Chapter 2: The Ideal Tree Farm Species

From A Guide to Innovative Tree Farming in the Pacific Northwest by Mike Dubrasich. 2005. Whirlwind Press. For a hard copy of the book ($10 - includes shipping) please contact W.I.S.E. [here].

My professional advice to you is don’t plant Douglas-fir on your tree farm. You might find this advice curious because Douglas-fir is the commercial tree species most commonly grown in the Pacific Northwest. Every year billions of board feet are harvested, and hundreds of millions of new Douglas-fir seedlings are planted. What’s the problem? What’s wrong with Douglas-fir?

The problem is that growing Douglas-fir has a huge opportunity cost. Many other species produce more net income per acre per year. Tree farming is a business. Douglas-fir is a poor money maker.

In general the best species to grow would be the one that makes the tree farmer the most money with the least effort in the shortest amount of time. This is profitability: gross sales minus all costs, discounted to the present. To meet the profitability goal, the ideal tree farm species should have the following characteristics:

1. Fast growth, reaches harvest age quickly.

2. Easy to grow, with minimal up-front capital investment, and low maintenance, culturing, and harvesting costs.

3. Produces valuable products, preferably for expanding markets.

4. Provides the tree farmer the opportunity to add value to the products

Let’s examine these ideal characteristics one at a time.

Fast growth

The ideal tree species to grow comes to market in a relatively short period. People making long-term investments should know that time changes the value of money. The longer you have wait for a payment, the less it is worth. A sum of money due 50 years in the future has a present worth less than 1/11 of its face value, at a discount rate of five percent. At a discount rate of seven percent, the 50-years-in-the-future sum is today worth less than 1/29 of its face value (see Table 1).

Table 1. Factors for Discounting Future Values. To calculate the present value of a single sum due many years in the future, find the table entry corresponding to the years and your selected discount rate. Then multiply the future face value by the table entry. Example: $15,000 due 50 years in the future, with a discount rate of 5%, has a present value of $15,000 * 1/11.5 = $1,304. The table entries are rounded, so calculations will not be exact. For exact table factors use 1/(1 + p)^n, where p is the discount rate and n is the number of years.

Innovative tree farmers grow faster-to-harvest-age crops than Douglas-fir timber. The best historical example of innovation in Pacific Northwest tree farming is Christmas trees. Christmas trees are typically 7 to 10 years old at harvest. An acre carries about 1,000 marketable Christmas trees, worth about $15 each, wholesale. That means the Christmas tree farmer has gross sales of $15,000 per acre, about the same amount a Douglas-fir timber grower grosses at harvest with 50-year-old timber. The difference is the former harvests five times before the latter harvests once. In terms of profitability (figuring in costs) Christmas trees make about ten times more, per acre per year, than Douglas-fir timber. As we shall see, many innovative tree farm crops make more profit than timber or Christmas trees. Fast growth to harvest has a lot to do with it.

Some tree farm species produce an annual commercial harvest of cones, boughs, shoots, sap, flowers, fruits, or nuts. Annual sales add up quickly. An annuity of $72 compounded at five percent will equal $15,000 in 50 years. In other words, an annual crop that grosses $72 per acre per year is equivalent to a freshly planted acre of Douglas-fir timber (expected to be worth $15,000 in gross sales value at harvest in 50 years). Any tree farm crop that yields an annual harvest of more than $72 per acre beats Douglas-fir timber.

Easy to grow

The second characteristic of the ideal tree farm species is that it should be easy to grow, with minimal up-front capital investment, and low maintenance, culturing, and harvesting costs.

Tree farmers grow native plants because they are easy to grow. Native plants are species that occur in our naturally and have been here for thousands of years. They are adapted to the local climate, soils, and pests. They grow like weeds (even better than weeds) and don’t require irrigation or fertilization (although those practices can improve native plant growth rates). Sometimes native plants don’t even require planting; they establish themselves on tree farms naturally.

