Struggle for Sustainability


“When Good Plans Go Bad” could be the headline for the Robbins family’s experience in Rutherford County, North Carolina. Their story is one of sustainability looking for a place to happen, but stymied, not only by the allied forces of industrial capitalism, but also by a neighbor’s rage.

Dusk was falling as I pulled into the yard of the old Hemphill house, and steam was rising off a large pan in an open shed. A deliciously sugary smell wafted on the breeze. It was late September, and Donna and Rodney Robbins were making sorghum molasses with Donna’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hemphill.

Their people had been doing this for at least five generations. The clapboard house beyond the shed was built in 1900 from boards sawn by Donna’s great-grandfather. In a corner cupboard in the living room, a little wood placard was painted with the homily that could serve as the Appalachian national anthem:

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”

It was advice passed on by earlier Hemphills, who were among the first families to settle on Cove Creek. One of Donna’s great-great-grandmothers, at two and a half years old, was scalped and lived, but her hair never grew back and she always wore a bonnet.

Later, the family legend goes, Indians would go out of their way while traveling to pay reverent attention to her. By 1846, John and Louisa Hemphill had purchased four hundred acres on both sides of Cove Creek for $1,900. John was a farmer and postmaster, Louisa a weaver who made flax and woolen blankets. She owned the first sewing machine in the cove. They also owned slaves. Two of their three sons were killed in the Civil War.

“Israel Leander had cleared off a field in preparation for building a house and getting married,” Donna said, “but he never came back from the war. We still call it the Lee Field, even though it’s long since grown back into trees.”

Donna worked as a school librarian; her husband, Rodney, farmed the 400 acres that belonged to her father and three hundred more that he leased. Rodney first met Donna as a teenager when he went tubing down Cove Creek with rowdy friends.

Donna’s father came down and warned them off his property, even pulling a pistol when the boys talked back. Rodney noticed the redhead standing behind her father. A few years later they began to date, and he fell in love with the sparkly personality that matched her hair.

Rodney was broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, with dark eyebrows and a neatly trimmed beard flecked with gray. His smile could brighten a dim room. His grandfather logged with mules, and his great-uncle owned a sawmill. After Rodney started farming with Donna’s father, he noticed woodlands with decent timber. Now half of his annual income comes from working the woods in winter, including running his own mill. The other half comes from summer crops of corn, soybeans, and hay.

I had toured the farm’s woodlands with Rodney earlier that day. The landscape of Appalachian foothills was dusty with autumn but still sticky with summer. The woods had been logged around 1950 to buy out Donna’s father’s siblings, but not everything was clear-cut. The trees were mostly young, but already a diverse understory was developing. Pines were thick in some places; in others, they mixed with plenty of hardwoods.

Rodney preferred to practice selective harvesting, choosing individual trees according to maturity and condition, and leaving the best trees to grow better. When ice storms and southern pine beetles devastated some of his pine stands, he spent years salvaging the best of the lumber. He planted ginseng and walnut trees. He was thinking 25 to 50 years ahead. This was the kind of approach he wanted his land-use plan to reflect.

In North Carolina, landowners must have a land-use plan to qualify for the land-use taxation rate. Taxes can be the most burdensome landowner responsibility, especially when they are artificially driven upward by sprawl development. Land-use taxation, usually based on the productivity of the soil, helps mitigate this effect and can considerably reduce the tax burden for farmers. On a tight farm budget like the Robbinses’, it’s a necessity.

When Rodney contacted the North Carolina Department of Forestry to obtain the required plan, he said he wanted it based on selective harvesting. Instead, his plan directed him to clear-cut and plant loblolly pine, the darling tree of industry because of its quick growth and ease of processing.

“Seems like the foresters are tied in with industry,” Rodney said, “and getting the landowners to feed into it, too.”

The conversion of natural forests to monocultural plantations is one of the great issues of contemporary forestry. “Plantation” has varied meanings; in its fullest sense, it refers to artificially planted, fertilized, and intensively managed trees of a single, often non-native species. Growing wood as an agricultural crop in this way can produce ten times more fiber per acre than natural forest, plus it’s more uniform for the mill and often of better quality for pulp. Rotations can be as short as seven years.

