VIDEO: Trees play important role for Minnesota ranch family

SEBEKA, Minn. -- Tim Nolte has just been asked how many different types of trees grow on his family's heavily wooded ranch in Minnesota lakes country. He starts to name them, counting the number on his fingers -- and runs out of fingers before co...

The Nolte family ranch is represented by several generations June 27 near Sebeka, Minn.: (from left) Paul, Rita, Tim Nolte; Terri Churchman (on tractor); Eva, Erik and Jacob Nolte. Photo by Nick Nelson, Agweek

SEBEKA, Minn. - Tim Nolte has just been asked how many different types of trees grow on his family’s heavily wooded ranch in Minnesota lakes country. He starts to name them, counting the number on his fingers - and runs out of fingers before completing the list.
“There’s a lot of them,” he says with a smile.
Later, after checking with an expert, Nolte says, “It’s about 25.”
Trees are rare and precious in much of the Upper Midwest. Here on the Nolte ranch, they’re common and precious. Nolte and his family - which includes his father, Paul; wife, Rita; and three of their four grown children - rely on the trees, in ways both direct and indirect, to supplement income from their beef cattle operation.
Two examples:

  •  Paul’s house, near the farmstead on which Tim and Rita live, is built primarily from pine trees that grew on the farm. 
  •  All the buildings on Tim and Rita’s farmstead, except for the house in which they live, are built with wood from trees on the farm.

Now, with cattle profitability declining and three of the four Nolte children hoping to take on greater roles in the family operation, the trees’ economic importance will grow, Tim says. “The trees have always been important to us,” he says. “But the way things are going in the cattle cycle, and (also) trying to generate income for three more, they’ll be an even bigger deal in the future."
The Noltes have about 500 cow-calf pairs. They also custom-feed about 500 cattle for two other farmers.
‘A resource to make use of’
Sebeka, population about 700, is in Wadena County in central Minnesota. The county has 21 lakes and extensive woodland; the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies 17.3 percent of farmland in the county as woodland, with 15.9 percent classified as pastureland. Tourism and recreation are economic cornerstones, and sawmills once were common.
Today, a wide range of crops and livestock are produced in Wadena County, though generally in smaller quantities than in most other Minnesota counties.
The Noltes own or rent about 5,000 acres. Soil types vary widely across the land, which accounts for the 25 different species of trees, Tim says. The list includes pine, oak, poplar, ash, maple and birch.
Tim says his father’s generation was concerned primarily with clearing trees to create more farmland, and didn’t consider trees to be a long-term source of income for farms in the area.
Paul, 82, nods in agreement and says, “I never liked it (supplementing farming income with money from trees.) I wanted to get out of it.”
But Tim, 46, says trees provide an important source of income, in some years as much as 15 percent of gross revenue generated on the farm. The percentage from wood sales was especially high in the 1990s when cattle prices were poor.

The Noltes sell about 100 cords of wood every year. A cord measures four feet high by four feet wide by eight feet long.
“It’s a nice part-time job, better than working at a gas station,” Tim says of cutting and selling firewood.
‘Find a market’
Ag producers interested in selling firewood from trees on their land need to identify buyers before doing anything else, Tim says.
“First thing, find a market,” he says. “Find out what people want and what they want to pay - it changes day by day.”
Some ag producers might have trees on their land that could be sold for valuable timber, rather than as cut firewood. Tim Nolte and Tom Schulz, a Sebeka farmer who’s knowledgeable about trees, suggest ag producers in that situation contact their local forestry department or commercial loggers already operating in their area.
The Noltes benefit financially from the trees in ways other than firewood sales,” Tim says. “All of our wood has a dual purpose. We sell or use the lumber, plus we’re clearing pasture, keeping it clean. That’s the big thing we say all the time, keep it clean.”
And they pay one of their landlords with cut firewood from the land instead of cash, as well as using wood in fences and farm buildings.
Tim, who’s president of the the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, jokes that he tells ranchers elsewhere in the state, “You guys don’t use wood planking in your corrals. But that’s what us poor people have to do.
He adds, more seriously, that, “The trees are a resource to make use of. That’s what we do.”
The Noltes find other uses for the wood, as well.
Paul Nolte selected a red oak on the farm to provide the wood for his coffin. The lumber is stored, “but one of my grandsons says I can’t use it for 10 years,” Paul says.
‘Dead tree in the yard’
Tim nods when asked if he ever hears complaints from people who don’t approve of him cutting trees.
“All the time,” he says.
But he and Rita emphasize that trees are important to them.
“There’s what I call the liberal side to me,” Tim says. “I like live trees. We don’t cut live trees, but when they get to the end of their lives, they need to be harvested.”
They cut only dead or mature trees, or trees in “thinning projects that make sense,” he says.
Sentiment sometimes trumps practicality, however.
“There’s a dead tree in the yard,” Tim says. “It’s been dead for two years, but I can’t bring myself to cut it down. It’s been there since my childhood."
The Noltes plant at least 250 trees annually, and sometimes many more, to replenish their supply.
Cattle and children
Tim and Rita have four children, and trees on the family farm have been a big part of their lives, too.
Now, Louise, 23, is studying urban forestry. The other - Jacob, 21; Eric, 20; and Eva, 18 - work on the farm, but have off-farm jobs, too. All three say they enjoy working on the family farm and want to take on an expanded role.
“So we’re looking at ways to come up with more income (from the family farm),” Tim says. “That’s our challenge now."
The next generation influenced Tim and Rita’s decision to quit the dairy business three years ago. Until then, the Nolte family generated income from trees sales, milk cows and beef cattle.
“We (Tim and Rita) always thought we’d milk cows,” Tim says.
To continue milking, however, Tim and Rita would have needed to build expensive new dairy facilities - and dairying wasn’t their childrens’ passion, Tim says,
So, he and Rita decided to get out of dairying and expand their beef cattle operation. “We carry a lot of debt for land (for the additional beef cows) instead of steel and concrete (in new dairy facilities),” he says. “It’s a lot easier to liquidate cattle and land than a dairy facility."
Tim says he and Rita were “very emotional” initially after getting out of the dairy business. “We thought we’d be okay with it, but it was a month before we slept decent.”
The Noltes still milk four cows, for the family’s own use, Rita says.
Many other small dairy farms in the Sebeka area also have quit in recent years, providing much of the land that allows the Noltes to expand their beef cattle operation, Tim says.
“So we’ve seen a lot of changes around here, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more,” he says. “But one thing that doesn’t change is, we value our trees.”

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