Easy to grow also means cheap to maintain, culture, and harvest. Shearing Douglas-fir Christmas trees is a big expense. Shearing is labor intensive and must be done every year until harvest. Noble fir Christmas trees need their long leaders trimmed but not shearing, hence they require much less field culturing. Some innovative growers sell “wilding” noble firs that received no field culturing at all. The huge savings in culturing costs more than makes up for a slight reduction in sale price (as compared to cultured nobles; wilding noble fir Christmas trees sell for 25 to 50 percent more than sheared Douglas-firs).

Many tree crops are more profitable to grow than Christmas trees, because they are easier to grow. Some of these require pruning, but pruning is faster and cheaper than shearing (by pruning I mean cutting branches off at the trunk). Many of the best tree species achieve high value only if pruned, while others, such as Douglas-fir, gain little value from the effort. Innovative tree farmers take advantage of the easy practice of pruning to grow high value products that surpass even wilding noble fir Christmas trees for profitability.

Produces valuable products

By my count, eleven commodity classes constitute tree farm product markets:

1. Structural lumber
2. Poles and posts
3. Chips
4. Paper pulp
5. Firewood

6. Ornamentals
7. Decorative wood
8. Craft fiber
9. Living plants
10. Food
11. Pharmaceuticals and plant extracts

Large corporate and government landowners mass-produce the first four commodity classes and control their markets. Innovative tree farmers avoid these markets because it’s difficult to make a profit in them. The fifth, firewood, also produces little or no profitability for most tree farms. One telling feature of a mass-produced product is that it has a low value-to-weight ratio. If a tree farm product sells by the ton for pennies, then successful tree farmers don’t bother to produce it.

The last six commodity classes are of special interest to tree farmers. These are expanding markets, the markets of the future, where profitability awaits the innovative. They are worth closer examination.

Ornamental tree farm products include Christmas trees, boughs, cones, flowers, and fronds. As we have seen in our Christmas tree farm example, ornamentals can out-profit timber 10 to 1. Other ornamental tree farm products, such as boughs, cones, and fern fronds, can be even more profitable than Christmas trees (in part because annual income compounds faster than periodic income). Ornamentals have some special requirements. Culturing can be expensive. They generally have a short shelf-life and must be purchased by end-consumers soon after harvest. Most have seasonal markets (the Christmas tree harvest and sales season is only three or four weeks per year). Even so, ornamentals are much more profitable than Douglas-fir.

Decorative wood is visually attractive wood. Examples include figured wood, burls, naturally stained wood, colorful wood, and easily-worked wood. Uses include arts, crafts, paneling, musical instruments, cabinetry, and furniture making. Decorative wood is valued for its appearance, like ornamentals. Hence, it need not be especially strong nor sold in large lumber-sized pieces (artisans make objects as small as beads or coasters from decorative wood). It is often sold in small blocks for lathe turning. Veneer manufacturers slice decorative wood logs and cants. Decorative wood offers numerous opportunities for tree farmers to increase profits by adding value to their growing trees and harvested products.

Decorative wood markets are year around, not short-seasonal. The harvested materials usually have a long shelf-life. If treated correctly, decorative wood can last hundreds of years. In fact, even rotten wood can be valuable if the fungal stain, called spalting, is attractive. Figured grain and burls rarely occur in wild trees, but tree farmers can induce figure and burls into saplings of certain species, and grow them into commercial-sized, high-value trees in 25 years or less. Decorative wood is one of the most profitable commodities you can (legally) grow on your tree farm.

Craft fiber is wood that can be woven. Tree farm products for the craft fiber market include shoots, roots, inner and outer barks, splits, splints, strips, and twines. Uses include arts and crafts, furniture making, basketry, and ornamental applications. On some trees species, especially at young ages, the inner bark is more valuable than the wood. A 20-year-old bitter cherry, 12 inches in diameter at breast height and clear of limbs for 25 feet, may have $50 to $100 worth of outer bark (but only $2 worth of pulp wood inside it). Any tree that is worth $100 at age 20 is of interest to innovative tree farmers.

