Sustaining Ecological and Economic Diversity Among Limited Resource Landholders by Expanding Opportunities for Management of Productive Woodlands

Final Report for LS01-126

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $180,431.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Sarah Warren
North Carolina State University
Expand All

Project Information


Goals for this research and educational project were twofold: (1) to strengthen the capacities of limited-resource traditionally under-served forest landowners so that they could sustainably and profitably manage their forest resources, and (2) to identify opportunities for and constraints on their participation in timber and alternative forest-products sectors. Combining productive and sustainable woodlands with farming systems raises quality of life and diversifies farm incomes, especially for landowners who have not always able to take full advantage of farm and forestry assistance program opportunities.

The multi-institutional research and education team comprised North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, the Land Loss Prevention Project, and the Concerned Citizens of Tillery. We worked with voluntary organizations, community leaders, and local and state agencies in seven coastal plain counties. These (Duplin, Halifax, Northampton, Robeson, Sampson, and Warren in North Carolina, and Brunswick in Virginia) were characterized by many small private forest landholdings and high proportions of limited-resource traditionally underserved landowners. To accomplish our goals, we created outreach publications, collected and analyzed information from forest landowners, and held numerous listening and workshop sessions throughout the research counties. We maintain a website called “Sustainable Woodlands” (, and will locate continuation funding for producing outreach materials and conducting workshops.

Project Objectives:

The overarching goal of the project has been to strengthen the capacity of limited-resource traditionally underserved farm landowners to raise the economic and ecological values of their land by integrating sustainable forestry practices into farming systems. Short-term goals, such as improving understanding of farm and forest decision-making, evaluating how government incentives and markets for traditional and emerging woodland management options could be harnessed by land owners, and enhancing knowledge of these options through field days, demonstrations, and information campaigns, defined the research and education objectives.

Objective 1: to develop and apply methods for identifying and contacting landholders.

Objective 2: to describe and analyze the preferences, opportunities, and constraints that inform decision-making about woodland management within farming systems.

Objective 3: to analyze and select technically proven options for woodland management that are sustainable and appropriate to farm family goals and economic systems.

Objective 4: to extend these options to the client population through education and outreach.


A mosaic of land use patterns and diverse communities creates a healthy rural landscape. Yet the changing corporate structure of agriculture and forestry tends to decrease environmental, social, and economic diversity in the rural South. Throughout the southern United States, small farmers with limited resources are steadily losing ground. This land loss trend has been particularly notable for minority farmers, who are traditionally underserved by both market and government institutions. Many of these farmers own small areas of woodland, which is too often an underutilized resource.

Full participation in an important southern market sector--forest products and amenities--has generally been achieved by those who have capital, significant land holdings, and access to sponsored programs. Those with fewer resources may also find the forest sector an attractive opportunity. However, because of financial and structural impediments, group identification (race, ethnicity, sex), absentee or heir property ownership, or choice of farming system, many limited-resource landholders have not been able to make full use of the woodlands in their farming systems. Cost-share and incentive programs require technical knowledge and capital. In addition, record keeping is intensive, program requirements may shift, and the limits and guidelines may be inappropriate for small-scale forest landholders. Some owners, such as women who have inherited land but lack sufficient woodland management and financial skills or retirees from cities and towns, are not familiar with land management of any kind. Minority farm and forest landholders are particularly affected because of the history of land tenure and public assistance programs in the Southeast. The USDA and other federal and state agencies have recognized these problems, and are emphasizing support and services for limited-resource, traditionally under-served, and socially disadvantaged farm landowners.

This segment of rural southern society may be “poor” not only in financial and physical resources, but also in motivation and self-confidence. Relatively low educational achievement, limited literacy, limited understanding of forestry terminology, and unfamiliarity with forest products markets and support programs may constrain their capacity to seek public forestry assistance. Immediate concerns often supersede long-range planning, so that timber sales may be haphazard and financial pressures create reluctance to pay for professional forestry advice. Without professional advice or agency assistance, limited-resource landowners rarely get full value for their trees.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Frederick Cubbage
  • Godfrey Chima Ejimakor
  • Gary Grant
  • Benjamin Gray, Jr.
  • Rick Hamilton
  • Savi Horne
  • Susan Moore
  • Erin Sills
  • Robert Williamson


Materials and methods:

Research Component

Initially the project team consulted with key outreach and community leaders in each of the study counties, both to introduce the research topics and personnel and to collect data. Those interviewed included: agency staff (e.g., CES, SFOP, FSA, and NRCS), county forest rangers, county managers, Native American tribal leaders, members of local non-profits, and other community leaders identified through our NGO partners.

