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A tree farm is a forest managed for timber production. The term, tree farm, also is used to refer to tree plantations, tree nurseries, and Christmas tree farms.


Main article: Wood industry

As of 2019, an estimated 49% of forests in the United States are owned by families.[1]

Notable corporations include Greenwood Resources, which is owned by TIAA-CREF.[2]

American Tree Farm System

An ATFS-certified tree farm in Virginia provides a variety of habitats for wildlife while producing wood
An ATFS-certified tree farm in Virginia provides a variety of habitats for wildlife while producing wood

See also: Private landowner assistance program § American Tree Farm System

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is the largest and oldest woodland certification system in America. It is internationally recognized by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification and meets strict third-party certification standards. It is one of three certification systems currently recognized in the United States (the others include the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative). ATFS specializes in certifying private forests, primarily those held by individuals and families and currently certifies over 24 million acres (110,000 km²) of forestland. The ATFS Standard for Certification is owned by the American Forest Foundation, a national nonprofit organization focused on promoting sustainable stewardship of America's woodlands and related environmental education through Project Learning Tree.


Certificate being presented to a tree farmer in Columbia County, Georgia, circa 1950s
Certificate being presented to a tree farmer in Columbia County, Georgia, circa 1950s

The tree farm movement began in 1941 in an effort to promote resources on private land, ensuring plentiful fiber production for timber and paper companies.[3] With declining virgin saw timber available, the industry began to promote forestry practices to ensure sufficient fiber production for the future. Prior to 1941, the majority of fiber came from industrial lands. The first tract of land labeled as a Tree Farm was organized and marketed by the Weyerhaeuser Company to help change public attitudes toward timber production and protect natural resources from forest fires and other natural disasters. This first official tree farm, the 120,000-acre Clemons Tree Farm, was dedicated in Montesano, Washington, on June 12, 1941. The title of "tree farm" was chosen in large part because Weyerhaeuser felt that the 1940s public understood farming as crop production, and similarly tree farming was focused on producing more timber, with frequent replanting post-harvest. The early sponsors of the tree-farming movement defined it as "privately owned forest-land dedicated to the growing of forest crops for commercial purposes, protected and managed for continuous production of forest products."[4] Alabama was the first state to launch a statewide tree farm system, and a formal dedication ceremony was held in Brewton on April 4, 1942, with 25 individuals and companies presented certificates. Emmett N. McCall was certified as the nation's first individual tree farmer.[5] In the early 1940s the concept of "tree-farming" on private land was promoted by American Forest Products Industries, a subsidiary of the National Lumber Manufacturers Association in an organized campaign to engage timberland owners in conservative timber production.[6] In 1954, American Forest Products Industries, under the leadership of William B. Greeley, drafted and approved a “Principles of the American Tree Farm System.” This code established a set criteria for tree farm certification.

Throughout its history, ATFS has relied on celebrity Tree Farmers to relay its message to the public. Celebrities include actor Andy Griffith, actress Andie MacDowell, former President Jimmy Carter, and Rolling Stone keyboardist Chuck Leavell.[7]


Since 1941, the system has shifted to focus on whole stewardship, rather than strictly fiber production. According to the Standards of Certification for ATFS, woodland owners must own 10 or more acres and have a management plan.[8] In that management plan, woodland owners must recognize wildlife habitat, protection of water quality, threatened and endangered species, and sustainable harvest levels. The certification standard is subject to multi-stakeholder involvement in the development and revision of the standard, third-party audits, and a publicly available certification of audit summaries.[8] The minimum acreage to qualify for a tree farm refers to "woodland" i.e., forested land. So acreage which includes grazing or other non-wooded lands must have at least 10 acres in forest to qualify. Furthermore, programs in different areas which support tree farming activities may require larger forested acreages as well as additional criteria. For example, The Forest Ag Program in Colorado requires the following standards:

To be eligible for the Forest Ag Program, properties must meet several criteria:

Landowners must annually submit (1) a request for inspection, (2) an inspection fee, (3) an accomplishment report, and (4) an annual work plan for the following year, and have the enrolled property inspected by a CSFS forester.[9]

As a program of the American Forest Foundation (AFF), the American Tree Farm System focuses on the long-term sustainability of America's forests in ecological and economic terms. The vision statement of AFF states, "AFF is committed to creating a future where North American forests are sustained by the public that understand and values the social, economic, and environmental benefits they provide to our communities, our nation, and the world."[10]

The network of over 90,000 woodland owners is organized through state committees and governed at the national level. Currently 45 of the 50 states have committees. Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, North Dakota and Utah currently do not have programs. With national coordination, ATFS strives to "work on-the-ground with promote stewardship and protect our nation's forest heritage."[11] The state networks also include tree farm inspectors, who certify the forests and conduct outreach efforts on behalf of ATFS and partnered organizations.

Each year ATFS hosts a National Tree Farmer Convention and awards an individual or family with the National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year award. It also awards a National Outstanding Inspector Award to a resource professional who has demonstrated exceptional outreach efforts to engage landowners and the general public in sustainable forestry.[12]

Tree farming and climate change

A forest sequesters carbon in its trees. The forest removes carbon dioxide from the air as trees grow and returns it to the air as trees die and rot or burn. As long as the forest is experiencing net growth, the forest is reducing the amount of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, from the air. Furthermore, if timber is regularly removed from the forest and turned into lasting wood products, those products continue sequestering carbon, while the replacement tree farm trees absorb more carbon dioxide, thus effecting a continuous reduction in greenhouse gas.

Because tree farms are managed to enhance rapid growth, a tree farm tends to sequester carbon more quickly than an unmanaged forest, considering only the sequestration side of the equation and not the carbon release due to rot, fire, or harvest.[13] The fact that managed woodlands tend to be younger and younger trees grow faster and die less contributes to this distinction.[14]

While tree farms absorb large amounts of CO2, the long-term sequestration of this carbon depends on what is done with the harvested materials. Forests continue to absorb atmospheric carbon for centuries if left undisturbed.[15]

The USDA has an online calculator for how much carbon is sequestered in various types of forests.[16]

CO2 and forest health

Carbon dioxide is a primary building material for plant tissue and is required to make plants grow fast and strong, so presumably higher levels of CO2 in the air as a result of burning fossil fuels would make forests grow faster. Duke University did a study where they dosed a loblolly pine plantation with elevated levels of CO2.[17] The studies showed that the pines did indeed grow faster and stronger. They were also less prone to damage during ice storms, which is a factor that limits loblolly growth farther north. The forest did relatively better during dry years. The hypothesis is that the limiting factors in the growth of the pines are nutrients such as nitrogen, which is in deficit on much of the pine land in the Southeast. In dry years, however, the trees do not bump up against those factors since they are growing more slowly because water is the limiting factor. When rain is plentiful trees reach the limits of the site's nutrients and the extra CO2 is not beneficial. Most forest soils in Southeastern region are deficient in nitrogen and phosphorus as well as trace minerals. Pine forests often sit on land that was used for cotton, corn or tobacco. Since these crops depleted originally shallow and infertile soils, tree farmers must work to improve soils.

In addition to better fertilization, biosolids[18] present an innovative solution. Biosolids are treated sewage from municipal or agricultural sources such as chicken and hog operations in Virginia and North Carolina. Though biosolids have the potential to improve soils and lead to improved tree growth, barriers to adoption include regulation and inertia.

See also


  1. ^ "Family Forest Owners: The Critical Link to Forest Resources".
  2. ^ "Portland's GreenWood Resources nears $1B in timber assets". Retrieved 2 September 2019.
  3. ^ "American Tree Farm System Turns 70," The Forest History Society, 2011.
  4. ^ Sharp, Paul F. 1949. "The Tree Farm Movement: Its Origin and Development," Agricultural History, 23: 41-45 (January).
  5. ^ "American Tree Farm System Timeline," Forest History Society
  6. ^ "American Tree Farm System History," Forest History Society
  7. ^ "New Collection: American Tree Farm System Records," The Forest History Society Blog, 2010.
  8. ^ a b Standards of Certification for ATFS, American Forest Foundation
  9. ^ "Forest Ag Program - Colorado State Forest Service - Colorado State University". Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  10. ^ American Forest Foundation website
  11. ^ American Tree Farm System website
  12. ^ American Tree Farm System website
  13. ^ Bowyer, Jim. 2011. "Managing Forests for Mitigating Climate Change," Dovetail Partners.
  14. ^ McKinley, Duncan C.; et al. (2011). "A synthesis of current knowledge on forests and carbon storage in the United States" (PDF). Ecological Applications. 21 (6): 1902–1924. doi:10.1890/10-0697.1. PMID 21939033. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  15. ^ Luyssaert, Sebastiaan; -Detlef Schulze, E.; Börner, Annett; Knohl, Alexander; Hessenmöller, Dominik; Law, Beverly E.; Ciais, Philippe; Grace, John (11 September 2008). "Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks". Nature. 455 (7210): 213–215. Bibcode:2008Natur.455..213L. doi:10.1038/nature07276. PMID 18784722. S2CID 4424430.
  16. ^ USDA carbon sequestration calculator Archived 8 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ "Duke Study Shows Carbon Dioxide Boosts Pine Tree Reproduction". 16 August 2000. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  18. ^ Biosolids Workshop, Virginia Tech Archived 2 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine