Profiles in Conservation
Making Time in the Woods
Iowa landowner jumps into forest management with a passion
What Iowa landowner Pat Hunsberger lacks in forest management experience, she more than compensates for with her curiosity and passionate thirst for knowledge to improve her land.
It’s as if she’s making up for lost time.
For years her husband, Ben, managed their century family farm, and she helped him with daily living requirements, but not the management.
“Eventually, I got a job off the farm, teaching talented and gifted kids for 25 years,” said the mother of two. As the years progressed, she became less able to help out with farm work, except for evenings and weekends when she would haul and unload grain.
“Working on the farm in the early years involved driving the baler, chiseling and dragging, helping with the livestock. It was always a great change of pace for me,” she said. “It was great to be outside. I didn’t even mind the smell of diesel fumes when I was baling with the 4010,” she added.
Her husband, however, was the one who kept the family business operation going from the decisionmaking perspective, she said, adding that he particularly liked keeping the books and doing the taxes.
Then, he was diagnosed with cancer and died months later in 2012. With his passing, she suddenly found herself in the driver’s seat of managing the family home, acreage, and business. She gave up her teaching career and became the new family farm manager, though she volunteers 1 day a week at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Their original family farm is on the west side of the black top, she said.
“My husband and I bought a 40‑acre tract of land on the east side in 1985. The history of that piece is that it was part of the original farm but was lost in a poker game by one of Ben’s ancestors. It makes an amusing story if correct.”
In 1996, the couple bought a small adjacent farm of about 130 acres to the northeast, also on the east side of the blacktop. Within the 130 acres was a large tract of woodland.
“In the fall of 2012, my son said to me, ‘Mom, if you’ve never walked those woods, you need to get out there. It’s full of cliffs, ravines, springs, and giant rocks.’”
So she hiked those woods and was a bit mystified with a particular stand of trees. She tried to take photos, but there were so many saplings.
“When I walked that timber the first time, I could tell right away it was a sick stand and it needed help. There were saplings everywhere. My little forest of toothpicks, I thought.”
Another thing she noticed as she went deeper into the forest was that there was no green undergrowth under some trees. A friend explained the cause to her, saying when cattle bunch up together under the trees, they can stomp all of the undergrowth and churn up black earth that looks unnatural.
As the family’s new land manager, she soon realized that she lacked the knowledge needed to make some critical decisions. Hunsberger turned to family members, friends, and neighbors for information and inspiration. She hoped to do some forest management on her land.
“Before my husband died, he wanted me to log the timber,” she said. One friend recommended an independent forester who might help look at her land and give her advice on logging considerations.
“When the forester showed up, he asked me when it was last logged, and I thought it was never logged,” she said. “However, I was recently corrected by a nephew who said they logged it once probably 50 years ago. The forester was impressed by the potential in the tree stand there, and proposed selective logging to gradually improve the overall quality of the forest and improve the timber stand.
“He helped me to learn what a conservation plan could do,” she said. “Because it was pastured at that time, I knew I would ultimately terminate the pasture rental. That was a big decision for me, because it ended an agreement with a neighbor. That’s hard to do.”
The forester marked the trees, loggers were notified of the availability of materials, bids arrived, and the stand was logged in the winter of 2012 – 2013.
Her next step was to contact the Iowa Region II District Forester, Greg Heidebrink, and ask him to develop a tree stewardship plan for approximately 70 acres. He walked the woodlands and sat down with her to find out what her hopes were for a long-range plan.
Hunsberger indicated her desire to ensure an oak and shagbark hickory stand, because she wanted to encourage a mature stand of trees. Heidebrink recommended an uneven-age management system to maintain trees of all sizes in the woods. There were also many walnut, ash, maple, and cedar trees on the property. The timber stand improvements also included reducing the amount of buckthorn, elm, ironwood, bitternut hickory, and box elder there.
Her land is part of the Driftless Area of the Midwest, where retreating glaciers deposited silt and left deeply carved valleys. Her conservation land is described as rolling karst topography, featuring hills and valleys.
The district forester gave her a full report of the land, saying it included several different types of soils. The upland ridges and tree planting areas are on Fayette and Exett soils, which are well drained and very productive. The steeper hillsides are on rock outcroppings. There, the soil type is very shallow and dry, limiting types of tree growth. The flatter areas of timber are on Nordness soil that is shallow and somewhat dry, but not as limiting for tree growth as the rock outcroppings.
Hunsberger and her son, Andy, continue to roam the woodlands on both sides of the road. He discovered six wild apple trees last fall and decided to make homemade apple cider, she said. This spring, he decided to try tapping maple trees and make his own maple syrup.
“He used to ask me to identify various things he found in the woods. But on this project, he googled how to identify a maple tree to tap and did the whole project while I was away. I only learned about it when I got home and found a free jar of syrup!” she said.
In 2015, she participated in the Iowa Master Woodland Managers Program, primarily serving woodland owners and land managers. It included 30 hours of intensive forestry training focused on managing woodlands for multiple benefits. One class segment discussed emerald ash borer, oak wilt, and other forest threats.
“I choose not to be afraid of pests or invasives,” she said. “I choose to be aware of them, and we’ll deal with them as needed.” When the tree stand was first evaluated for logging, the forester brought up the emerald ash borer and recommended cutting down all of her ash, including one especially majestic one. Some ashes were cut, but she saved the beautiful stately tree, saying, “It will stay until its time is up.”