These informants and our project partners identified local limited-resource forest landowners, some of whom subsequently participated in semi-structured open-ended interviews. Respondents in turn identified other landowners, so that a ‘snow-ball’ sample was obtained. We used this information for triangulation and expansion of the growing list of constraints and opportunities encountered in woodland management.

We conducted listening and “working with your small woodland” sessions in years one and two. Three were county-based and two were in multi-county tribal centers. Information gained opened up new issues and confirmed extant qualitative data.

In order to evaluate the consequences of identified constraints, we then surveyed forest landowners in eastern NC and VA using an enriched sampling frame that ensured a sufficient number of respondents who owned small acreages, had relatively low incomes and educational attainment, and were in traditionally underserved groups such as African American and Native American. The final database integrated data provided by USDA agencies (e.g., CES, SFOP, NRCS, FSA, and NASS), the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources, non-governmental organizations, county tax assessors/registrars of deeds and county-based GIS databases. Census of Population information at the block level was used to identify areas with significant proportions of residents likely to be limited-resource and traditionally under-served populations.

In many previous surveys of non-industrial private forest landowners, limited-resource groups have been under-represented due to low response rates. In addition, previous studies have tended to focus on timber harvest and reforestation decisions. In addition to harvest and reforestation questions, we also considered intermediate silvicultural practices and outputs (e.g., hunting and fuelwood), land acquisition and disposal patterns, participation in government assistance programs, sources of forestry information. We related these answers to socio-demographic characteristics of owners and counties, controlling for forest characteristics.

Eight-nine of the surveys were conducted in-person by local enumerators who spent one day on the NCSU campus being trained for the interview process. 1114 survey booklets were mailed, with a 27% mail response rate. Survey data has been analyzed at the NC A&T Applied Survey Research Laboratory and at NCSU. A doctoral student will base part of her dissertation on further analysis.

Topics related to potential niche markets, reviews of state and national policy changes that affect non-industrial private forest landowners, heir property and land ownership patterns, and timber pricing in the study area were reviewed by students at NC State and NC A&T universities, and served to inform design of the survey instrument.

Outreach Component

In addition to the formal listening sessions and “Working with your small woodland” workshops (described above), the project team conducted all-day “Family Forestry Field Days” in four of the study counties. These were structured around morning information sessions, a locally catered meal, and afternoon field visits. All workshops and field days were collaborations between the project team, local CES agents and county foresters, non-governmental organization collaborators, and individual forest landowners from the community. In addition, private consulting foresters were invited to provide input. The structure was well-received, and we will continue similar workshops in future.

From interviews and listening sessions it became clear that existing forestry extension materials (in North Carolina known as “Woodland Owner Notes”, available both in print and on the Web) were not useful to an audience of landowners having limited forestry experience, limited exposure to forestry markets, and occasionally limited reading capacities. Graduate students working with the project team and other forestry professionals prioritized and revised existing materials. Their revisions were based on standard guidelines that emphasized reading level (as measured by the FOG, Flesch-Kincaid, and Flesch indices) and appropriate style (e.g., use of large font size, simple drawings and illustrations, and white space). Drafts were extensively reviewed by members of the project team and, more importantly, by limited-resource landowners.

Research results and discussion:

Survey Results

Descriptive statistics derived from the survey are summarized below. Further analysis will be completed in a forthcoming doctoral dissertation.

Survey Methods: The survey covered all seven study counties. Landowners with at least five acres of woodland and under 100 acres were contacted for personal interviews or mailed a survey booklet. Of those contacted, 389 responded. This number includes 89 completed face-to-face interviews and 300 returned booklets. Results are generally representative of small woodland owners but may be biased toward men with smaller acreages of woodland because of certain telephone follow-up procedures.

Characteristics of woodland owners: The typical (median) woodland owner who responded to the survey had 30 acres of woodland. Ninety percent of them owned between five and 260 acres of woodland. Only 16% farmed the land by themselves. About a third of respondents lived on their woodland property. Another third lived more than 10 miles away. The average age of survey respondents was 63 years old. Ninety percent of them were between 40 and 85 years old. Many (83%) had lived most of their lives in NC or VA.

