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I am Sibylla Brown.  I was born in Germany in 1940.  In 1946 my father, a German Operation Overcast scientist, was brought to the U.S. My family followed him to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 1950.  I married my husband, Bill in 1962.  Bill practiced dentistry in Des Moines for over 40 years. In 1993 we sold our house in Des Moines and moved to a 200 acre farm in Decatur County, Iowa.  Except for a small vineyard we had no plans to farm our land.  But we did want to take care of it, particularly the overgrown oak and hickory woodlands.  We began timber stand improvement in 1993.   When we learned our land was actually a rare oak savanna remnant we implemented prescribed fire.  These posts share how we found the land and how we made the transition from city-dwellers to country folk.

Learning the Hard Way

When Bill and I began restoring the Timberhill oak and hickory woodlands we thought it would be enough to thin the canopy trees and remove the underbrush.

Were we ever wrong! Coralberry and other woody invasives sprouted from the roots.  We realized that they would soon block sunlight from the ground layer. At first we tried controlling the sprouts with a clearing saw. When they grew back we sprayed them with Roundup. But Roundup killed everything.   It became obvious that fire was the only solution. We tried to hire a contractor to conduct prescribed burns but after a year of fruitless searching, we knew that we would have to do it ourselves.

SE Woodland that has been thinned but not burned

SE Woodland that had been thinned but not burned

With fire brooms and drip torches borrowed from the Decatur County Conservation Board and water-filled backpacks Bill, Bill Craig, and I conducted our first prescribed burn in February 1995. We began in the south meadow. That was so successful that we burned the north portion of the East Savanna next. We even burned the woodland west of the driveway and the prairie around the pond. Although flames from the prairie fires reached over 20 feet they were reduced to a few inches in the woodland and stopped at the ditches.

Same site after ten prescribed burns

Same site after ten prescribed burns

Over confident by our success we looked forward to the 1995-1996 burn season. We began in the East Savanna.  Then we moved to the prairie around the pond. While Bill Craig ignited the dried little blue stem grass on the hillside southwest of the pond, Bill drove the tractor with a spray tank uphill of a ditch that we assumed would stop the fire. Meanwhile I was on the other side of  a barb wire fence putting out the fire that had spread into a neighbor’s property.

I looked up just in time to see the fire jump the ditch and head toward Bill and his tractor. I tried to scale the barb wire to help but the water-filled back pack was too heavy and I couldn’t move quickly enough. The fire reached the tractor and Bill before I could reach them. Thankfully, it was low enough that neither the tractor nor Bill suffered any damage.

Timberhill aerial showing Savanna and woodland

Timberhill aerial showing East Savanna, Southeast woodland, and West 40 burn units.

We learned our lesson. Prescribed fire is not for amateurs and we needed expert help. For several years the Leon volunteer fire department and a certified professional crew helped with our burns. Bill and Bill Craig observed and learned from the experts.   Each burn event now begins the day before when we go over prescribed fire checklist. On the day of the burn Bill checks the weather conditions specified for the burn. When the crew arrives he goes over the burn plan with them. They drive around the site to check fire breaks and review precautions to prevent escape. The “GoNoGo” checklist is the final step before ignition.

We’ve divided our property into burn units, each with fireguards to contain the fire within the boundary of the unit. We’ve also purchased equipment to make our burns safer and easier:   a leaf blower to clear leaves from the fireguard, a pumper unit that slides into the bed of the Ranger utility vehicle, and a spray tank for the ATV.

John H. Weir’s Conducting Prescribed Fires is a comprehensive manual for conducting burns.

 

More Expert Help

Alex Brown, Bill Brown and Bill Craig

Alex Brown, Bill Brown, and Bill Craig

Bill Craig not only built our house but he has become an essential part of our farm family. He can figure out how to operate and fix any piece of equipment.  When we had the winery he was the only person who could make the Italian wine bottling and champagne corking machines work.  In the 22 years we have known him there was no problem he couldn’t solve.   His mechanical skills combined with innate intelligence and common sense have made him our biggest asset.

In January 2005  after Dan and Vicki Fogle completed timber stand improvement in 30 acres of the East Savanna Bill Craig came by to fix the automatic garage door opener. Standing in the driveway he looked at the oak and hickory trunks that littered the ground. .

“What are you going to do with all that downed wood? That’s a lot of BTU’S going to waste,” he asked.

“I don’t know. Randy (our forester) told us we should cut and stack it for fuel wood. I bought a chain saw and log splitter, but I’m not sure I can handle them by myself,” Bill replied.

