2007 Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year

By Chris Brown

Sitting on the screened porch of his historic home, Dr. Bob Cooper recalls with a smile the first time he had an unwanted visitor on the back half of his 165-acre farm that straddles Salem Creek just outside of Winston Salem.

“I heard the cows making a noise that usually meant something was wrong,” explained Cooper. “I headed out to investigate and when I came through the trees, I came face-to-face with a creature I had never seen before in my life.”

Now, Cooper is no city-slick doctor. He grew up on a farm in Elizabeth City, but his farm days on the coast could not prepare him for this encounter.

After a few moments, I realized I was looking into the eyes of a buffalo,” stated Cooper with a chuckle.

As it turns out, one of Cooper’s neighbors across Salem Creek owned a buffalo that happened to crave some companionship. Cooper can retell that story with a vivid detail and humor as he overlooks his picture-book quality Meadowbrook Farm, but that’s the advantage of perspective.

When Cooper purchased the property in 1973, he had to use a lot of imagination to transform the original 118-acre farm and its relic of a house into a working cattle farm, let alone a residence.

“It was extremely desecrated,” stated Cooper. “There were gullies everywhere and some of the fields were so grown up with briars that you couldn’t get through.”

Cooper, an ROTC student in college, made his migration from the Carolina coast to Winston Salem some fifty years ago through North Carolina State and Wake Forest University. Cooper graduated from N.C. State in 1955 with a degree in Animal Husbandry. He married Jean, his wife of 49 years, in 1956, and the couple spent their first year as a married couple in Germany.

“I thought I was destined to be a county agent,” explained Cooper. “I always had interest in growing things and livestock.”

Upon returning to North Carolina, Cooper earned a fellowship from N.C. State in Animal Nutrition, but after the first year, Cooper felt he could make more of a difference working with people so he decided to pursue a medical career. In 1958, Cooper enrolled at Bowman Gray Medical School at Wake Forest University, graduated in 1962 and earned a spot on the faculty at Bowman Gray in 1967. His fields of responsibility until his retirement in 2001 were teaching, patient care, research and grant writing.

“We were one of the early cancer centers in the south,” explained Cooper when discussing Bowman Gray’s reputation, which is now referred to as The Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

With a successful medical career underway, Cooper still longed for that rural tradition that helped to shape his character. He still felt the need to have his hands in soil.

“I grew up on a farm,” stated Cooper. “My background is very rural.”

He also believed that his two sons, Tim and Mike, would benefit from the experience of establishing and maintaining a cattle farm. To this day, the Cooper boys, who are both grown with families of their own, still like to debate the “benefits” of creating the family farm.

“Oh my gosh, it was a lot of work,” stated Tim Cooper. “Dad was always the type that it could never be the tree closest to us. It had to be the tree that was down in the ravine that we had to cut. A lot of it was just to see if we could do it, but we realized that part of the mission of the farm from the beginning was that he wanted his sons to know what it was like to do manual labor.”

In the initial years, the Cooper family maintained its residence at another location while they restored the overall health of the farm. The first challenge was to address a 30-foot deep ravine that essentially divided the farm into two parcels of land. The lower areas of the ravine were infested with mosquitoes and other swamp loving insects.

“There was a tremendous ravine,” stated Cooper. “When we first bought the farm, you couldn’t get across it even with a four-wheel drive.”

Cooper conducted his first timber sale off the property initially to fund the construction of an earth dam that established a 20-foot path across the ravine, essentially connecting the two parts of the farm while creating a two-acre pond on one side.

The dam aside, the majority of the labor was provided by the Cooper family. They took over 25 pickup loads of assorted debris in addition to an old car off of the property in the early years. In other cases, the family moved hillsides and filled in other ravines to improve the contour of the land. The boys, who were teenagers, spent hours cutting trees down for firewood, clearing out underbrush and constructing fences that were necessary to contain the 40-60 head of Angus cattle that the Coopers maintained up until 2001.

“You think fencing is a simple operation until you start fencing,” stated Cooper. “You have to think about getting the wire and the posts and the staples. Nailing the wire and putting the posts in the ground. When you are fencing in rocky soil, it is a real challenge of finding places where you can actually put the holes where you can put the post.”

And while Cooper, ever the faculty member, saw the educational benefit of this fence post endeavor, his sons had a more simplistic view.

“It was forced labor for a long, long time,” stated Tim Cooper with a smile.

And as the boys toiled under the direction of their dad, a white sentinel stood watch in the middle of the property – a farm house that dated back to 1845 when the first Moravian settlers, who were from the Czech Republic, came to the Winston Salem area.

Jean Cooper remembers her first look at the old farm house.

