Trees as a Lifestyle

Written by Harry Greene

Wholes, Happiness, and Money

A farm is a whole. A team is a whole. A business, a married couple, and all of us as individuals are wholes. We all have desires, aspirations, and specific ways of being. We take actions and make decisions based on the outcomes we want. If we are holistic decision-makers, our actions are conducive to creating the life and landscape we want to have and experience.

Though we can slowly change our desires and tendencies, we revert back to our context. As an example: an extroverted farmer will likely bring a landscape to produce goods and experiences that increase interactions with and dependency on customers and employees. An introverted farmer may choose to produce a low-human-input good, and outsource their marketing by way of selling through a cooperative. Neither context is ubiquitously right or better, but each is someone’s reality. This context is our desired quality of life: it is what gets us out of bed in the morning. 

Organic dwarf apple orchard, Good Life Farm – Interlaken, NY

Organic dwarf apple orchard, Good Life Farm – Interlaken, NY

A business or a team is made up of individuals. The business’ mission statement is its context. The greater the overlap between a business’ mission and individual employee contexts, the smoother the entity will operate. Nonetheless, employees often relinquish or suppress their individual wills and desires in favor of the health of the business. In theory, the greater the discrepancy between employee and business context, the higher an employee’s salary must be to compensate, assuming he or she has significant bargaining power. This is to say that the greater the monetary reward, the more we are willing to sacrifice the quality of life we desire, at least in the short term. For some, the same tradeoff exists over the long term. Thus, for the sake of this discussion, money and happiness are substitutes.  

Exponential growth of on-farm income is rare. And when money and happiness are substitutes, a farm must provide the desired quality of life to its owners if the operation is to succeed. Farmers often forego money in favor of independence and the freedom to spend their days outside.

Significant growth in farm income usually arises due to increased creativity, as opposed to increased inputs. There are three ways to obtain money: farming, creativity, and mining. Combinations abound. Farming consists of harvesting photosynthetic yields that are useful to humans: food, fiber, and fuel. Selling corn or undifferentiated beef to the elevator yields pure solar dollars. Turning that corn into tortillas or opening a road-side barbecue employs our creativity. Keeping the books of the roadside barbecue also employs our creativity. Selling the topsoil off of our farm or fracking our land for natural gas would constitute mining. Mining refers to the extraction of stored carbon (coal, oil), minerals, and other non-renewable resources. Now we must ask: what will we do to sustain ourselves that yields our desired quality of life and our desired income?

A tree is a 20-year asset, and so it behooves us to understand our context before we make the commitment of planting apple or black locust timber trees, and therefore drastically changing our physical and social landscape. Photo: black locust plantation

A tree is a 20-year asset, and so it behooves us to understand our context before we make the commitment of planting apple or black locust timber trees, and therefore drastically changing our physical and social landscape. Photo: black locust plantation

Different tree species have different monetary and cultural management requirements. It can cost $300 and up to 20 labor hours per semi-dwarf apple tree to bring that tree to a financial break-even point, while managing poplar or black locust timber trees can costs as low as $10 and requires up to ⅓ of a labor hour per tree. Photo: organic semi-dwarf apple trees at  Good Life Farm

Different tree species have different monetary and cultural management requirements. It can cost $300 and up to 20 labor hours per semi-dwarf apple tree to bring that tree to a financial break-even point, while managing poplar or black locust timber trees can costs as low as $10 and requires up to ⅓ of a labor hour per tree. Photo: organic semi-dwarf apple trees at Good Life Farm

Which trees to plant, and where?

Building a farm to fit our context

Everything starts with creating a context. Our objective is to know ourselves and outwit our cognitive biases: we must know what it is that we want in order to know which actions to take to achieve it.

Guiding Questions

  • What do you value?

  • What kind of life do you want to be living now?

  • Name your top 3 wants in your life. Why do you want each of these things? Can you achieve this thing or state by alternative means?

  • What do you want to be doing during the day? 

  • How do you want to be living in 10 years?

  • Must your trees and your business satisfy those requirements?

  • How much money do you have access to? What is your tolerance for debt?

Our desired lifestyle informs landscape best-fit

  • How much do you like to be around people?

  • How much do you like to work with other people? 

  • Would you rather be managing a team of employees, or are you content working by yourself for weeks at a time?

  • Do you enjoy managing large animals year-round?

  • How much do you enjoy the efficiency of machinery, versus the quiet consistency of work done by hand?

Suddenly, Johnny Appleseed’s job seems more complex.

Farms that are working within their context

Parc Carreg – Pembrokeshire, Wales

Parc Carreg grows organic blueberries, strawberries, and cut flowers, and raises a flock of egg ducks and a flock of sheep.

Abi and Josh manage half an acre of blueberries by hand (800 shrubs), through which their pastured ducks run. Their slug pressure is nonexistent. They use human power to move wood chips and composted duck bedding. Having moved from urban London to rural Wales in order to be outside and be active, this fits their context. They move a small flock of sheep by hand, sell flowers direct to consumer, grow alder, willow, and poplar for firewood, and their chosen growth rate is the one that they have found to be manageable.

