The Defrees Family of North-east Oregon was awarded the 2016 National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year award by the American Tree Farm System (ATFS). ATFS is in its 75th year and was originally created to assist and support forestland owners as they moved out West.
Today, the forest conservation nonprofit organization is still helping forest owners, making sure they have the right tools and funds to manage their forests. ATFS includes 74,000 tree farmers with each state having its own committee, which creates a sense of community and offers an opportunity to connect with experts.
Deep Roots in Forestry
Dean Defrees’ great-grandparents bought the farm’s original property in 1904.
“My grandparents spent the next several years putting the property together and bought more land to extend it,” says Defrees. The area was very heavily logged (for Ponderosa Pine) in the 1910s and 1920s.
It was not until the 1970s that the Defrees Family had a good source of timber. Defrees says, at that time, his dad, Lyle, “managed the timber there because we realized we had a resource, and we have done so ever since.” These days father and son, Lyle and Dean, are the primary caretakers of the farm, though caring for the farm is a family affair as Sharon Defrees, Dallas Hall, Riley Hall, Nathan Defrees, Jess Defrees, Tyler Defrees, and Max Patashnik are all involved.
Selecting a Winner
Elizabeth Greener, ATFS director of Communications, says the Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year award has been given out for forty years. “We want to honor someone who has done something exceptional and share with other landowners to show them what exemplary forest stewardship means.”
The process of selecting the winner of the award is complex. Each state can nominate a tree farmer. Greener notes that ATFS typically gets eight to 12 nominations. After reviewing the applications, the properties are visited, and the best of each region is selected. Then tree farmers, ATFS staff, and the board vote.
A Head Above
What made the Defrees Family stand out and earn the award? The Defrees farm is in a region of the state that is prone to intense wildfires. In 1986, the Defrees tree farm suffered from such a fire, which burned 500 acres of their 2,000-acre farm — 1,227 acres are timbered, and they lease another 1000 acres.
Greener says, “After the fire, they got their land back in trees because they persevered, kept managing, and replanted the entire 500 acres. They’ve done everything possible to keep the entire 2,000 in a healthy state to avoid fire, and if one should occur, it will be minor.”
To prevent future fires, the Defrees Family spent the initial years after the fire replanting the lost acres, despite challenges such as difficulty in obtaining seedlings and a bark beetle infestation that took over sections of their forest.
Tom Martin, president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation (the forest conservation organization that houses the ATFS program) says, “The Defrees Family showcases the impact family forest owners can have when they are able to overcome barriers such as cost and technical assistance.”
With help from the ATFS network, which provided advice, a connection with experts, and more knowledge on forest management, the Defrees Family carried on. They spent decades building and maintaining defensible fire lanes, thinning their forest to reduce the fuel load that can feed wildfires, and keeping their creek and stream banks well planted to curtail erosion and preserve water quality. All of their work has resulted in a tremendous impact on the ground — a fire- resilient forest, needed wildlife habitat, healthy creeks and waterways, and more.
Removing underbrush and ridding it of species takes a lot of time and labor and is costly. The Defrees Family was able to handle the high cost of this forest management with the support of cost-share dollars from National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The right equipment is essential to keeping the forest managed properly. Among other machines, the Defrees Family uses a John Deere 650G dozer along with a Young grapple and a John Deere 240 skid steer to harvest. A STIHL brushcutter is used to trim the pines, and you’ll find a STIHL chainsaw at their farm as well.
Advice for Others
The Defrees are a humble family. “We were really surprised and honored. It was quite a shock knowing the level of competition.” Defrees sees the award as validation of all the hard work the family, particularly Lyle, put in over the years.
While Defrees notes that he and his family do not have all the answers, they are happy to share their knowledge and what they have done with the locals around them. Some advice Defrees has for locals and other famers is, don’t be afraid to ask for help including technical assistance; develop a management plan that includes long-range goals; take an inventory to know exactly what you have; and concentrate on problem areas. He adds that ATFS, Oregon State University Extension Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Oregon Small Woodlands Association have been technical advisors and partners in helping manage the Defrees tree farm.
A Look Ahead
The Defrees Family allows people to come to the farm for recreational purposes including hunting. Some people come in and watch birds and enjoy the forest. They also have tours and workshops. All of this is offered free of charge. Dean’s wife, Sharon, is a high school biology teacher and periodically brings her students to the farm for field trips.
While Defrees appreciates his work, there are challenging aspects as well. He notes that prices for saw logs are low as it’s a depressed market. The cause, according to Defrees, is wildfires in the surrounding areas and the poor real estate market.
Ponderosa Pine, the trees that grow on the farm, are used primarily for window and door framing materials. Despite the challenges, Defrees is excited for the future, as he believes that research and development will find more uses for the product. Defrees hopes that the farm’s future includes his children. He believes they have developed a love for the land and may follow a path similar to his.
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