Often the most affordable farmland is land that is hardly in a state to be farmed at all. And that was definitely the case when my wife and I purchased our 7.5 acres. Fifteen years ago, the locals tell us, the land we now own in Kentucky could have easily been reclaimed with a bush hog. In the years that passed, however, the eastern cedars and sumac completely took over. Multiflora rose, honeysuckle, briars and poison ivy filled in the gaps. Here or there exists a nice hardwood, pawpaw or persimmon tree, but for the most part we acquired 7 acres of dense woods filled mostly with undesirable timber, and we spend much of our time working to clear it.
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But instead of hiring heavy equipment to clear-cut the land, we chose to manage our woods through the calculated use of animals and a small, 16-inch chainsaw. Using this approach, our goats gave us milk and our pigs pork; the trees we felled offered lumber and firewood. Meanwhile, the soil improved, all while we transformed the land into pasture, gardens and forest. As our neighbor Eric Smith of Bugtussle Farm said, “If you want to reclaim something, farm it.” Here’s how we made use of our land while clearing it, the planning and techniques involved, and the benefits we realized.
The Green Blueprint
Don’t fire up the chainsaw quite yet. Knowing what you ultimately want to do with your land will help you determine how you want to clear it. It’s a good idea to sit down with pencil and paper, a list of ideas and a map of your property to decide, at least to some extent, what you want your forest to look like. Planning makes a great winter project. Identify the hardwoods, fruit and nut trees you want to keep. Pick out a small woodlot, potential pond areas, gardens, barn sites, etc. This will save you time and energy once you enter the forest with a chainsaw.
A tree on the ground takes up a lot more space than a tree left standing. That’s why the key to clearing land this way is to fell trees systematically into neat piles. Drop unwanted timber together in piles away from trees you wish to keep. Once you fell the trees, cut the logs into manageable lengths, leaving only the treetops in piles for burning. Remove the usable logs to their own readily accessible stacks.
Ideally, when you make the piles, leave room to walk all the way around them without running into another pile of treetops. Cutting the logs off and removing them to a central location will help keep space open around the piles so you have room to work. However, weeds and saplings will quickly take advantage of their newly exposed light, and vines will creep over the treetop piles. But instead of mowing or weed-whacking, we prefer to turn those weeds into protein.
There is an animal for just about every job on the farm, and goats are the weed-whackers of the animal kingdom, only far more efficient. The forage is their fuel and aggressive flora turns into milk or meat while depositing fertility. To solve the notorious goat fencing issue, we move them into areas enclosed with 40-inch-tall, solar-electrified netting. Some goats can still jump this, but if kept full and happy they have less reason to escape. As weeds begin to overtake the treetop piles, the goats climb over them, extinguishing the weed problem and compacting the pile to make it easier for later burning. Without the weeds, the grass slowly begins to come back. Next year we hope to add sheep to our livestock to manage the grass that the goats and sunlight have encouraged.
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And if goats are the weed-whackers, pigs are the plows, the tillers and the rollers. We’ve used pigs to firm out an old leaky pond, to till soil, to dig up roots, to uproot saplings and simply to graze weeds, yet still feel like we’ve hardly reached their full potential in this system. Like the goats, we move our pigs once a week into new paddocks—with solar-electrified polywire—and will often sow forage crops behind them in the freshly tilled soil for the goats. We have also sown flowers for bees, beans for market as well as crops like butternut squash or peanuts for the pigs to eat later.
When moving fencing every day, it’s smart to have a lightweight charger. We use a small, 10-watt portable solar charger from Premier One Supplies (premier1supplies.com). However, moving it through the woods can present challenges in terms of gathering enough sunlight. And a weak charger means a weak fence. So we like to keep an extra battery around for each of our chargers. Having the extra battery charged and ready to switch out for cloudy spells has no doubt saved us a lot of time chasing animals.
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If you have pasture already cleared, a small draft animal could come in extremely handy in this system of forest management. Moving logs can be a challenge, especially if you want to leave them long, so having a small draft animal to help you organize and pull them out would be beneficial. As a bonus, their manure makes for excellent garden compost.
You can utilize the unwanted trees for lumber, firewood, woodchips, mushroom logs or even hugelkultur beds. But knowing what you eventually want to do with the timber before you cut may help you to pick and choose which trees to remove in the first place—cedar for fence posts, cherry for firewood, oak for shiitake logs, etc.—and at what length to cut the timber.
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Because green wood can be painfully smoky and difficult to get burning, we like to let the treetop piles dry for a season before we burn them. In more arid climates, it is a good idea to do clearing in the winter or spring, let the animals munch on piles throughout the year, then do the burning in late fall or winter to avoid brush fires.
Even in our humid climate, we never burn piles in the spring so we do not disturb nesting birds. These piles make for great habitat, and we’re always trying to increase the diversity of life around our homestead. We like to maintain wildlife habitat year round.
You can chip or remove the wood, but wood ash can be a great source of alkalinity and bio-char for the soil, which the pigs later till in. Avoid burning piles that contain any poison ivy since the smoke is highly toxic, know your local burn laws, check weather conditions before lighting a fire, take every safety precaution, and never burn on windy days.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.