Were Parc Carreg to plant 30 more acres of blueberries, and 10 more acres of cut flowers, their entire operation would have to be mechanized, it would be more difficult to manage organically, and as managers they would likely spend more time in an office.

Parc Carreg gleams with intention. The dogs, ducks, and sheep spend their time outside on well-managed grass, and the farmers are living  their  best lives.

Parc Carreg gleams with intention. The dogs, ducks, and sheep spend their time outside on well-managed grass, and the farmers are living their best lives.

British Cassis – Herefordshire, England

Jo Hilditch of British Cassis is one of the United Kingdom’s largest blackcurrant producers. She runs a tight ship, growing 150 acres of blackcurrant for both Ribena and the British Cassis. Blackcurrant is harvested and pruned mechanically, and in comparison to managing other fruits, a relatively small team of people can manage large acreages of currants.

The Clatskanie Tree Farm – Clatskanie, Oregon

At its peak, The Clatskanie Tree Farm spread across 17,000 acres, all in hybrid poplar plantation. Greenwood Resources, a timber investment management organization has partnered with Collins Co., a forest and timber management company, to grow and market pulpwood. Greenwood Resources’ mission is to build a resource that lasts forever, meet the needs of investors, communities and the environment with the earth’s most renewable resource – trees, and provide excellent risk-adjusted returns for investors. The Clatskanie Tree Farm operations fit the firm’s context.

Mountain Hall Farm – Pembrokeshire, Wales

Alex and Sam Heffron manage a 30-head herd, and produce some of the finest grass-fed beef and dairy in Wales. They sell locally, direct-to-consumer, employ several other local farmers, and are slowly and intentionally increasing the complexity of the farm to support additional small enterprises: eleagnus windbreaks that yield fruit, and timber shelterbelts may grace the landscape as the years go on. In contrast with a handful of older Welsh farmers who haven’t missed a milking in 10 years, the couple values the freedom to step away from the farm if need be. A competent team of part-time employees makes this possible.

Birdwell & Clark Ranch – Clay County, Texas

Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark of Birdwell & Clark Ranch manage 5,000 head of beef cattle across 14,000 acres in Texas, as a team of two or three. For the past 15 years, they have employed the practice and framework of holistic planned grazing. Holistic planned grazing increases the land’s carrying capacity: growing more grass throughout the year, by moving the cattle in accordance with how fast the grass is growing, allows a farm to stock more cattle and produce more beef. 

These farms are all successful, because the operations support the managers, and not vice versa.

Recipes for Success

We must be honest about what we want. Brutal honesty in the short-run can prevent lost time, prematurely-liquidated farms, and stressed relationships. Full transparency ideally spurs productive time, sustained value creation, and healthy relationships.

Our context is our context. Large development campaigns and business initiatives, spurred by NGOs and corporations, are often well-intentioned, but do not always align with the wills and desires of the people that they affect. A classic example of context misalignment is the PlayPump, a water-harvesting technology that was designed to bring clean drinking water to remote African villages. This playground-style merry-go-round pumped water out of the ground by harnessing the power of children at play. Utilizing philanthropic capital, various NGOs installed the pumps without thoroughly consulting residents as to whether the technology was a good fit. In short, misguided good intentions resulted in more inconvenience than help. 

From agroecology’s participatory action research to economics’ principal agent problem, the literature encourages an actor to not only let go of preconceptions and refrain from projecting, but to immerse themself in a place, cultivate relationships, and ask good questions.

In addition to encouraging self-determination in others, we must do the same for ourselves. We can celebrate the contexts of the people we love and respect, and understand the contexts of those that inspire us. We must also celebrate and respect our own context, and let it inform our decisions and land management. We must differentiate between the aspirations of our peers and our own desired quality of life. Identifying how we define success is the key to achieving it.


What role can brands play?

The economic climate of the rural United States has become one of corporate influence, and to create sustained value, corporate mission and farmer context should align for the long haul. (Michael Porter, Harvard Business Review) In parallel to corporate mission (context) being to turn a profit with a chosen vehicle, businesses have the ability to systematically add value to the people of rural America. Over the past century, rural flight has sent The United States’ top talent to the cities. Value creation has moved to the urban world, and the average age of the American farmer is 58. Population density is very low in the flyover states and in rural America on the whole, because very few dollars are created and retained there. Though this may feel grim, there has not been an easier time in the past 60 years to diversify and add value to these landscapes. It has never been easier to create shared value. It has never been easier to plant trees.

Our mission at Propagate Ventures is to scale agroforestry into a cornerstone of agriculture. We work with farms and businesses to design systems that fit a specific mechanical, cultural, and financial context. We link on-farm opportunities with outside investment capital, should the contexts of the parties be mission-aligned. Financial success in this regard is contingent upon managerial success on the ground, and the Holistic Management framework supports our work.