In honor of the holiday, a labor of patience

August 29, 2014

Many of us crossing Sussex County from east to west travel Route 16. Lots of farms line the highway between Delaware Bay and the state line west of Greenwood. One of the most unique farms - with one of the slowest-growing crops - covers 300 acres between Milton and Ellendale. For years, a sign along the road, in the midst of the crop, caught my attention. It explains that between 1974 and 1977, Harry Isaacs planted the yellow pines to create a tree farm.

Several months back, before the weather turned warm, a timber company rolled its equipment onto 165 acres of the farm and harvested the crop that Isaacs and his son, Hobby, patiently cultivated starting 36 years ago. The change from forest to cut-over open field was dramatic. How could it not be? The seedlings that Isaacs planted over the decades grew to 40 and 50 feet tall with diameters of 14 to 16 inches. Then they were felled. Now the process will begin all over again.

Hobby Isaacs decided the time had come to harvest half the trees. “It was a wet winter, the mills had a big order for six-by-sixes and eight-by-eights, and our trees had reached the size for saw logs. I had a dry spot where they could get to and work, and they wanted it bad. It was a good time to make a deal.”

Isaacs said the housing crash several years back took its toll on the timber business. Demand fell off sharply. But now it’s returning, and that’s good news for tree farmers. In all, Isaacs tree farms cover about 600 acres around Milton. The 165 acres harvested this year were once part of the 1,200-acre Ponders Tract. Delaware Nature Conservancy bought 900 of those acres several years ago and now maintains a trail system within for walkers and hunters.

Isaacs said his father harvested trees in the early 1970s before planting the trees cut this year. “He cut it all and he planted it all. Everything back then was sold for pulpwood, which didn’t bring much. The saw logs that come from the bigger trees are what eventually make the crop valuable.”

Through the intervening years, the trees were thinned at least three times. Most of the thinned trees were chipped and sold to the Maryland prison system to heat the Eastern Shore facility between Princess Anne and Crisfield.

Within just months, nature began reseeding the harvested fields. “The little pines are thicker than hair on a dog’s back,” said Isaacs, “but they’re not a good variety. Come fall, the field will be sprayed and everything killed. Then next spring it will all be replanted with a variety of yellow pines that comes out of North Carolina and Georgia. They grow straight and tall. This Delaware variety grows up to about 20 or 25 feet and then starts branching out.”

We sure do use trees for a lot - including the paper used to print the Cape Gazette. It’s a good thing they’re a renewable resource, even if they take their own sweet time. But even that has value. They help teach patience.