“When we came here to look at the farm, Bob looked at the house and said, ‘I only see one thing to do with the house and that is to tear it down,” stated Jean. “But thankfully we didn’t tear it down.”

Early on, Jean, a graduate of Meredith College and a history buff, welcomed curious visitors who just wanted to look at the old house to relive some of their own personal history.

“A lot of people would come around and say, ‘Oh, this was my grandfather’s place’,” Jean stated. “They remembered their grandparents living there and coming to visit. We heard from a lot of them and their personal stories and so our interest grew in the house.”

To gain a better perspective on the historical significance of the house, the Coopers brought in John Larson, a historian from Old Salem, to evaluate the house. Larson figured that the main log cabin part of the house was constructed between the years 1840-1850. This information combined with the collection of descendants that had visited the house led Jean to research the personal history of the old farm house.

According to Jean, the original builder of the log cabin house was Alexander Weisner. Upon his untimely death, the property was sold to William Johnson, who was a great grandson of original settlers in Western North Carolina. He developed the property to include over 100 acres. Johnson’s daughter, Mary Johnson, married Louis Spaugh and they bought the house in 1892. The Spaugh’s lived in the house to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. When the Spaugh’s died within a few weeks of each other, the property was sold to the Dickerson family in the 1930’s. Mrs. Dickerson lived into her nineties before leaving a group of heirs to the property in the late 1960’s. Failing to come to a consensus on what to do with the property, the heirs finally settled on selling it to the Coopers in 1973.

These real life stories rekindled an interest in the old farm house.

“I am sure just from hearing the personal stories of people who showed up at our door, especially when they shared Mr. & Mrs. Spaugh’s anniversary picture from an article in the newspaper from back then, helped us appreciate what was here.”

After consulting with a few different contractors, who recommended tearing the house down and starting from scratch, the Coopers decided to take a shot at resurrecting it with the help of a local carpenter. Steve Cole who specialized in renovating old homes, did a miraculous job of preserving the integrity of the home while updating it.

“In the process of the renovation, the men were trying to get rid of rotted wood in the porch. They cut this long log that went the length of the porch. They turned it over and there they saw someone had inscribed, ‘A.D. 1845,’” stated Jean.

While replacing rotting beams was a major project, no project took more patience than the re-pointing of the three chimneys in the house which involved removing the bricks one by one. Remarkably, the entire house was restored in just six months.

Today, the farm house is the focal point of this property, which includes many of the original out buildings and a well in the front yard.

“We just couldn’t let the well go because somebody had spent a tremendous amount of work hand-digging it,” stated Jean.

In 1985, the Coopers moved their residence to Meadowbrook Farm and started to actively pursue their interests in tree farming in addition to their cattle. They purchased some additional acres to provide road access and increase their acreage in 1985, 1989 and then again in 2000.

Bob Cooper planted his first pines – about seven or eight acres of loblolly – in 1978. Since then, Cooper, with the technical assistance from folks of the Division of Forest Resources such as District Foresters Ken Talley and Eddie LeRoy, has planted some 40 acres in Green Ash and other assorted hardwoods and some 40 acres in loblolly. At this point, 160 of the 165 acres are in trees. And, Cooper insists that he would not have been able to put one tree in the ground without the assistance of Talley, LeRoy and the others.

“These foresters have been essential because they provided the technical know-how and the access to the planters,” stated Cooper. “Ken Talley planted the first stand of Green Ash that had been planted in this county on this farm back in 1999. It was a pilot project then, and we have discovered that we can plant them and we can grow them. For many of us, forestry is a source of income, but for the foresters, it is a way of life.”

When Cooper starts talking about his Green Ash project, the passion for his land and his sense of stewardship comes through loud and clear.

“You have to have a passion for the land,” stated Cooper. “If you don’t have a passion for the land, you are not going to get very far. You need to sell people on the concept that not only are you growing trees for lumber, for fiber, for the many products, but probably equally important, maybe more important, is the water quality, the wildlife and the recreation. As you see your tree farm develop, you start to notice the wildlife come back.”

When Cooper refers to people, he is not just talking about the general public. He includes his descendants as targets for his marketing campaign. After already conscripting his sons over the years for fence construction and planting projects, Cooper now reaches out to his five grandchildren by enlisting their help on planting projects, hoping to develop a connection to the farm.

“We have pictures of them standing next to the trees so when they come back to the farm they can see how the trees have grown compared to their growth,” stated Cooper. “We also have educational groups tour the farm and that’s why we have the signs that identify the tree species with the year it was planted.”

As Cooper tours his farm, he can point at two-foot high cypress trees that he has hand-planted in a lowland area on his farm. It is half experiment, half hobby for Cooper. He has more than enough land in trees, but for Cooper, that spot – that particular spot – looks like it contains the right ingredients for cypress, so he is going to give it a try. He also understands that at the end of the day, his efforts will eventually provide his family with an economic as well as an environmental benefit.

“To justify the land and its use, we have to be able to harvest the trees for products,” stated Cooper as he points to another 10 acres of hardwoods that are no more than six feet in height. “The White Oak, the Willow Oaks and the Bald Cypress are great for the wildlife and aesthetics, but they also make good timber trees.”

While Cooper is passionate about his land, he is equally committed to standing up for the rights of all forest landowners. Cooper is on the National Public Affairs Committee of the National Tree Farm System and has lobbied in Washington and at the state level for what he considers unfair treatment of the tree farmer. He believes that it is critical for landowners to do a better job on convincing folks that tree farm are as important as row crops.

“One of the simple ways of doing that would be to get our state agencies to realize that forestry is as critical of component as row crops,” stated Cooper. “Yes, we want to improve lagoon management and cattle crossings in the eastern part of the state, but it is also important to try to enhance the activities of our tree farms all over the state.”

Cooper believes that money appropriated from federal bills such as the 2002 Farm Bill did not go far enough to help the average tree farmer. And worse than that, once the bill was approved, the FLEP funds, which were specifically designated to help with tree plantings and private forest enhancement, were terminated shortly after the bill’s approval due to budget constraints. At the state level, Cooper is frustrated that more funds are not made available to private landowners to grow more trees.

“We have to sell them on the fact that we have a product. It just grows a lot slower,” stated Cooper. “It is probably from an ecological standpoint is one of the most important agricultural operations the state has.”

Not needing to cite the recently completed forest inventory data for North Carolina (2002) that shows that North Carolina lost more than a million acres of forestland due to urbanization since 1990, Cooper has a bird’s eye view of how the growth of a city can gobble up green space and impact the local environment, particularly streams, from his perch just outside Winston-Salem.

“Resisting urbanization and the laying of asphalt and concrete – that’s our biggest threat,” explains Cooper. “We need to get that across to the public. The biggest threat to our environment is asphalt and concrete, not cutting trees.”

Further proof of this fact came recently when Cooper, who incorporated his farm into an LLC a few years back with his two boys, was approached about selling his farm to a developer. In what amounted to more of a test than a consultation, Cooper called his boys about the offer.

“We were offered an enormous amount of money for 100 acres of our land about six months ago,” stated Cooper. “I called the two boys and asked them if they wanted me to sell. They said, ‘Dad we’re not interested in the money, we want you to be buying land, not selling. So that told me that they had already bought into it. You can’t replace this farm with money. This is a gem. It’s a family jewel.”

Tempting offers are nice, but the other impacts from a growing city are not as welcome to a landowner like Cooper who is concerned about the overall environmental health of North Carolina. Salem Creek, which forms the border on the backside of Meadowbrook Farm, is currently in need of riverbed restoration due to the pollution and increased runoff from the City of Winston Salem.

Cooper estimates that the river overflows two or three times a year due to the increase in water runoff from the impervious city streets combined with the pollution discharges. This city water deposits plastic bags, bottles and sediment on the banks of the river as well as on his land. While the water was low on this particular day, debris was still clinging to the fallen trees that stretch across the 40-foot wide stream in certain sections.

He is currently trying to organize the 12 landowners who own property on each side of the two-miles of Salem Creek into a coalition to impress upon the City of Winston Salem and the folks at the state level that the creek is in desperate need of help.

Few would argue that Cooper may be one of the greatest examples of the North Carolina Tree Farmer, but he would be the first to tell you that he is not alone in his pursuit of forestry excellence. He believes that most forest landowners take their stewardship commitment quite seriously.

“You can’t just have the attitude that you are doing this for yourself,” stated Cooper. “You have to understand that what you are creating will have an impact on the generations to come.”

“Bob Cooper may not be a forester by trade, but he is one by heart.” stated North Carolina Tree Farm Co-Chair Dave Woodmansee, “What he has done with his farm in terms of diversity in planting hardwoods and pine is truly remarkable. This place is just beautiful.”

A trip to Meadowbrook Farm is probably best described by Tim Cooper.

“You feel like you are out in the middle of nowhere, but you are actually only seven miles from the mall,” stated Cooper, referring to a mall that visitors would see from the highway as they approached the exit for Meadowbrook Farm.

Meadowbrook Farm is a green space oasis – space that is complements of the Coopers’ respect for the past and their faith in the future.