Owen Farm Controlled Burn
Restoring Virginia's Founding Forest
“I was really nervous because we’d spent a fortune — longleaf pine planting is a really expensive proposition.” —Bill Owen, Landowner
By Daniel White
The aroma of hot garlic bread permeates Bill Owen’s farmhouse kitchen. Lowering the oven door, Bill pokes two bubbling quiches with a butter knife and says, “I think we can declare these done.”
Thanks to Bill’s hospitality, the two energy bars I’d hastily grabbed that morning stay tucked away in my backpack. But Bill is cooking up much more than lunch on this late-December afternoon. As we prepare to eat, a restoration crew on his Sussex County farm is carrying out the largest planting of longleaf pine in Virginia history.
More than a million acres of longleaf — the tree that built Tidewater — graced southeastern Virginia when John Smith came ashore. But the longleaf forests that seemed inexhaustible were essentially wiped from the state by 1850, and today you can actually count the remaining mature trees.
For more than a decade, Bill has worked with The Nature Conservancy, state and federal agencies, and other partners to spearhead Virginia’s most expansive longleaf restoration. He now has 825 acres growing.
After our morning traipsing around Bill’s Raccoon Creek Pinelands, I’m struck by the tall order Bill faces in his quest to restore the South’s signature tall timber. Planting is expensive and labor intensive, and seedlings remain scarce.
And virtually from the beginning, Bill explains, bad luck and weather threatened to destroy his investment and his longleaf dream — or so he thought.
Burned to a Crisp?
My Conservancy colleague Brian van Eerden has worked closely with Bill and serves as co-interpreter during our morning tour. Also along for the ride are Esi Waters and Jon Glass of Norfolk Southern, whose foundation is helping to fund the longleaf restoration.
Before we head out, Bill and Brian recount some of the lessons and unexpected twists of the past decade. Bill’s ready laugh punctuates his story about his first major planting — 180 acres that he feared were doomed by a prolonged drought that soon followed.
“I was really nervous because we’d spent a fortune — longleaf pine planting is a really expensive proposition,” says Bill. He recalls thinking, “They’re all going to die; I know they’re gonna die; it won’t rain; it simply won’t rain.
“My farmer was wringing his hands because all the crops were drying up and dying. If you weren’t irrigating, you were losing everything. And he said, ‘You’re gonna lose those trees.’ I said I know I am.”
But the trees surprised Bill. “They loved it; they absolutely loved it,” he says. “Longleaf doesn’t seem to like any kind of competition. Because it was so dry, nothing else was growing and the longleaf got to dominate.
“My farmer still just shakes his head, says he’s never seen any plant except a cactus that doesn’t like water. But those trees were growing like crazy.”
Brian adds that the first controlled burn produced similar disbelief, especially from community members.
“Most people around here thought it had been some sort of accidental fire,” Bill explains. “Then when they learned that The Nature Conservancy had deliberately set it: ‘They’ve ruined it! They killed your trees!’”
“Just like you’ve got to have faith in a seedling, you’ve got to have faith in fire,” Brian says. “The stand is doing great.”
The proof rises before us after a short drive: acres and acres of lush young pines. Though longleaf seedlings remain in a fire-resistant grass stage for several years, sending deep tap roots to reach water, their growth rate then accelerates dramatically. The nearly nine-year-old stand that we visit first has virtually caught up with the same-aged loblollies across the road.
From Ancient Ocean to Future Old-Growth Forest
To reach our last stop, we traverse a desolate clearcut spread across rolling sandy hills. But rising from the ashes and woody debris, vibrant green sprigs begin to appear. We head toward a small cluster of vehicles perched atop a rise where we meet the planting crew and their supervisor, Felipe.
To photograph the men planting, I’m practically sprinting to keep pace. Each planter strides, swings his heavy hoedad one-handed to open a hole, pops in a seedling with the other hand, tamps the dirt down with a boot, plucks another seedling from his dual hip-high satchels — and the process repeats every few seconds.
In fact, as Felipe explains, this process repeats approximately 600 times per acre, and he expects his small crew to plant the entire 525 acres within a week.
At Bill’s request, Felipe gives us a close-up look at a seedling. The baby tree resembles a squid-like creature. An elongated root ball forms the “head,” while emerald needles dance on the wind like tentacles waving in an ocean current.
If that image seems a leap of fantasy, well, as Bill says, “This part of the world used to be Virginia Beach.” So I’ll blame the influence of the ancient dunes beneath our feet.
Longleaf pine thrives in sand. As Brian puts it, “The soils here are exceptionally well suited for large-scale longleaf restoration.” Of course, arguably the most important growing condition is a committed landowner. And longleaf pine has few greater champions than Bill Owen.
Bill has placed 1400 acres under conservation easement with the Conservancy and will soon add another 450 acres – land devoted to creating future old-growth longleaf savannas. Bill says he particularly appreciates the rich ecological variety that longleaf habitat adds to a surrounding landscape where forestry has largely been reduced to single-species tree farms.
And perhaps because he’s an artist, an accomplished organist and choirmaster, Bill also sings the praises of longleaf’s aesthetic qualities.
Right before the others come inside for lunch, Bill admits, “I just really like the tree.”