Grower tries walnut plantation
Small independent landowner sees prospect in high-value hardwood

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

The word is out, even making headlines on CNN, that dedicated reforestation practices over the past 20 years are finally taking their toll on the pulp wood market with what can only be described as a glut of paper wood.

One timber management specialist told The Piney Woods Journal earlier this year that he had not conducted the usual yearly thinning operations he would have normally practiced for several clients this year, because it would not have been in their best interests financially, due to the deflated market. This situation affects the whole spectrum of timber producers, whether their acreage devoted to timber production is constituted of hundreds of thousands of acres, or one hundred acres. Naturally the corporate landowner takes the bigger hit because of the size of his operation.

Be that as it may, a gentleman formerly of the Ruston, Louisiana area recognized that the small timberland owner is in a bind, and in need of a viable alternative to pine tree farming. Truett Scarborough decided to stay with tree farming, but opted instead to devote some of his acres of inherited lands near Choudrant, located between Ruston and Monroe, to the establishment of a hybrid walnut plantation.

Scarborough is a Lincoln Parish native whose father, Truett Scarborough, Jr. was an attorney and long-time District Attorney in Lincoln Parish. For a number of years Scarborough has resided in New Mexico. He graduated Louisiana Tech and went to work for the U.S. Government at White Sands, NM working with the missile program being developed there. He labored in Data Processing and/or Cost Analysis for years. He took an aptitude test prior to selecting a major at LA. Tech and it revealed that he should pursue teaching mathematics or farming. By now he figures he's had his fling with math related subjects, so now its time to take up farming, by initiating an experimental plot of hybrid black walnut trees.

Raising hybrid walnut trees is not a new concept, but to get on the right track in this new endeavor, "True" enlisted the aid and mentorship of Professor of Forestry G.H. Weaver from Louisiana Tech. In Indiana, the hybrid walnut estates have been cultivated for many years. Walnut tree growers there now estimate they can harvest their trees as a lumber product every 50 years.

Recently an unnamed benefactor donated one million dollars to the University of Mississippi, and Prof. Emily Shultz, and asked her to develop an intensive hybrid walnut development program.

Hardwood timber was in huge demand in the Old World in the 1840's with which to craft fine furniture, so when timber was first harvested in the Tunica Hills east of the Mississippi River, between Natchez and Woodville, MS., the only wood harvested was walnut, and summarily shipped out to France. The wood has long since been used for fine furniture, gunstocks, and even turned bowls.

Good quality logs were cut into lumber prior to shipping, or sliced into veneer, some only as thick as 1/50th of an inch. This type veneer was glued to the surface of a more inferior wood to give the appearance of a fine-grained walnut construction.

Consequently, even today, reports of some black walnut trees being sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars has caused some "wannabe" hybrid black walnut producers to go overboard, and dream too big.

Prior to the establishment of a hybrid black walnut plantation, a number of factors need to be considered, preliminary surveys need to be completed and requirements need to be met before the first rootstock ever goes into the ground. The main thing to remember is that this new undertaking is very labor intensive! It's not like setting out the pine tree and simply turning it loose.

Soil tests need to be conducted for suitability for raising the trees. A deep soil, sandy loam, with minimal clay content is the most desirable. The novice hybrid walnut tree farmer should be prepared over the formative years of the trees to fertilize them, to enclose the tree in a four-inch fiberglass sheath trunk protector, which also ensures vertical growth. This sheath needs to be elevated at least a foot from the base of the tree during the peak summer months to avoid the tree being dehydrated from the sun' heat. Not knowing this cost him approximately a third of his first planting, and they had to be replaced.

The fledgling tree farmer should be also be prepared to irrigate each and every young tree should the plantation site be besieged with drought. When the trees are set out, the root system should be placed into the hole on top of a time-release fertilizer capsule, with the accent upon nitrogen and phosphate composition. Then soil tests need to be conducted each year to insure that the trees are receiving the proper balance of nutrients.

There's no doubt that "True" Scarborough has steadily been taking care of business for the last three years or so. When we arrived at his plantation, were introduced to a grove of hybrid black walnut trees, and were informed that they are now two years old, with the rootstock being an additional year older. The trees, for the most part, are now between five and six feet tall, each encased in its own PVC trunk protector sheath, and each tree has its own histogram on a computer database he established. Pruning and shaping of the young trees will take place after their second year growing season, which will be the fall of 2002.

For irrigation, which was sorely needed until quite recently, he purchased some slightly defective septic tanks of fiberglass construction, and installed them at strategic sites around the plantation proper. He's in the process of reconstructing and excavating a silted-in older farm pond adjacent to the plantation, and using the excess dirt being excavated to fill in some low spots in his next planting site.

The trees in place now were planted on 20'x 20' centers. In the next couple of years he will introduce a second planting 20' of hybrids, also on 20' centers will tally out roughly 436 trees per acre on 10' centers. On the backside of his tree farm, "True" has planted three rows of native walnut trees, raised from fruit on trees he found about a mile away from his farm.

He stated that there are six species of walnut found in the U.S. with a total of 15 different types worldwide. Scarborough envisions harvesting his first crop of timber in 2030.

Scarborough stated that he realizes this type of tree farming is not for everyone because it is labor intensive, but he believes it will provide a profitable alternative to pine tree farming in the future. Meanwhile, the jury is still out.