Mark and Joann Kurtis

“You’ve got to see this place.”

Those were the words that Mark Kurtis used 20 years ago, as he was describing their now-current property to his wife, Joann. At the time, Mark was being shown the property by its owner for a prospective timber purchase for Potter Lumber Company Inc, the company for which he bought timber for 15 years. Although Potter Lumber was not interested in that property at the time, the Kurtis’ decided that the property had everything on it that they were looking for and went ahead and purchased the 80-acre property. They came to call their property Puckerbrush Farm. Puckerbrush is a generic word that is used to describe a scrub-brush area or the “back forty” acres of a farm. Both Mark and JoAnn being foresters, Puckerbrush gave them a place to put what they learned in college into practice.

The 30 acre wooded section of the farm had been heavily cut to a 16” stump diameter in 1963; which meant that all the fast-growing valuable trees had been harvested. After 24 years of growth, the stand of trees was still dominated by poor quality trees. Initially Mark and JoAnn, with assistance from the USDA’s Forestry Incentive Program, completed 12 acres of timber stand improvement (TSI) to remove the poorer quality trees and rejuvenate the forest. Joining the American Tree Farm System and focusing on their objectives over the last 20 years they have dramatically increased the timber quality and wildlife habitat. They have created more than 2 miles of trails, installed water control structures, planted over 500 Christmas trees, have completed TSI on all of the wooded acres where it was needed, inter-planted many oaks, catalpas, hickories as well as improved the habitat for both large and small game species.

The property features include a hilltop, a shallow valley with perennial stream, three main open agricultural fields, and a reconstructed 1.5 acre wetland. The woods portion of the property is mainly beech, ash, and maple trees, along with patches of hemlock and spruce. The area is also heavily populated with deer, turkey, grouse, squirrels, and other wildlife. Mark and JoAnn have seen the population of coyote increase in the last twenty years, which doesn’t bother the couple since prey species populations are abundant. In the fall of 2006, Mark also saw the first bobcat on the property although there had been stories of bobcat sightings for 2 years earlier.

In 1987, when Mark and JoAnn first purchased the property, the agricultural fields were still actively being used. One of their first tasks was to invite family and friends out to plant Christmas trees in an area too steep to farm. Their niece Becky, who was two at the time, had fun planting fertilizer tablets that she called tree vitamins, next to the newly planted fir trees. Both she and the fir trees have gotten considerably taller and the first trees were harvested in 1999.

The main access to the property across the lowest agricultural field was limited to the summer months due to groundwater seepage which made the soils constantly wet and difficult to farm. With the help of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Partners for Wildlife” program, the Kurtis’ built a six foot high dam that recreated a 1.5 acre wetland in the swampy area which then provided an all-weather access road along the top. By the next summer, the Kurtis’ noticed an increase in the number of swallows and dragonflies, and a subsequent decrease in the mosquito population.

Alongside the wetland, the Kurtis’ planted bushes to provide waterfowl cover. Mark had the idea of establishing cattails to provide additional habitat, which turned out not to be the best idea. Mark took two large cattails, smacked them together, and covered the entire surface of the wetland with seeds. The next year, the wetland was inundated with cattails. Along with the cattails came a large population of muskrats, who proceeded to damage the dam with their tunneling. Three years later both the cattails and the muskrats seemed to balance out and are now an appreciated feature of the marsh.

Aided by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, who JoAnn works for, the Kurtis’ are planting tree and shrub corridors to connect the east and west side of the property, so that wildlife doesn’t have to travel across open fields. JoAnn has worked for the Department of Agriculture for the past 22 years. She is also the current newsletter editor for the Allegheny Foothills Chapter (AFC) of NYFOA, is on the AFC Steering and Planning Committees, and was a past co-chair with Mark. They both have been members of NYFOA since 1989. JoAnn was one of the original founding members of the Annual Rural Landowners Seminar that has provided forestry and wildlife information to more than 3500 owners of rural property in Western New York for the last 14 years. All seven members of the Kurtis family have been active in the chapter with most of the children starting their first woods walks out in a backpack on their parents back. The Kurtis’ have hosted a couple of wood walks over the years.

At the moment, the Kurtis’ are experimenting with a low-cost, easy-maintenance deer fence and building a log cabin on the property. Mark has wanted to build a traditional log cabin by hand, without power tools, though it is taking longer than originally expected. Usually working alone, Mark has built his own crane to help him with lifting the logs into place. Especially during the summer and early fall, Mark and JoAnn, along with their five children, take the forty-five minute drive out to Rushford, New York from their home in Salamanca. Until the cabin is completed, the Kurtis family continues to camp outdoors during their visits to their property. Occasionally, extended family and friends venture out to the property as well- where they can see the northern lights, shooting stars and listen to the coyotes howl. Unfortunately, they can’t get out to the property when the snow gets too deep, which limits their visits. For the last seven years they have managed to get to Puckerbrush between Thanksgiving and Christmas to pick out the perfect Christmas tree, cut it down with a hand saw, yell “timber,” throw a few snowballs and then enjoy hot chocolate and cookies while visiting with their NYFOA friends Charlie and Marion Mowatt.

“Owning Puckerbrush Farm has given us a place to put our knowledge of forest and wildlife management to work on our own property and has given us an opportunity to instill a sense of natural resource conservation in our children.”

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