Front and Center: Tree farmer Pat Graham
A college group was touring a tree farm when a student turned to the seasoned farmer and announced, “Your methods are old-fashioned. I’d be surprised if these trees yield more than 20 pounds of apples a year.”
“I’d be surprised, too,” replied the farmer. “They’re pear trees.”
Pat Graham didn’t pay much attention to tree species until 1992, when he sold his newspaper business and began devoting himself to nurturing timber on 850 acres just east of Colville.
“Even today I still get mixed up a bit,” says the former Stevens County Tree Farmer of the Year.
But that doesn’t stop Graham from enthusiastically promoting sustainable forestry practices.
The public is invited to tour Graham’s Dominion Tree Farms next Saturday and fish his 18-acre private lake. Take state Route 20 east from Colville to Proudy Loop Road and follow the signs.
The field day is sponsored by the Northeast Chapter of the Washington Farm Forestry Association.
During a recent interview, Graham discussed his not-always-smooth transition from publisher to tree farmer.
S-R: Dominion Tree Farms is a hidden paradise, with its sylvan slopes, abundant wildlife and Lake Rosanna. How long has it been in the family?
Graham: Almost 60 years. My father, who served on the state wildlife commission, always wanted a private lake. One day back in 1956, while he was fishing in Canada, I noticed a classified ad in our newspaper for some acreage with a lake. It was just a brush patch back then, and the lake was smaller. But when my father came home I told him about it, and he bought it that same afternoon.
S-R: How does your tree farm compare with others in the Washington Farm Forestry Association?
Graham: It’s one of the larger ones. To belong to the FFA, you only need 20 acres, and I’d say the average size is 200.
S-R: Is a 200-acre tree farm a business or a hobby?
Graham: It’s somewhere in between. But most people don’t go into tree farming for the logging income. They get into it for the forest, for nature, for wildlife, and for something to do. A lot of them are retired people who don’t have a lot of acreage, but want to clean it up.
S-R: When people drive along Interstate 90 and see a clear-cut hillside, is that forest land or a tree farm?
Graham: It may be a tree farm. A clear-cut is where someone wants to maximize income in a short period, and then probably sell the land to someone else. My goal is perpetual yield.
S-R: Since you’ve been actively tree farming, when have logs been worth the most?
Graham: Probably just before the recession – 2006, 2007.
S-R: And the worst year?
Graham: Probably 2008.
S-R: Do you have the luxury of not harvesting if prices are down?
Graham: Yes. While I’m sleeping, the trees are growing.
S-R: How did you learn to be a tree farmer?
Graham: By mistakes. (Laugh) I made the first one in 1968, when I decided to grow Christmas trees. I ordered Montana fir that wasn’t suited for our elevation, and then I failed to shape the trees as they grew, so they weren’t good for Christmas trees.
S-R: Any other hard-earned lessons?
Graham: I went to a meeting in Moscow in the mid-’90s, and they took us out to a very nice hardwood grove. I decided to try it, and worked at it for three or four years. I planted lots of species, but wild black cherry was the only thing that made it, and even those didn’t do very well. Now we plant mainly western larch, because it grows fast and deer won’t bother it, along with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.
S-R: Have you had a mentor?
Graham: The main person I’ve relied on is Maurice Williamson, my forestry consultant, who comes out once a year. We go through the whole farm and update what we plan to do. I recommend hiring a consultant to anyone who wants to get into tree farming – or even someone just logging a few acres. Consultants mark the trees so you get a decent cut. They know good loggers, they know the sawmills, they handle the permits, and you get a check in the mail.
S-R: Does your tree farm have employees?
Graham: I have a co-manager, which is my son, Kelly, and my grandson works here. Occasionally I hire some local boys to help out.
S-R: Farmers think in terms of seasons – spring, summer, fall. What’s your time frame?
Graham: Ten to 20 years.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Graham: As soon as the snow’s off the ground, we plant. In May we do weed control, and in fall we concentrate on thinning and cleanup.
S-R: How many trees have you planted this year?
Graham: Thirteen hundred – 1,000 larch and 300 Doug fir. We’re the only people I know of around here who use a single bottom plow technique. We plow east to west, and plant three or four larch for every fir. The advantage of digging a trench is that the young trees don’t have to compete with grass and other foliage, and the side of the trench prevents saplings from getting too much afternoon sun.
S-R: What would you like the general public to see during Saturday’s open house?
Graham: We’ll showcase the practice of patch cuts as an alternative to clear-cutting. We’ve found that cutting five or six acres at a time works best. It gives trees a chance to start a new forest, and the wildlife like it. We’ll also show how to take pasture land that isn’t really good for diddly and turn it into a forest.
S-R: What are you most proud of about your tree farm?
Graham: Land that was not doing anything is now productive.
S-R: How do you relax?
Graham: I take my chain saw down to where I have a bunch of wood to buck. After I cut the wood, I split it, roll it into my truck and put it in my wood shed.
S-R: What’s the outlook for tree farming in northeast Washington?
Graham: It’s good. Demand is growing. I expect to see Potlatch, Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser doing much better in the next couple of years, and that means I’ll get a few more dollars for my trees.
S-R: Looking back on this chapter of your life, what’s been the biggest surprise?
Graham: The biggest surprise occurred last fall. I’d gotten a permit to burn a slash pile, and after I lit it, it didn’t go out. What I’d failed to do was build a fire line around it. Luckily, it didn’t go anywhere or do any damage. But suddenly a Department of Natural Resources crew showed up. I know what was happening – they were training this crew, and thought my fire was a good training exercise, so they spent two days up there. And I got the bill. (Laugh)
This interview was edited and condensed. Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.