by Briana Binkerd-Dale

Gary Blough came to the University of Rochester in 1985 from Michigan and never moved back. After receiving his Masters and PhD degrees in Optics, he co-founded Photon Gear, Inc. in 2000. Located in Ontario, Wayne County, the now 11 person company specializes in the manufacture of precision optical lens assemblies for bio-medical, semiconductor, and various research and industrial applications.

In 2004, Gary and his wife Billie bought an 80 acre farm next to her family land in the Town of Ontario, then went on to purchase the original farm from Billie’s parents in 2007. Since then, they have acquired four other small adjoining parcels that provide access to the land off of three roads. Located about 1.5 miles south of Lake Ontario on the lake plain, there are 40 acres of overgrown apple orchard, 20 acres of fields, seven acres of tree plantings and the rest is forested. There are three small ponds, a small swamp, a couple of drainage ditches and some slightly rolling hills, but the majority of the land is essentially flat.

The 160 acres of the two main farm parcels has a few small hickories and beech, while one of the smaller parcels has quite a few hickories. There is a mixture of sugar and silver maple, some large tulip and hemlock, Norway spruce and scattered white pine and cherry on the rest of the of the forested land. Gary is proudest, however, of his seven acres of tree plantations which are planted with approximately ten different varieties of oaks, spruce and white pine and chestnuts. “There are hundreds of oaks, chestnuts and many great trees for wildlife,” he stated, while prior to Billie and Gary’s purchase of the land there were only yard oaks on the land. They also put in 5-6 acres of food plots (primarily corn and clover) for deer and turkeys. The biggest recreational use of the land is hunting — they used to ride horses quite a bit, but the horses are now too old to ride.

Gary was inspired to get involved in tree planting and forest management by a friend from Idaho, Hunt Hatch, who attended SUNY-ESF and the University of Idaho and went on to become a commercial airline pilot and just “kept buying land and planting trees.” Mr. Hatch planted several hundred acres of trees over a few years in his late 60’s and early 70’s and now owns more than 1,500 acres of timber land. Gary asked him at one point why he planted so many trees when he wouldn’t see them mature — Hunt responded “You’ll never see a tree mature if you plant it; they are multi-generational. Your heirs will see the trees mature.” One winter Hunt bagged 45 deer in an effort to protect his plantings. Now 83 and in a nursing home, Mr. Hatch is still full of conviction — when told recently that he had lost one of his tree plantations to a wildfire, his response was simply “How soon can we replant it?”

Billie, Gary and their family have put in the majority of the work involved in the planting and management of their tree plantations. Their son Christy helped the most over the years but is now in college and isn’t available much, while their daughter Bailey has graduated from college and now lives in Boston. “When the majority of the trees were planted in 2007 and 2008, Billie and the kids provided a lot of assistance, although I can’t say they always enjoyed it,” Gary said. “They do enjoy watching the progress of twigs turning into trees though.” Gary makes the majority of management decisions, although he let Christy and Bailey pick tree types that they wanted to plant. “We learned sequoias don’t grow well in upstate NY,” Gary chuckled. Much of the information he needed he acquired through Internet research. He has also worked with Mark Gooding, the DEC’s region 8 forester, who set Gary up with their Forest Land Enhancement Program (FLEP).

Gary started with FLEP in 2007, planting about 2500 trees that year. His neighbor Dave Aman was a huge help in that effort — a former curly willow farmer who has just retired, Dave had a tractor with a tree planting attachment that allowed them to plant all of the trees in just two days. FLEP paid about 25% of the costs of the 2007 planting, including all the necessary supplies and the clearing of the land (done via tractor and backhoe, with a Round-Up application afterwards). He plants with the contours of the land rather than in straight lines to make it feel less orchard-like. All of the planted trees get 3’x 3’ ground mats (which were supposed to last 3-5 years but are still going strong at 8). All species except for the spruces are either fenced or have tree protectors. After a few years, Gary ended up getting a Ferris zero turn mower, which has been a “savior” for mowing around trees and is also a huge help in beating back multiflora rose and briars, sometimes with the help of the herbicide Crossbow which is registered in NY.

Gary’s biggest challenge has been protecting trees from deer. He started with classic yellow tree covers, but after a trip to Idaho came back to find 200-300 of those ripped off. The following year, he put up light polymer fencing that turned out to not be durable enough. Occasionally he protects single trees with four foot high metal fence, but the deer will often knock those down even with 1” oak stakes (0.5”- 0.75” bamboo stakes are best). He now has seven foot heavy polymer fencing around most of the larger plots, but still finds himself constantly repairing it. Last year he lost 20 trees that were 10 feet tall or higher that were behind the 7’ fence, but the deer broke into the enclosure and rubbed the bark. In the last few years, he has focused on removing as many deer as possible to try to help the trees grow and survive, taking 10-12 a year with many on DEC DMAP (deer management assistance program) permits. So far though, he has not seen much of a reduction in damage: “Selecting and procuring trees is the easy part — taking care of them and keeping the deer from ruining them is the tough part. I’ve learned a lot about deer protection options.”

Selecting the proper trees for the site does matter. At one point he planted blue spruce in a site that was too wet, and they all ended up dying. However, Gary has had particular success with his chestnut oaks, which are drought resistant and live up to their name. After trying a few different sources for his seedlings, he settled on Lawyer Nursery in Montana: “They have very high quality trees — once I got some from them I didn’t want to purchase from anywhere else.” Caring for the seedlings is important too — between watering them during the first year or so, trimming, mowing, fixing the fence, and spraying a little bit, Gary stays pretty busy.

Gary joined NYFOA through the NYFOA Gift Membership effort, which is an ongoing option with more than 150 new members to its credit. Once in NYFOA, Gary and his family quickly became active in the Northeast Timber Growing Contest (www.timbercontest.com). Gary has already spent a lot of time trimming the smaller trees, but the Timber Contest was a fun family activity and opened his eyes to the need to thin the forest to improve growth rates of trees. The family is eager for next summer to see how fast their trees are growing. He also very much enjoys the woods walks of their WFL NYFOA chapter. He says what he most enjoys about being a forest owner is “watching a twig grow into a tree, and seeing the first batch of nuts on new oaks and chestnuts.” He is more than happy to share what he has learned over the years with anyone who is interested.

Briana Binkerd-Dale is a student in Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology at Cornell University. If you are interested in being featured in a member profile, please email Jeff Joseph at jeffjosephwoodworker@gmail.com


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