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Rolf and Deb Wentorf live in the middle of 106 private, heavily-wooded acres in Johnsonville, New York, and also own 142 acres in White Creek, New York, located only a few miles from the Vermont border. Originally from the upstate New York area, Rolf worked on Long Island as an aerospace engineer and eventually returned to work and teach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Deb still works there today as a technical writer.
But Rolf missed the open spaces of his childhood while living on Long Island. Growing up, he had lived on his parents’ small farm in Columbia County; his two older sisters had horses, and so this kept the family in the country where his parents gained an interest in agriculture. Ultimately, it was this background that led Wentorf back to upstate New York, and after he and Deb married in 1987, the couple began the search for their current home.
In the search for their 106 acres in Johnsonville, the couple almost gave up hope. After finding the property listed in a realty paper, the couple drove to the area, hoping to see the land for themselves, but since no one had said the property was located on the other side of the railroad tracks which parallel the main road, they drove past the small railroad overpass entrance three times before giving up and heading home. Fortunately, they were eventually able to view the property with the help of a local realtor; they purchased the land in 1990 and moved into their home in 1994. The property, which features well-drained soils, was once used as farmland but was abandoned, and it is now regenerating. Interestingly, when the Wentorfs first bought the property, there was no access large enough to allow a concrete truck through the small opening in the railroad overpass, so it was not until after they had modified an access road that they could actually build their current home!
The Wentorfs bought their second wooded property — the 142 acres in White Creek — in 1996. Originally used as a sheep farm centuries ago, the property still has many stone walls running through it, and you can still tell which fields were plowed when it was an active farm, as some still have good soil while others are almost bare rock. The property also originally contained an old 1700’s farmhouse, but since the couple didn’t care to take on another renovation project, they parceled off two acres of land around the old structure and sold the farmhouse, which was later renovated by the new owners and is now in excellent condition.
The couple didn’t have much knowledge about forestry management practices when they first bought the Johnsonville property. After Rolf had developed more of an interest they purchased the White Creek property later. Both properties had been previously logged decades ago, and Wentorf initially concentrated on harvesting firewood to heat their home. About two years after they moved to Johnsonville, the couple noticed a newspaper ad for a NYFOA meeting, and decided to attend. Next, a state forester evaluated the land, created a management plan, and mentioned a cost-share program where they could get their trees marked and get some assistance with cutting. The Wentorf’s chose to do a few acres at first, and so started their growing interest in forest management. The couple later went through and thinned about 50% of their total acreage, and over time installed and improved trails — on both the Johnsonville and White Creek properties — some of which were still evident from when the lands had originally been logged. Eventually, the couple was in a position to sell some wood, and Rolf remembers his first timber sale of White birch with a local timber mill. During the process, a company forester came out and verified that the trees were what they wanted to purchase, and at this point Wentorf began learning about — and having a more active interest in — cutting and selling timber.
The Wentorfs have experienced a number of natural disasters, which have affected their forests, but even these have been learning experiences. Most notably, a tornado went through their Johnsonville property in 1997 and "selected all of the trees that their thinning had created with big bushy tops and threw 95% of them to the ground in an eight-acre area." That summer, Wentorf salvaged the wood himself, selling it to local mills. The tornado’s swath formed a natural clear-cut area, which they decided to let regenerate itself, and the species that initially regenerated struggled. Wentorf recalls, "the Black Cherry got hit by caterpillars year after year, and the White Pine and Quaking Aspen were out-competed by invasive species such as Honeysuckle and Multi-flora rose which seemed to creep in from the road." As a result, the Wentorfs changed their management strategies three or four years ago and, after attending an agroforestry seminar at Cornell, they planted nut trees with hay in between the rows. Rolf has selected nut trees such as hickory and walnut for the new plantings because, as he puts it, "if you’re going to be growing trees, you might as well be growing something you can eat." The project is currently going well. The couple’s properties have also been affected by a small forest fire and ice damage, but Wentorf’s attitude reflects optimism: "Things keep changing and we’ve just got to change with them," he says.
Wentorf, who started his own firewood business several years ago, spends most of his time on his lands, but he also went through the Master Forest Owner program and served as both chair and vice-chair with NYFOA’s Southeastern Adirondack Chapter; his wife, Deb, served as the chapter’s secretary for about ten years. Together, they have worked with many foresters, DEC and private, over the years to get the property where it is today, and the most successful goal, in Wentorf’s mind, is the regeneration of the sugar maples on their lands due to their thinning practices. While now active with timber sales and the firewood business, Wentorf states that the initial reason for purchasing the property was as an investment; that philosophy still holds true to this day.
PO Box 541 Lima, NY 14485
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