Live plants produced by tree farms include seedlings, rooted cuttings, root-balled and potted plants, and living mosses and ferns. I also put viable seed in this category (seeds are, after all, alive and plants, or at least potentially so). We usually call farms that produce living plants nurseries, and the nursery business is outside the scope of this book. Marketing live plants requires working knowledge of nursery regulations, and proper certification to avoid spreading pests and diseases. Growing your own seedlings is one method of protecting your tree farm from outside infections. Innovative tree farmers also sell cones or processed seed to the nursery industry.

Food crops grown on tree farms include berries, fruits, nuts, and mushrooms. In general, domesticated food crop varieties greatly out-produce their wild cousins, but some edible native plants are high-value luxury foods. Truffles, morels, chanterelles, huckleberries, camas, wild celery, and many others can provide small (but annual) profits to tree farmers. Commercial wild food gathering on public lands is a problematic practice, but is little competition to private landowners who produce consistent, high-quality edible native foods for local restaurants and grocery stores.

Pharmaceuticals and plant extracts are medicinal and aromatic extracts, concentrated essential oils, and distilled fragrances. These products are purchased by industries including: pharmaceuticals, homeopathy, soaps and shampoos, cosmetics, and many others. This market is huge and currently under-utilized by Pacific Northwest tree farmers. Opportunities abound for innovators, at both large and small scales, but the most profitable application for individual and family tree farmers may be the use of small, CO2 distilleries to extract and refine rare fragrances.

The combined markets for tree farm ornamentals, decorative wood, craft fiber, live plants, food, and pharmaceuticals are just a fraction of the lumber market, but they are multi-million (or -billion) dollar markets nonetheless. So-called specialty and niche markets are not attractive to large corporations, leaving those expanding and highly-profitable markets wide open for the rest of us.

Opportunity to Add Value

The last characteristic of the ideal tree farm species is that it provides tree farmers with opportunities to add value to products. Value can be added while trees are growing or after harvest. An example of the former is pruning. On some species, such as Douglas-fir, pruning adds little value. Douglas-fir is used for structural lumber, and the presence of a few knots is acceptable to consumers. On other species, such as western red cedar, pruning can triple or quadruple the value of the wood. On some species, such as Oregon ash, pruning can turn a waste tree into one worth five times more than Douglas-fir by the board foot.

Adding value after harvest can be a profitable practice, too. Most tree farmers cannot cut lumber from logs more efficiently than sawmills. Sawyers in typical sawmills miss-cut decorative wood logs, however. Tree farmers who saw their own decorative wood logs into violin blanks, slicer cants, turning blocks, and other specialty products, can increase the value of the wood 10-fold or more. A figured bigleaf maple log, worth about 25¢ per board foot delivered to a pulpmill, might be worth $50 per board foot cut, dried, and planed into guitar backs.

Fast growth to harvest, easy to grow, producing valuable products for multiple markets, and providing the opportunity to add value: these are the characteristics of the ideal species for innovative and profitable tree farming. Are there any real species that meet the test? Yes indeed, as we shall see in the next four chapters.

15 Sep 2009, 7:21am
by Hal M.

Any suggestions for East Coast of US

15 Sep 2009, 10:08am
by Mike


Not that familiar with EC species, but figured hardwoods are always good everywhere.

Readers are cordially invited to send in their ideas.

15 Sep 2009, 10:09am
by Robert S.


Enjoyed reading about your experiences, background and philosophy of tree farming vs forest management.

I’m not a forester (unlike you), and am not familiar with the soils, growth site indices that you have around Lebanon, Oregon.

I grew up in Montesano, Washington… home of the original tree farm (Weyerheauser’s), and home of Chapin Collins (publisher of the Montesano Vidette) who first coined the term Tree Farm.

There in Grays Harbor County we have low site I (135′ to 140′ trees in 50 years) growing conditions for D fir. This is roughly equivalent to 1000 board feet per acre per year growth rate average over the 55 year rotation cycle. We had 25 acres set aside for Christmas trees which we marketed to California and Hawaii. Trust me, the latter (Christmas tree industry), was a heck of a lot more labor intensive and not anywhere as lucrative as the doug fir market in our neck of the woods.