“The timber on the west side of the road is where I’ve struggled, because I wanted to put more of the timber in a conservation plan,” she added. But after talking with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Iowa State Extension pasture specialist, and other professionals, everyone agreed that she should continue pasturing, due to the amount of grassland available and the rolling hillsides.
In fall 2015, Hunsberger requested the Co-op agronomists to sample the soil of the pastureland, because she was curious about the health of the land. She was also concerned about overgrazing, which results in a need for weed control. The test results, taken in the front half and the back half, indicated that her back pasture was “not as healthy,” she said. So this year the cattle will be rotated from front to back, to even out the foraging and health of the pastures.
Today, Hunsberger works with a variety of agencies, organizations, and individuals to manage her land. These include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation District, Iowa State Extension pasture and forestry specialists, U.S. Forest Service, Farm Service Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Pheasants Forever. DNR approved her conservation plan, and Pheasants Forever helped her to establish wildlife food plots in the crop acres to attract pheasants.
“All of these experts work together so well,” she added. “For my forest conservation plan, I applied for a Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) grant. As the name implies, the grant serves to enhance and protect the State’s natural and cultural resources, including private lands.” The REAP grant is helping to fund her forester, she said.
“I love my new forester, who is implementing the stewardship plan. He’s very passionate. He encourages me to come and see what he’s doing, and he teaches me along the way. He’s great.”
Hunsberger said she is pleased with the first two steps of timber improvement on her land, and she understands what the foresters are doing. The next step, she said, is either to do a burn, or begin planting trees, including red, white, and burr oak, along with red cedar, Norway spruce, and Scotch pine.
“The conifers are interspersed in the plantings with the oaks for a reason, and the berry on the red cedar provides a food source also,” she added.
She said that her homestead’s windbreaks are over 100 years old and very tall. Replacing them when they get damaged can be complicated. Hunsberger described how, during the first summer when she began managing the land, Hurricane Isabel’s last winds took the tops off five trees.
“They were big tops. Another five tall trees blew from the west to the east and landed on the other windbreak trees. We’re going to be replacing that section this coming year.”
“I’m facing the decision of which species of trees to put in, because the white-tailed deer will eat arborvitae if I put them in again. On the other hand, I have to be careful to select a shallow root with the new trees, due to the location of my septic system. And then there’s the discussion of sticking with Iowa native shrubs and trees,” she added.
She sometimes has issues with hunters of fauna and flora on her property.
“We have lots of hunters here, and we have a lot of white-tailed deer here. We also have people who hunt raccoons, squirrels, and turkeys, as well as trap coyotes. Because our crop is designed to attract pheasants, I do not allow pheasant hunting on my land,” she said.
A different kind of hunter can also cause her concern, she said. One of her biggest difficulties is people who occasionally invite themselves onto her property to hunt morel mushrooms.
She sought out more information on landowner rights and forest management practices. In her first summer of land management, Hunsberger attended a forum for female landowners to help them be more informed about their farms.
“One of the people on the panel was a lawyer, and he answered many questions about property landowner rights. My questions had to do with people who go on your land without your permission. The landowner’s only recourse is to call the sheriff’s office and tell them you have a trespasser. If you have posted no-trespassing signs every 500 feet, they know they are trespassing,” she said.
In spite of her legal and other concerns, Hunsberger still allows people to come onto her land with her permission, she added.
“I am pretty responsive to people who ask permission. I have a calendar of hunting seasons and the names of the people in each hunting season who hunt,” she said.
Hunsberger is not only asking for information about how to improve her woods, she’s also actively participating in conservation groups to lend a hand.
She is now a member of Pheasants Forever.
“They do food plots and fire burns; they’re very helpful. Before my husband passed away he used to plant their food plots for various farmers, so now they’re reciprocating for me,” she said.
Pat attends Forestry Field Days sponsored by the Iowa State Extension and DNR. She joined the Iowa Tree Farm Committee in January 2016. She has also become a member of the Iowa Woodland Owners Association and the Northeast Iowa Forestry Advisory Council. She said it is going to be the most helpful to her, in learning from foresters.
“I want to be the best steward of this land that I can be. When I realize I’ve made a good decision, I feel really great about it. It means that I’ve educated myself and made a thoughtful decision. I knew nothing about managing the farm when I got it. I didn’t know how to do the taxes, which was a big thing. I hadn’t been disinterested previously. My husband loved his farm and every part of its operation,” she said.
She said even though neither of her adult children lives near the farm today, both of them want to keep the family property.
“My son knows the land very well. He’s hunted it, walked it extensively, and works hard to help maintain issues. My daughter was an active participant in the farm operations, as she loved to drive the tractors and help her dad in the fields. We have participated in all the operations of the farm, including fixing fences from fallen trees!”
Hunsberger continues to work out plans for her land, of which a little over half is forested. Her timber management is approaching its 3rd year, which may involve a burn, and she believes she has the best forester working on her stand. Her woodlands provide wildlife habitat and recreational hunting, and they serve as an investment for many years of enjoyment.
By Glenn Rosenholm
Photos courtesy of Pat Hunsberger, unless otherwise indicated.