The most important reasons stated for owning woodland were (1) scenic beauty and protecting nature, (2) leaving land for the children, and (3) investment-related reasons, such as real estate investments or timber income. The least important reasons were growing other (non-timber) products and use-value taxation.

Challenges of woodland management: The most common problem faced by woodland owners is forestry knowledge. Nearly one out of three respondents (31%) said that the hardest thing about managing their woodlands was that they did not know what to do. Some woodland owners also said ““I don’’t have the time”” (20%) or ““I don’’t have the money”” (15%). Distance was the greatest problem for 17% of our respondents. Nearly half (47%) of the landowners visited their woods once a month. A few (13%) visited their woods every day. About 15% visited their woods less than once a year.

Health of woodlands: Most landowners felt confident in the health of their forest. More than a third of landowners said that 100% of their woods were ““very healthy.”” Only a few woodland owners (13%) said that more than 20% of their woodland was ““not healthy at all.””

Assistance with woodland management: Only 10% of landowners had a written management or stewardship plan for their woods. These plans are an important guide to woodland management and are required for some types of government assistance. In North Carolina, county foresters from the Division of Forest Resources can help landowners with these plans. Of the survey respondents, 19% had been visited by a county forester in the past five years. Fifteen percent had hired a consulting forester to manage a timber sale or other forestry activities. Many of these were the same people: 40% of those visited by a county forester had also hired consulting foresters.

The top three forestry information sources used by landowners were (1) Family, friends or neighbors (49%), (2) Publications such as pamphlets, newsletters, brochures and booklets (40%), and (3) the County forester (39%). However, some of these methods worked better than others. Many felt that getting forestry information from the county forester (23%) or publications (18%) works best for them. Others like getting information from family, friends, and neighbors (15%) or the county extension agent (15%). Media such as TV, radio or magazines were the least preferred method of getting forestry information.

Woodland income and uses: Most landowners (66%) did not make any money from their woods in the past five years. Only About 15% of landowners reported that they had made more than $10,000. Thirty-five percent of survey respondents sold timber in the past five years, and 16% thought they would sell in the next five years. Most (56%) were not planning to sell timber in the next five years or said that they would wait and see (28%). About half of the landowners said that they receive bids for timber a few times a year. The 14% of landowners who never received any bids for timber typically own fewer acres (median of 14 acres).

Hunting was the most common non-timber use of the forest. One out of three landowners hunted or let others hunt on their land. Nearly 10% of survey respondents leased out hunting rights. It was not as common to sell or lease other forest products, such as pine straw, firewood, recreation and collecting fruits and flowers. However, about a quarter of the landowners making significant income from their woodland (more than $25,000 in past five years) did sell non-timber products such as pine straw, firewood, berries, flowers and mushrooms and/or hunting leases.

Woodlands in the family: Just over half of the survey respondents (53%) inherited their woodlands. Among those who inherited woodlands, nearly 70% said their woods had been in the family since the 1950s. A little over half (53%) of our respondents had made a written will that indicated who would inherit their woodlands after they passed away. Ideally, 100% of landowners should have a written will, because this can prevent future legal and management problems for inheritors of the land.

Most landowners (77%) planned to pass their woodlands down to their children. We asked landowners what they expected their children to do with the woodlands. Many landowners (37%) did not know. For those who had an idea, more than half (56%) believed their children would keep the property in woodland instead of clearing or selling the land. Eighteen percent of landowners received input from their children on decisions regarding their woodlands. Forty-two percent believed that their children were aware of how their woodlands were managed, even though they do not actively participate. One third of landowners thought that their children did not have any idea about how the woodland was managed.

Preliminary descriptive statistics indicate that there is a need for targeted forestry education and outreach that is appropriate for limited-resource traditionally underserved landowners.

Outreach results

The project team has published seven multi-page booklets in two series. The first, “TreeTips”, is intended for audiences unfamiliar with forestry terminology who also may have limited sight or literacy skills. “TreeTips” booklets are designed to be accessible at about a 6th grade reading level. The second series, “WoodsWise”, reaches an 8th to 10th grade reading level. “WoodsWise” publications introduce more complex forestry issues and can be used by both forest landowners and outreach personnel. Four of the “TreeTips” publications have been translated into Spanish. All are freely available for use and adoption on our Sustainable Woodlands website ( Funding is currently being sought to continue production of the “TreeTips” and “WoodsWise” publications for print, on-line, and conversion to interactive media.