Your critical cost analysis of going with traditional d-fir (interest rate on your money, long turnaround on your money etc ) may not take in some extenuating factors that tip the scales in a different direction.

One. Timber can be grown on sites which topographically are not feasible for culture of christmas trees. (ie land value less expensive for growing timber than Christmas trees).

Two. Labor, culture, harvest and reforestation expenses for Christmas trees are much higher per year than for forestland plantation establishment and maintenance.

Three. Commercial thinnings before final harvest stops the “interest on your money clock” and yields returns on your investments.

Four. The stand is appreciating in value every year (barring dips in the market) due to increase volume.

Five. The price of timber historically is higher with each successive crop due to monetary inflation.

Six. A well balanced tree farm will not be in a single age class, or species. Therefore, you can stagger harvests, based on age and species along the way thereby decreasing the time interval between paydays.

Seven. Tax advantage of forest land over Christmas tree land, which in Washington state is classed as agriculture not forest land.

Having written all of this, I will agree that after 46 years of planting Douglas-firs (I’m 56 now), I have found other species which capture my fancy and hopefully will some day pay off. But keep in mind, it was and continues to be the 3 foot plus of linear growth rate a year that the doug fir puts on that allows me to dapple in my other AF pursuits.

We do agree that the Sequoia sempervirens is an excellent species for environmental conditions support it.

However, I stopped planting your preferred WRC years ago. The reasons 1. Extremely slow growth rate (even in it’s native sites) 2. Very heavy deer/elk browse 3. Inability to harvest within it’s desired site due to riparian zone restrictions and 4. The coast redwood, which will grow in the same site at three times the growth rate will be the same high price at the mill as does the western red cedar.

Again, your experience in the Lebanon area may be completely different from mine.

My contention is we overplant but underutilize our forest land. By that I mean we plant the trees at such a spacing that often a PCT is required before the initial commercial harvest. If we don’t, then the wider planting spacing creates a greater competitive vegetation problem — longer time to crown over and a longer time before selfpruning within the stand can take place.

The solution could be in the form of agroforestry whereby a short crop rotation (berries, fruits, nuts, tubers, willow pollards, cereal grains, cover legumes, or bamboo) is intercropped with the cash crop conifers. The understory crop acts as a buffer against undesirable brush species, protects or enhances the cash crop trees, and desireably creates a cash flow to supplement the tree farming… unlike a costly PCT which generates no money, is labor intensive, and removes trees that cost money to purchase and plant in the first place.

Albeit, once the conifers start to crown over and the understory is shaded out you lose all but the most shade tolerant intercropped species.


Bob Stewart

15 Sep 2009, 10:35am
by Mike

Bob, Thank you. You are fortunate to own Site I land. As to your seven points:

One. ITF is much more than Christmas trees.

Two. Many ITF crops require intensive farming techniques which cost time and money. It is always smart to estimate costs, returns, and profit before venturing into a business.

Three. The more years it takes to get a crop to market, the less that crop is worth (due to the time value of money).

Four. Since ~1990 D-fir sawlog prices have dropped from $1200/MBF to less than $300/MBF. Also see #3.

Five. Real value in D-fir has diminished 75% not counting inflation. With inflation the value decline is even greater. Further, the 40 to 50 years between planting and harvest inflict a real monetary cost equal to the alternative investment interest rates compounded.

Six. Area control does not take away the fact that on any particular acre the crop has a lifespan.

Seven. The tax system is a mess. Regardless, I don’t allow the government to run my life or tree farm, but that’s just me.


PS re: WRC. The primary products from WRC are boughs and bark. Trees can be harvested at age 20 for maximum profit, even though the sawlog is mostly worthless at that age. ITF is not about growing sawlogs, in most cases, because sawlogs take too long to achieve maturity and thus are not as profitable as other products.

15 Sep 2009, 9:35pm
by Bob S.


Are you suggesting WRC will reach merchantable sawlog age at 20 YO? If so, I want to buy some
of that land…. On site one for DF you would only get pee wee dimensional lumber from a first thinning commercial harvest of that age. And cedar at it’s best only grows 60% the rate of DF.