Trees that have been genetically engineered to grow even faster and produce their own herbicide will soon contribute to plantation efficiency — as well as to problems like toxic pollen drift, already being demonstrated by other genetically modified crops. Plantations are typically able to sustain only very small portions of the former biodiversity of natural forest.

Down On The Ol’ Plantation

It’s difficult to determine the amount of land in plantations, because statistics usually give only general timberland acreage. On a global level, the best estimate at the end of the 20th century was one-third of a billion acres, or about 3 percent of total world forest. Industry analysts forecast a much more expansive role for plantations as world demand for wood grows.

Most plantations have been established since 1950, and three-quarters of all plantation acreage grows conifers in temperate regions, with the largest single chunk (about one-fifth of the total) in the former Soviet Union. China has nearly that much and is said to be furiously afforesting, which means planting trees on land that does not currently grow forest.

Reforesting means the planting of trees on existing forested land that has been timbered. By afforesting with plantations, China hopes to reduce the pressure on its few remaining natural forests. Only in situations like this, when plantations do not arise from the conversion of existing natural forests, can they contribute to sustainability.

Established on degraded former agricultural soils, as they increasingly are in Brazil and other tropical countries, such plantations may be an ecologically as well as economically valid choice, especially if native tree species are planted. After all, even the shortest tree rotations are longer than an annual crop, and even the most simplified forest can support more biodiversity than a field of corn.

By now the momentum of tree plantations is well established in the Southeast. Following the bruising timber wars in the Pacific Northwest, corporate interest shifted. There was much less protected federal land in the Southeast, and state regulations were looser. More than half of all commercial plantations in the United States are now located in the South, from Virginia to Texas, and pulpwood production has been increasing every year for two decades.

Twenty percent of southeastern forested landscapes are owned by the wood products industry, more than in any other section of the country. Industry influence extends beyond those borders through the hunger of huge mills, especially chip mills. [About] 150 new chip mills were built in the Southeast in the 1990s alone, consuming more than a million acres of trees a year.

A century after the first round of industrial timbering deforested large parts of Appalachia, many Appalachian states approached or surpassed historic levels of timber harvest. Pines are now being harvested faster than they grow, a cardinal infraction of sustained yield. Hardwood cutting is accelerating toward that same point. Clear-cuts are large and abundant throughout the region.

Chip mills seem designed not only for high yields from industry pine plantations, but also for the conversion of established and maturing hardwood forests like Rodney’s. The year before, Rodney had been nudged hard toward industrial production by the arrival of Willamette’s new chip mill in Union Mills. I was going to visit it tomorrow.

Rodney had already explained the politics connecting the local sawmill family to the new mill. He hoped that the chip mill would provide a market for his low-value logs, which would advance his own interests as well as the mill’s. But so far, he was finding that situation to be elusive, because mill policy was geared to support the biggest suppliers. Whenever there was a downturn in the volatile wood products market, the mill would buy logs only from them.

Driven by the local tax assessor, who administered the land-use tax, Rodney had ended up making several clear-cuts of six to seven acres in order to qualify. He was frustrated and angry. When he saw a notice in the newspaper about a meeting on sustainable forestry by Concerned Citizens of Rutherford County, a group formed to protest the new chip mill, he said to Donna, “That looks like what I want.”

He attended workshops and started fencing the woods when he learned that cattle would hurt his tree regeneration. Finally, after trying to work with the tax assessor and state foresters to change the forest stewardship plan, Rodney and Donna wrote their own, complete with a glossary of definitions and citations from scientific papers. Rodney turned it in to the county assessor a year ago and hadn’t heard back since. He took this as tacit acceptance of the plan. And by now he had other things to worry about.

Clearly a mechanical genius, Rodney made a hobby out of going to auctions to pick up bargains on used equipment. He bought a skidder for $1,600, fixed the gears, and rebuilt the motor. He also had a couple of small knuckleboom loaders. His greatest achievement, though, was the sawmill. It was a double-ought Frick of 1950s vintage that he bought for $1,000 about fifteen years ago. He replaced the wooden rails with steel and repaired various other parts.

