You.
Samantha Biggers is a writer and farmer based in the western North Carolina mountains. She writes from Biggers’ Farm, a 15-acre mountain farm, where she and her husband raise registered Dexter cattle, pastured poultry, goats, mushrooms, and more. You can read more from Samantha on her blog, Biggers Farm.
The case for hogs
Pigs on pasture are cleaner than when kept in confinement. The only place there is a slight smell is where you feed them, and usually only when it rains. Those with a one-acre woodlot could easily pasture several pigs to provide pork for their family. Pigs are very respectful of electric fences once they get shocked a few times. To be safe, for the first week or two, keep the pigs in a woven wire lot with a single electric wire running about nose level, all around the lot. This gets the pigs trained to the electric fence without the risk of them getting loose. After they are used to the electric, you can turn them out in a three-strand electric fence, and they won’t get loose. Electric fencing is cheap and can be temporary. A permanent fence solution would be woven wire with a strand of electric at roughly snout level, though this can be pricey. If a pig gets loose, don’t panic; most pigs will come right back to the spot where you feed them. Additionally, a pig that is getting enough to eat is not likely to wander too far.