In 1986, Jim and Jody Kerns were newly married, in their 20’s, and looking to invest some savings. On the advice of Jody’s dad, they considered buying land. They liked the idea. Land is tangible; they could see their investment. “Rather than put our money in the hands of the stock market, we decided on land,” Jim recalls. And, at first, it was just that – land. “We both had jobs and neither of us wanted to farm full-time,” remembers Jody. Then Jim met their county forester at a forestry field day. The idea of investment was starting to take on broader meaning.
“I learned our pasture was full of black walnut seedlings, but I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to see them.” A memory evoking Jim’s inexperience at the time. So they enrolled the pasture in Forest Reserve, took the cows off, and watched the walnuts grow. “I was so proud of my little trees, I once got so carried away pruning the forester said, ‘don’t touch them for 5 years!’” Nevertheless, a little success fueled their ambition.
Jody remembers, “We saw these timber assets coming along after six years. The land was going to become more valuable.” With confidence, they enrolled their cropland into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and planted trees (note: CRP allows grass plantings too). CRP is a federal agricultural program that provides rental payments to put highly erodible land for the contract period. Jody remembers with a smile their formative years being filled with lessons learned, “I don’t know why we stuck with it. There was a drought that year and every one of our planted pines died.” Determined, it was only a matter of time.
Jim and Jody started to raise a family and land ownership developed a personal and emotional dimension. “We were playing as a family – mushrooming, hunting, sleigh riding, hikes, and picnics. It became about our family’s goals and learning,” Jody delights. “Even today, the land brings our family home. Every Mother’s day, we go to church and then mushrooming at the land.” The kids too learned land needs nurturing. “In the fall when Jim said ‘let’s go have a family picnic at a county park,’ it meant picking up nuts for a tree planting. We were growing our family legacy with our family.”
As they grew their family of eight, they continued investing in land. “Land has been our IRA (individual retirement account).” Which, makes each economic decision important. Their first timber harvest was over before they understood the importance of selecting a logger based on sealed bids. While logging takes weeks or months, growing timber takes years. Sizing-up their timber assets against the market has been a critical step ever since. “We have had some pretty awesome experiences with sealed bids prior to harvesting,” elates Jody. Too, Jim is a believer in sticking to management plans, “We’ve resisted temptation to sell trees sooner, but now we have 28-inch walnut that are really nice.” They credit their savvy to landowner field days and their forester and enthusiastically share their knowledge and land with their local community.
The Kerns run field trips each year for the local 2nd and 5th grades and a nine-week course for high schoolers. Jim was in his 20’s before he learned of forestry. “I didn’t know it was a job – imagine getting paid to be in the woods all day!” And the broader forestry community has recognized them for their achievements. They have been Iowa’s Tree Farmer of the Year and a National runner-up.
The Kerns can’t imagine what life would have been like without their family’s relationship to the land. They sum up the last thirty years as “75-percent hard work and 25-percent dumb luck.” Smiling, they remember how simply and naively things started and how far they have come – not unlike those first pine seedlings they spaded into the ground.