With it, he milled his own trees, mostly, although he cut some locust posts for a friend who needed fencing. He sold his boards to local mills. He could saw 4,000 board feet a day of good logs and earn $300 per thousand board feet for the milled lumber. He would be paid only $230 per thousand board feet for twelve-inch-diameter logs and larger. Smaller logs brought even less, so milling and selling his own small logs gave Rodney a small but important economic advantage.

“Poplar is the money tree,” he said. “I sawed two trees up and sold the boards for $1,500.” He also mills shortleaf and Virginia pines. Or he did, until last month. We stood by the deeply charred posts that had held up a metal roof over the mill. The power unit had been torched by an arsonist.

Rodney had considered insurance but had figured he would probably save enough on the premiums to take care of anything short of catastrophe. He knows who did it. A neighbor, a young man, was driving a pickup through one of Rodney’s fields, tearing it up. Rodney told him to leave.

Feuds are not unknown here; Donna’s maternal grandmother sewed a special pocket in the front of her husband’s overalls for a pistol to protect himself against neighbors who had something against him. Her paternal grandfather had been deputy sheriff and had enemies who turned over his sorghum molasses barrels, wasting all that work.

Donna was unpacking quart glass jars to catch the finished molasses when she told me this. “What do you do?” she asked. “You don’t want to lie down and be walked on, but you don’t want to escalate it either.”

She went over to talk with the young man’s father. “I asked him what we had done to get such retaliation, and he listed all kinds of crazy things that he said were all Rodney’s fault.”

“If I didn’t believe in hell,” Rodney said, “I’d be thinking about revenge.”

But at least for that night, the bitterness of loss dissolved in the sweetness of cooking sorghum. Leaves had been stripped off the load of canes in the back of the pickup by Donna’s uncle Wade, whose cane they were making on shares. Each share would include molasses from the beginning, middle and end of the run, so they would all get the full spectrum.

There’s a lot of variation in molasses; men made reputations on their skill with sorghum. Donna’s mother, Mrs. Hemphill, remembered when everybody would get together to make molasses and the children stripped the leaves. Her father used molasses as one of their main money crops. Her brother Wade planned to sell some of his quarts.

“Cane’s not as tall as when I was a boy,” Wade said. “It used to be 14 foot. Now it’s eight to 10.”

I had seen gullies higher than my head elsewhere in the county, so I was acquainted with the legacy of soil erosion from the days when cotton was raised in the area. But the long switches of canes were impressive enough as Wade fed sheaves of them from the tailgate of his pickup into the rollers of the press. He pitchforked the limp, spent stalks into mounds below the press and would later feed them to his cattle.

From the rollers poured a milky green juice that frothed as it streamed into a muslin-covered barrel below the press. The barrel emptied through an underground hose across the yard to another muslin-covered barrel at the edge of the open shed. Then the juice slid into the large, rectangular, copper-sheathed and baffled cooking pan. A fire crackled underneath.

Mr. and Mrs. Hemphill did the serious molasses making. Theirs was a dance choreographed by 50 years of experience. He stoked the fire beneath the pan, skimmed the green froth off the molasses, raked the thin fluid into baffle after baffle to reduce but not scorch it, then stoked the fire again. The final stream that poured from the downside corner of the pan was taffy-thick but more gracile, stretching like a cat whenever the air from our passage moved it.

Mrs. Hemphill filtered and bottled it while she watched Mr. Hemphill, knowing just what he’d need next and getting it for him, and he skimming and raking and firing, and knowing that she knew. They gave me a heavy quart of what looked like smoked honey. I plunged a spoon into it as soon as I got home. Flavors of butterscotch and amber melted in my mouth, the taste of a golden autumn.

Excerpted from Living in the Appalachian Forest: True Tales of Sustainable Forestry, by Chris Bolgiano ; Stackpole Books, 2002. Copies of the book are available at Malaprops and other fine bookstores, or from www. for $18.95. Chris is also the author of Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, and Appalachian Forest: A Search for Roots and Renewal, also on Stackpole. She lives on a hundred wooded acres in the mountains of Virginia.


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