If you only use your forestlands to grow trees, you'll lose much of the true value of your property. That's what Nordeck Thompson of Huntland, Tennessee believes. He knows that many forestland owners overlook the deeper value of the lands where they grow timber.
The Thompson Family
"My family is not only in the timber business, but also in the relationship business," says Thompson. "If I'm going to do business with you, I want to be your friend. I use my family's forestlands to build friendships that help me grow my family's business on the land where we also grow timber."
Thompson and his family own and operate a hardwood sawmill/manufacturing plant that produces high-grade lumber. Thompson also manages Thompson Appalachian Sales, a wholesale lumber division of the company, which manufactures cypress lumber and also manufactures and exports oak. Nordeck and his brother Bert, of Macon, Georgia, together own about 3000 acres of timberland in Camden County, Georgia. The brothers also own approximately 2000 acres of pine timberland with hardwood bottoms in Montgomery County, Georgia, with their sisters, Edie Faircloth and Phyllis Johnson. Some of the family's land comes from an original land grant given to the family.
"The most important thing our family does on our family lands is turkey hunt," says Thompson. "However, we also realize that the land has to pay for itself and make a profit. We actively plant and harvest pine timber on our family property. We use herbaceous weed control, and we fertilize and thin our trees for maximum yield. On the Camden Country property, which is our hardwood site, we don't do a lot of active harvesting." Thompson has learned that actively managing timberlands by planting and harvesting pine timber actually increases the deer and turkey on those lands. He claims his family's better game populations are on the lands that have been clear-cut. "Having a wide variety of biodiversity on the property one owns or manages provides the framework for successful wildlife management and quality timber management."
"Some of our property hasn't seen a saw in 50 years, while other tracts are managed very intensely," says Thompson. "We have all ages of pine and hardwood timber growing throughout our land, and that provides a wide variety of habitat for our wildlife."
On his property in Tennessee, Thompson only may clear-cut 30 to 50 acres of his land at a time. Thompson must consider the difficulty of gaining access to that timber when he's determining the amount of timber to harvest from any tract.
"Our haul road costs often dictate the size of tract we cut," says Thompson. "You can't build a $20,000 road around the side of a mountain to harvest only 60 acres of timber. However, we do try to use small-patch clear cuts in our mountainous areas when possible."
On Thompson's land in Georgia, where the primarily flat terrain makes harvesting timber easier, Thompson leaves hardwood buffers next to his roads and around the SMZs (land set aside for wildlife and conservation under a government program) and the stream sides.
"We have several hundred acres of clear-cut land that our father cut." says Thompson. "Initially these huge clear-cuts looked bad. However, through our game-management program and planting for wildlife, we've increased the wildlife on the land and have produced a valuable crop of timber at the same time. I can take you on our property any afternoon and show you 35 to 40 deer and two or three droves of turkeys. We have more game than any place I know of, and we still produce a high yield of timber."
Harvesting: Growing Wildlife & Relationships
"Our dad, Bill Thompson, always felt that you needed one big greenfield for wildlife on every 100 acres of timberland that you owned or managed," says Thompson. "On every 100 acres that we grow timber on, we plant at least one 2- to 3-acre greenfield for wildlife."
Thompson and his family have discovered that having abundant wildlife like deer, turkey and ducks on their lands not only enhances the value of their property but also provides an economical way to entertain business clients, get to know them as friends and grow their family's business. Thompson emphasizes that building friendships strengthens business relationships.
"When I can take a banker or one of our clients out and show him a flight of mallards coming in to land on a field we've flooded, let him listen to six turkeys gobble before the first rays of daylight appear or enable him to see six or eight bucks in a greenfield, I've made a friend with whom I can build a business relationship," says Thompson.
"The materials manager at a furniture plant may have 900 people calling him trying to sell him lumber, and I have to build a relationship with him if I expect to get some of that business. The timber business is relationship driven, and working at those relationships will build your business."
Thompson has learned that building business relationships has a greater value than the timber he grows on his land. That's why he plants crops for wildlife and floods fields for waterfowl. Thompson also realizes that his land has intrinsic value. He wants to preserve and pass that heritage on to future generations just as his father passed it down to him and his brother and sister.
The Value of Family Ties
"If I couldn't take my family hunting and enjoy the land for more than the timber it produced, then the land wouldn't be nearly as valuable to me," says Thompson, who has five daughters and a son. "A friend once told me, `if you teach your children to hunt, you won't have to hunt your children.' So my family uses our land not only to grow timber, but also to strengthen our family ties and help our friends grow strong family ties."
The Thompson have such a strong belief in the use of their land to build family ties that they often invite their customers and their customers' children on hunts to give their customers opportunities to build stronger relationships with their own families.
About three years ago, doctors diagnosed Nordeck Thompson's father, Bill, with lung cancer. Before Bill passed away, Nordeck took him on his last turkey hunt. The two men had a great hunt together on their family land and bagged two gobblers.
At the end of the hunt, Bill told Nordeck, "We've taken enough turkeys. Let's go home." Bill Thompson never got to go turkey hunting again.
"Along that same road that my dad and I hunted during his last hunt was also where I took my first squirrel as a child," says Nordeck. "My dad was buried in the family cemetery on that land where all the other generations of our family have been buried. This land has a much greater value to our family than just the value of the timber and dirt on it."
"We focus our land management practices on being good stewards of the land," says Thompson. "We know that one day we'll have to stand before the Lord and give an account of what we've done with the land He's given us to manage. We want to make sure that what we do with our lives, our land, our business and our investments build up the land and the people that we come in contact with rather than tear any of it down." The Thompson family credo is to be a positive influence on both the people they do business with and the land they manage.
The Thompsons prove that landowners can manage timber intensively, grow a timber business and build a family and a legacy on the land B all at the same time.
Reprinted from Timberland Owner & Forest investor Report, Winter 2001, with permission. Copyright 2001, John E. Phillips.