2012 Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year

Managing a tree farm is like painting a picture, Dwight Batts likes to say.

For a picture—and a tree farm—you need a vision of what you want to create. “You begin by outlining where you want the different features to go,” he said. “Then you start painting it in, adding in the details.”

But the key, he says, is the vision.

When Dwight and Judy Batts bought the family farm in 1995, they had a blank canvas. Dwight’s father, a row-crop farmer, planted his first trees on the farm in 1984 as the tobacco quota program was being phased out. He was looking for another source of income and thought trees might be the answer. Dwight and his sisters helped plant those loblollys, but he’s the first to say that he didn’t know anything about trees.

What he did know was that he wanted to create an economically viable farm that his family could enjoy for generations to come.

So Dwight, a retired chemist and quality assurance professional, did what any good scientist would do—research. He read voraciously, took a lot of classes and asked questions of every expert he could find.

“Most landowners ask basic questions that you can easily explain,” said Al Weller, a retired Weyerhaeuser forester and a key leader in revitalizing the N.C. Tree Farm Program. “But Dwight educated himself so that he can ask more in-depth questions—far more detailed than the average landowner. He’ll ask things like, ‘How will the mycorrhiza in the soil affect root growth?’ And you better be ready to answer his questions,” Al said with a laugh.

Through his research and questions Dwight developed an intensive forest management program that is head and shoulders above the rest. He analyzes leaves to determine fertilization needs, he thins his loblolly four times instead of the usual one or two, and as a certified burner, he conducts his own controlled burns on a two- to –three-year rotation. “He grasped early on what burning could do,” said Oscar Creech, N.C. Forest Service ranger in Wilson County, “and he saw the return on the investment.”

Dwight and Judy know that the farm must pay for itself for it to be sustainable. Their management philosophy is to use every available resource —every technique, tool, cost-share program, tax deduction—to make the land as productive and profitable as possible. Dwight has done so much research on resources that he is an expert on cost-share assistance and has influenced how one program is administered so that it now benefits forest landowners as well as farmers.

With timber as his main product, Dwight’s goal is to grow high-quality, full-term timber in 30 years and to achieve a gross yield of $10,000 per acre. “I’m getting close to that if the genetics are right and markets hold up,” he said.

One reason he gets such good returns is that he sees trees as a long-term investment. “He’s not concerned about a few bad years,” said his consulting forester, Bob Mazur. “One time he said, ‘We’re scheduled to thin this year. What will we get in this down economy? What will we gain in the long term by thinning now?’ If it looks like he’ll gain long term, he doesn’t panic with a down market.”

While profitability is critical to Dwight’s and Judy‘s vision of long-term viability, they also understand the importance of preparing their family for managing the farm.

Two of their children, David Batts and Dawn Hill, live on the farm with their families, and are engaged in the day-to-day operation. Their daughter Lisa Girdharry and her family live 30 miles away and work on the farm most weekends. Daughter Kathy Thames, whose family lives in South Carolina and visits often, commissions weavers to make baskets and Christmas ornaments from the farm’s longleaf pine needles. And her husband has used salvaged wood from the old home place to make newel posts and furniture.

“The old family home was such a part of our lives, we wanted to preserve as much as we could,” Kathy said. “Reusing and repurposing bricks, windows, boards and mantels keep the house alive. It’s a way for me to weave a bit of home into where I live.”

“The farm ties everyone together,” Dawn said. “Not just our immediate family but all the generations that came before us.”

The younger generation feels that bond too. They’ve grown up hearing tales of ancestors they never knew, including a ghost story about an unsavory relative who was decapitated after cheating at cards.

As mesmerizing as ghost stories can be, Dwight and Judy learned early on that the real key to attracting and keeping the grandchildren’s attention is wildlife. “They don’t get attached to the trees,” Dwight said. “They get interested in the wildlife, and then they realize that we wouldn’t have any of the wildlife without the trees.”

From a young age, the Batts grandchildren have worked with the farm’s incubation and surrogation program—feeding, watering, banding and releasing hundreds of wood ducks, mallards, pintails, quail and pheasants.

They’re actively involved with managing bluebird houses, too. Each spring and summer, they collect data on nests, eggs and hatchlings. Because boxes have a grandchild’s name on them, the cousins compete to see whose box is the most productive.

But the bluebird boxes are more than just fun and games. “We’re trying to get the bluebird population up, so we’ve researched their flying patterns to know where to put the boxes,” said 13-year-old granddaughter Maura Girdharry. “We’ve learned that they like to be near the woods better than in the open.”

Maura and her brother, Riley, a college freshman, have learned so much about bluebirds that they’ve presented information about their work to forestry students and professionals who’ve visited the farm. Their cousin Noah Hill has presented on the duck incubation program.

The Batts grandchildren are so involved with all that goes on at the farm that “they don’t even understand all that they know,” Dawn said. “They know how to tell the age of trees, they help with burning, they know if a tree’s in distress, what’s ready to be harvested, what’s not ready. They know about feed plots for different wildlife and how that ties in with the forest. They understand the importance of planting after harvest. They understand life, death and birth from the animals raised on the farm.”

And they know about hard work.

“It isn’t chores, though,” Riley said. “It’s fun stuff we get to do with our grandpa. Even when we were little, Grandpa would take us in his truck and tell us ‘this is where the new path will be, these are the trees that need thinning. He’d test us as we rode around. ‘Do you know what kind of crop that is? How old do you think that tree is?’”

“I think they learn to appreciate nature by being on the farm,” Dwight said. “It teaches them to respect the responsibility we have. They understand that it’s not just there to look at. It has a purpose, and it takes work to bring it to that purpose.”

“The one thing Grandpa says is, ‘there’s always work to be done on the farm.’” Riley said. “You can do little things each day and make a big impact over time.”

But you can’t do it by yourself.

“I learned early in my career, that you can’t do your best if you isolate yourself,” Dwight said. So he relishes the opportunity to continue learning and to share what he knows with others.

Mike Mercer is one of many who’ve benefited from Dwight’s experience.

Mike’s father died unexpectedly a few years ago, leaving Mike to manage a Tree Farm he knew nothing about. “Mr. Batts took me under his wing,” he said. “He told me who to call, what to ask. He taught me how to take samples, look at tree growth, when to push forward and when to hold back.”

Today, Mike is an ATFS-certified Tree Farmer and a devoted forest manager.

“The insight Mr. Batts shares is absolutely priceless,” Mike said. “You can go to all the classes you want to and hear all the big names talk, but it’s not worth as much as the man who walks out in your field with you.”

While Dwight has a reputation for generosity with his time and knowledge, he’s also known for his hard work, intelligence and gift for asking tough questions in a respectful way. His expertise in forest management and perspective as a landowner make him an invaluable asset to natural resource organizations—locally, statewide and nationally.

Since 1999, when Dwight joined the Wilson County Forestry Association, he has served on their board of advisors. He joined the N.C. Forestry Association in 2000 and was immediately invited to represent landowners on the Board of Directors. He served two terms as an NCFA regional vice president, is in his seventh year on the Executive Committee and has attended all NCFA Forestry Day in the Legislature events since becoming a member.

He served as chair of the N.C. Tree Farm Program from 2007 through 2009, bringing greater visibility and credibility to the state program at a critical time in its revitalization. As chair, he represented the Tree Farm Program at many events across the state and produced a newsletter conveying legislative and regulatory information to various constituencies and encouraging landowners to get to know their elected officials. This effort evolved into a role as the state program’s advocacy coordinator—a position he still holds eight years later—providing weekly updates on forestry issues to landowners, forestry professionals, academics and elected officials.

“I’ve promised to keep my legislators informed of things they need to be aware of—who’s affected, how legislation will help or hurt–so that we can help when they try to decide how to vote,” Dwight said.

Over the years, Dwight has willingly shared his advocacy experience with other state Tree Farm programs. Salem Saloom, 2010 National Tree Farmer of the Year and 2014 vice chair of the American Forest Foundation’s Woodlands Committee, sought Dwight’s counsel when he became “grasstops” leader in Alabama in 2007.

“I used Dwight’s ideas to move things along in Alabama,” Salem said. “He kept me motivated by telling me, ‘It’s a slow process, don’t get discouraged.’”

On the national level, Dwight’s presented the Tree Farm concept to an African Nations Group, attended multiple ATFS National Leadership Conferences and participated in Fly-Ins in Washington, D.C. Since 2012, he’s served on the American Forest Foundation’s Woodlands Committee.

“I think that when you get to that level with your land, part of that responsibility is sharing it,” Salem said. “The work that Dwight is involved in codifies this philosophy.”

Since 2001, Dwight and Judy have hosted more than 1,500 visitors on their farm—scouts, school groups, forestry students and professionals, and delegates from Mexico and China. In 2013, the Batts family hosted the N.C. Tree Farm Program’s Annual Meeting. Tree Farmers were so interested in seeing the Batts’s farm that attendance soared 45 percent over the previous year’s event.

“His involvement on the state and national levels sets him apart,” Salem said “He does more than other Tree Farmers do. He’s translating information to a wider audience and giving landowners the tools to manage their woodlands.”

Dwight’s contributions to the forestry community through his leadership, advocacy and outreach are immeasurable. But equally important is the legacy he and Judy have built on their own farm. They’ve focused their energies on creating a self-supporting tree farm and on preparing their family to manage it one day.

“We’ve set up the resources so that the farm will more than take care of itself,” Dwight said. “And we’re at the point now where our grandkids say, “I just love our farm.’ We’ve made the transition from ‘Grandpa’s’ farm to ‘our’ farm,” Dwight said.

From the beginning, that was the vision—and that vision has become, well, a masterpiece.