As far as cedar boughs at 20 cents a pound (profit after harvest costs)… the land owner gets his trees pruned for free; but certainly doesn’t make any serious money. Same for bark, which I find very few markets for.

As for as the price of cash crop conifer sawlogs… in case you haven’t noticed we are in a housing/economic slump unparalleled in 60 some years. Look at your 401K or IRA fund… it’s dropped like a lead sinker as well.

The “value of the timber on the stump” may be at a temporary low… it continues to grow. When the market rebounds (which historically it always has) the timber price will reflect not only the inflation rate but the increase volume yield it put on during the recession. You don’t have to go back to 1990 for the $1200 per 1000 bd, that was as recent as 9 years ago. And cedar prices hit $1000 plus per thous BF as recently as 4 years ago. Similarly Red Alder was at an all time price high as little as three
to four years ago.

As for taxes, you mean you pay full value real estate taxes on your forest land? By having it classed as forest land, the annual tax rate is a small fraction of what it would be otherwise. We are talking more savings in money in this item alone that the value of all the cedar boughs on 1 acre of fully stocked 30 year old cedars.

I for one don’t consider this “letting the government run my tree farm” Rather, I consider it good business sense. (I don’t take issue with your comment that the federal/state and local tax laws are “a mess”)

Again, you are not taking in consideration that commercial harvests along the life cycle of the stand pull money out of your “appreciated interest on your principal” model. Trust me on this one Mike, the big timber companies would not be in the business of growing trees if there were no profit in it. The small woodland owner can grow big trees just as well as the big boys do.

I thoroughly endorse a “non” monoculture approach to tree farming. Similar to “dollar cost averaging” in investing. I believe in uneven age, multispecies approach to best hedge against market fluctuations, insidious disease (eg swiss needle cast, root rot), climate/weather related problems.

Trust me, I’m about as innovative a tree farmer as you will find… I have peeled tons of cascara
bark in my life, harvested and sold 100’s of sack of fir cones (when nurseries bought cones from indiviuals to process seeds for nursery stock), picked gallons of little black berries, and huckleberries, Processed and sold dozens of cords of firewood, established a shooting preserve stocking it with upland game birds for corporate hunts.

These ancillary ‘make work’ jobs have been challenging, memory building, and yes fun. As for financially rewarding, forget it. Barely pays for property taxes, chain saw, utility trailer, bird raising expenses, gas and other related costs.

BUT every 4 or 5 years I can have a 6 or 8 acres of ground commercially thinned and make $2k per acre profit. And, I have 3 or 4 acres of mature wood clear cut at $15K to $16K per acre profit (after harvest costs) And this can be done on as little as 60 acres with a 50 year planned crop rotation. (Typically I do a minimum of two commercial thinnings before final harvest)

This assumes a fairly well stocked tree farm, and takes out for riparian, road, and other non-plantable or non harvestable areas.

I can not speak for portable sawmills, or commercial mushroom picking. However, the mushroom market fluctuates fairly wildly, as does the seasonal yields. I have picked lots of yellow chantrelles over the years….but they have all been preserved and meted out through the year over onion and mushroom smothered steaks. Yummy

15 Sep 2009, 10:20pm
by Mike

Bob, if all else fails, read the book. No, I did not suggest that 20-yo cedars have merchantable sawlogs. I said in the comment above and in the book that the woody core of a 20-yo WRC is “mostly worthless.” Apparently you don’t read my comments, either.

You seem to have no grasp of the time value of money. If you did, you would understand that a payment due in 50 years is not worth very much today because it must be discounted to the present.

I appreciate that you grow short-rotation Douglas-fir. I don’t. I have found better crops and products to grow that yield me higher profits. It’s all in the book, which is now posted for free here.

Read it, you might learn something. For instance, mushroom picking is not something I do or recommend. I don’t know where you got that idea!

9 Aug 2010, 2:11am
by John

Will Redwoods grow in Western Washington, on high site, river bottom ground? Thanks.

Reply: Absolutely!



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta