The potato farm in Houlton, Maine, had been in Leland Longstaff's family since 1875. But the Yankee farmer has always liked wood more than spuds, so 40 years ago he began growing something different on half of his 140-acre farm: red pine.
Since then, hundreds of farmers throughout the Northeast have followed Mr. Longstaff's lead, contributing to a significant reforestation of the region.
The reforestation has occurred gradually and quietly, even as other parts of the country - not to mention other nations of the world - have raised a hue and cry over the rate of logging and loss of forest lands.
"Ironically, in an age of global concern with deforestation and forest fragmentation, one of the major trends observed in the recent past and the anticipated future for New England is a continual aging and growth of forests," states David Foster, author of a report on forests in the region. He is director of Harvard Forest, a 3,000-acre research site in Petersham, Mass., affiliated with Harvard University.
In fact, forests now cover 90 percent of Maine, and the state of New York has more trees now than at any time since 1953. The trend has been less dramatic in other Northeast states, but it is nonetheless apparent.
Caretakers of the land
Most of the forest land in the Northeast is in private hands - a contrast to the West and South, where federal and state governments manage timber resources. While reforestation here occurs naturally, the greening of the landscape can be attributed, in part, to land conversions by farmers, who for the past half century have had a hard time making ends meet by tilling the rocky New England soil.
For some, making a switch to trees has worked out for the best.
"Dad had a small farm and I wanted to farm with him, but I didn't like potatoes and I wanted to build houses," says Mr. Longstaff, a retired carpenter and tree farmer, who lives within earshot of the Canadian border. "I said, 'Let's plant it for conservation,' and we did. It's worked out quite well."
Economic salvation has not been the only benefit of reforestation. Foresters and environmentalists alike agree that the trend has helped the region's environment.
"I really can't see a downside to it," says Jim Canavan, communications manager for the Society of American Foresters. He cites the benefits of additional wildlife habitat, natural shade, and recreation areas and parks.
Environmentalists, too, support farmers' decisions to plant trees. "Agricultural reclamation and clear-cutting are completely different," says Jonathan Carter, a biologist, botanist, and executive director of the Maine environmental group Ban Clear Cutting. "Farmers tend to take better care of the land." In November, Maine voters turned back competing ballot initiatives to restrict clear-cutting practices in the state, a move that primarily would have affected the state's paper mills.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, reforestation is largely a Northeastern phenomenon. Nationwide, acres of trees planted grew from 1.9 million in 1976 to 3.3 million in 1988, but the figure was down the following year and continued to decline until 1993, according to a USDA-led report.
Even in the Northeast, the reforestation trend may stall under pressures of suburban land development, particularly in densely populated Massachusetts.
"It's true, we have more forest than we had 50 to 75 years ago, but we're losing it now to development," says David Kittredge, a forester with the department of forestry and wildlife at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Moreover, the transition from potatoes to trees has not been smooth for everyone.
Roger Crandall's 70-acre farm was too small to remain economically viable, so 32 years ago he switched more than half his Maine farm to fir - white, balsam, and Frazier. At first he was successful, supplying evergreens for Christmas trees and wreaths. But higher harvesting costs and competition from Canada have undermined his ability to turn a profit.
"The Canadians sell cheaper, and my costs are higher," says the farmer, whose trees grow just 20 miles from Canada in Oakfield. "It's costing me $2 more per tree to harvest them. I'm getting whipped in every way."
But he sees his options as limited, particularly with the stiff Canadian competition that has helped to wreak havoc on the local economy. For now, he plans to continue growing and harvesting trees and trying to make up for his losses by selling balsam for garland and wreaths.
'As lovely as a tree'
Maine is the most forested state in the Northeast, with 90 percent of its land covered by trees. New Jersey, at 42 percent, is the least green state in the region, a ranking that no doubt would have disappointed Joyce Kilmer.
The Garden State poet, after all, penned the famous lines, "I think that I shall never see/ a poem as lovely as a tree./ Poems are made by fools like me,/ but only God can make a tree."