For my husband Bill farming had become an excuse to buy equipment. He had traded his weekend golf for a bright orange Kubota 3350 tractor.   The Northern Tool catalog became his bedtime reading and the garage filled up with equipment that Bill thought essential to country living. Besides the tractor, chain saw, and log splitter, he purchased a clearing saw to cut trails, a weed wacker, a snow blower, chaps, and a hard hat with protective visor and ear flaps.   There was also a container of fuel for each piece of equipment: plain gas for the lawnmower, diesel fuel for the tractor, gas and oil mix for the two-cycle engines and bar oil for the chain saw. Bill had purchased every piece of equipment he thought we needed. But he had no experience using any of it.

“I could help you, if I can take half of what we cut for my wood stove,” Bill Craig offered.

Our first lesson in woodcutting and log splitting began a week later on a cold, crisp Sunday morning. Despite long underwear, insulated overalls, and winter parkas Bill and I were shivering.

“Isn’t it too cold to be working outside?” Bill asked.

“No. This is perfect for wood cutting. The colder the weather the easier it is to cut and split wood.   And it’s hard work.   Believe me, you’ll work up a good sweat in no time. ”

I followed Bill and Bill Craig to the East Savanna.  While Bill backed the tractor to the edge of the woodland Bill Craig attached a heavy chain to the three point hitch.  He then carried it downhill and secured it around a white oak log.

“Okay” he signaled to Bill who pulled the log uphill to an open space along the ridge top trail. They repeated this with another log. Then each of them, chain saws in hand, cut the logs into lengths the size of the chain saw bar.  One by one, Bill Craig secured the logs in the cradle and turned on the splitter. Twenty-two tons of pressure  quickly drove the sharp wedge-shaped blade through each log.   I assisted by clearing away the branch tops and helping stack the wood.

For the first time in years Bill and I were working together, learning skills we never thought we’d need.   It was strenuous but satisfying work. Best of all we found that we had to work together to make our life in the country a success.

Learning by Doing

Dan Fogle

Dan Fogle

The woodland stewardship plan submitted by our forester recommended not only that we remove the understory ironwoods and other weed trees but that we thin the oak and hickory pole timber (4”–10” diameter) as well. Only the best-formed trees, those with good form and vigor and the best potential for crown expansion were saved. Crop from these trees would sustain and renew the oak and hickory woodland.

The week after Thanksgiving 1993 Dan and Vicki Fogle, husband and wife forestry team we had hired, began the timber stand improvement. They arrived pulling a trailer with a vintage white Toyota truck. Dan pulled down tracks from the trailer and backed the Toyota onto the driveway. He had customized this vehicle to access timbered work sites. The four-wheel drive and small size made it an ideal off road transport. Dan had removed the rear fenders to decrease the overall width. A wooden box on the short bed transported supplies to the work site.

I watched as Dan and Vickie loaded chain saws, gas cans, bar oil, and other supplies into the box. Once loaded they drove down the trail into the east woodland. Both wore brown padded bib overalls over thermal lined flannel shirts. Their work clothing provided maximum warmth for work requiring a great deal of movement in cold temperatures.

“Why do you do this in the winter.   Can’t you do it in warmer weather?” I asked, shivering in the cold despite wearing a heavy parka and wool pants over long underwear.

“After the sap begins to flow in early spring you can spread disease from one tree to another. We only work when the trees are dormant. Besides, we always work up a good sweat. This work is too strenuous to do in warm weather.”

They parked the Toyota along the trail. Professional forestry hard hats replaced their knit woolen caps. The helmets were fitted with metal mesh visors for face and eye protection and adjustable hard earmuffs to ensure good noise exclusion. Working slowly through the overstocked woodland Dan cut the large trees and Vicki followed cutting the woody underbrush with a brush cutter. She treated the ironwood stumps with Tordon.

Everything was done by hand – no heavy equipment was involved. Downed trees were left where they fell to provide browse and cover for wildlife.  Only living trees were cut.  Dead trees were left standing for red headed and pileated woodpecker habitat.  These species excavate a new nest cavity each year.  After they abandon their nests the excavations become habitat for other species.

Woodland after thinning

Woodland after thinning

One of the hillsides that Dan and Vicki thinned was visible from Pony Farm Road. Neighbors watched. They couldn’t understand why those crazy Browns would ruin a good timber stand by cutting down so many trees. It was obvious to them that we didn’t know how to manage our wooded property. But to Bill and me the newly opened woodland, each tree clearly outlined against the blue sky, was a big improvement.

When Bill and I began timber stand improvement on our 200 acres I asked our forester Randy what a savanna should look like.

“Nobody knows how to do savanna restoration,” he replied.

Now, 22 years later, by following Randy’s recommendations, watching Dan and Vicki work, and asking lots of questions Bill and I have learned.

Into the Woods

Unmanaged woodland with dense understory

Unmanaged woodland with dense understory

Without the expert guidance of people like our district forester Bill and I would never have succeeded in restoring the Timberhill woodlands and prairie openings. Neither of us had ever farmed or managed anything larger than the lawn surrounding our Des Moines residence. Now we needed to manage 120 acres of woodland and prairie. I had no idea where to begin. But Bill did. He called our district forester, Randy Goerndt.

On his first visit to Timberhill Randy asked us what we wanted to do with our woodlands.

“Isn’t that why you are here? To tell us how to manage our timber?” I asked him.

“I never tell landowners what to do,” he replied. “Do you want to manage for saw log production, for wildlife habitat, for recreation?”

“I want to be able to walk through the woods,” I told him. Between the multiflora rose, and dense woody underbrush  I couldn’t walk off trail without a machete. Randy explained that in order for him to write a woodland stewardship plan and qualify our project for cost share it had to fit into one of the forestry service categories. He suggested that wildlife enhancement would meet our needs.

To improve our timber Randy told us that we would have to eliminate the woody understory as well as some of the mature trees.  On a cold day in early November he came to mark the trees. I followed him into the timber. The bright orange safety vest he wore over his camouflage patterned Carhart jacket stood out against the drab winter background of leafless trees. In his hand he carried a tree marking gun attached to a can of blue spray paint.

To my eyes the trees were a chaotic composition of gray and black trunks. The jumble of narrow understory trees was so thick it obscured the widely spaced wolf trees, the wide-crowned oaks. But Randy easily found his way through the confusion. He walked directly to the tallest oak and sprayed a circle of blue paint around the trunk.

“That looks like a tree we should keep. How come you’re marking it?” I asked.

“I mark the ‘leave’ trees. It’s easier since there are always less of those.”

“How do you select the ‘leave’ trees?”

“First of all you select the highest quality trees. That would be the white oaks, bur oaks, red oaks, and shagbark hickory. The ‘leave’ trees should also be evenly spaced.”

 

Managed woodland on the Timberhill side of the fence

Managed woodland on the Timberhill side of the fence

White oak, red oak, bur oak? Shagbark hickory? Ironwood and prickly ash? I knew what an oak looked like but certainly couldn’t distinguish white from red from bur. Ironwood? Prickly ash? I was in way over my head. It’s a good thing Randy knew what he was doing.  Although many generations of my paternal ancestors had been foresters on a Hohenzollern estate in Eastern Prussia my great-grandfather was the last. And that knowledge wasn’t something that had been passed down in my DNA.

 

 

Building the Country House

After the bridge was completed in April, 1993 Bill and I assumed that construction of the farm house would proceed without further delay. But the rains returned and it was July before we had a road from the bridge to our building site on the ridge top meadow.

Our house in town had been a four-story flat-roofed contemporary design. Although we were using the same architect to design the farmhouse, we chose a structure completely different from the city house. With so much space we didn’t need to compress our living quarters into four tightly packed floors. Instead we chose to build a complex of three “pavilions” as the architect called them. The pavilions consisted of a garage, the main house and a guest house laid out in a U shape overlooking the pond.

We had considered building in the open woodland east of the ridge top meadow until Doyle told us that site was prone to lightning strikes. With advice from our architect we situated the pavilions in the open meadow above the pond. After settling on a site he stood on the highest point, slowly turning full circle as he took photos of the landscape. This panorama would help him frame the best views from inside the new house.

The completed house in winter 1994

The completed house in winter 1994

In the main house three connecting rooms, a large eat-in kitchen, living room and bedroom comprised the first floor. Centered below the peak of the roof was a second floor loft with two additional bedrooms and bath. Views of the pond and east woodland were framed by large windows on the east side and eight by eight foot sliding glass doors on the west. The guesthouse was connected to the main house through a basement tunnel that could double as a tornado shelter. There was also an extra garage to house farm equipment. Upstairs was a bedroom, bath and large sitting room.

House construction was much easier than we had expected. A Missouri contractor poured the foundations for the three buildings and a local contractor built the house. We were surprised by the level of expertise. Instead of the usual roof trusses the architect specified floor trusses to frame the roof of the center pavilion. This allowed for the high sloping ceilings above the kitchen on the north and bedroom on the south. Although this was a departure from the typical roof construction our carpenter, Bill Craig, framed it exactly as specified.

House frame construction showing floor trusses on high slope roof

House frame construction showing floor trusses on high slope roof

Having to meet the challenges of building a house on completely undeveloped property I often wondered if we were making a mistake. Bill and I had never lived in the country. What if we didn’t adjust to this radical change? Were we making a big mistake? But even before the house was completed I was reassured when I heard bluebirds, the symbol of happiness, springtime, and renewal, singing their low-pitched warble from the high perches on our pavilions.