In all, the project partners and local collaborators hosted ten community-based forestry meetings (listening sessions, working-with-small-woodlands and family-forestry field-day workshops). Outreach and education activities were important not only for limited-resource landowners, but also in raising awareness among agency personnel, county forestry staff, private consulting foresters, and local organizations. All agreed that the goals and objectives of the project were sound and timely.

With the intent of reaching service and assistance foresters, the project team hosted a teleconference, “Reaching the Underserved Forest Landowner,” in June, 2004. Eighty-eight forestry professionals from across North Carolina took this opportunity to learn about constraints and opportunities for limited-resource landowner participation in the forestry sector. In addition, we hosted a final workshop for policy decision makers in September, 2005, covering characteristics of limited-resource landowners, initial survey results, outreach materials, and heir property. Two presentations were made to the State Outreach Council (who provided funding for the “TreeTips” publication on heir property). The project team consistently kept agencies and colloborators informed of activities, progress, and results.

Evaluations of all outreach activities, both to landowners and forestry professionals, have been uniformly positive. Suggestions for improvement were immediately incorporated into events; at present the project team is confident that the structure used will be viable for future outreach efforts.

The project website,, has been designed as a vehicle for disseminating research progress and results and as a storage location for information on the study counties and outreach materials. In addition to descriptive material about the project, it contains PDF versions of all outreach materials, an on-line guide to agencies and organizations that provide forestry assistance, extensive background material on study county demographics and socio-economic indicators, a summary of research findings to date, and links to all progress reports, publications, and workshop materials.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
  • To date, eight outreach publications have been prepared, four of which have also been translated into Spanish.
    In the WoodsWise series:

    "Guide to Consulting Foresters" and

    "Guide to Selling Timber".

    In the TreeTips series:

    "Empezando Con Su Terreno",

    "Getting Help from a Consulting Forester",

    "Getting Started With Your Woods",

    "Goods from Your Woods",

    "Keeping the Family in Family Forest",

    "La Ayuda De Un Consultor Forestal",

    "Los Bienes De Su Bosque",

    "Making a Profit from Pinestraw, Making Money from Hunting Leases".

    These publications are available on the project website:

    Two papers have been published in proceedings volumes:

    Mance, K., E. Sills, and S. Warren. 2004. “Outreach to Limited Resource Forest Landowners: Extension Innovation for Low Literacy Audiences,” in David M. Baumgartner, ed., Proceedings of Human Dimensions of Family, Farm, and Community Forestry International Symposium, March 29 – April 1, 2004, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA.

    Warren, Sarah, R. Williamson, and E. Sills. 2002. "Minority Landholders and Working Forests in the South", Proceedings of the Society of American Foresters 2002 National Convention, 262 - 272. Society of American Foresters, Washington, D.C.
    Another paper is being prepared for submission to the Journal of Extension.

    An additional six presentations have been made at academic conferences:
    Mance, Kelly, Erin Sills, Sarah Warren, and Nevin Dawson, 2005, "Creating forestry outreach materials for limited-resource and beginning forest landowners", presented at the 63rd Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference, Tuskegee, December;
    Atmadja, Nia and E. Sills, 2005,“Constraints and Consequences: The Effects of Capital Constraints on Forest Management”, presented at the Southern Forest Economics Workshop, Baton Rouge, LA, April;
    Sills, Erin, S. Atmadja, S. Warren, and R. Estevez, 2004, “Sustaining Diversity: Limited-resource Forest Landowners in the Southern United States”, presented at the IUFRO Conference on Human Dimensions Family and Farm Forestry, Pullman, WA, March;
    Estevez, Rafael, 2004, "Choosing, Producing, and Cashing in with Christmas Trees", presented at NCSU Undergraduate Research Symposium, Raleigh, NC, August;
    Warren, S.T., E.O. Sills, and N. Dawson, 2002, "Turning Every Stone: Identifying limited resource, traditionally under-served forest landowners in North Carolina and Virginia", presented at the Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Chicago, August;
    Warren, S.T., E. Sills, and N. Dawson, 2002, "Sustaining ecological and economic diversity among limited resource landholders by expanding opportunities for management of productive woodlands", poster presented at SARE Conference On the Road to Sustainable Agriculture, Raleigh, NC, October.

    Master of Natural Resources project (Forest Policy and Administration): Mance, Kelly Dyane, 2004, "Outreach to Limited Resource Forest Landowners: Creating Extension Materials for Low Literacy Audiences". Department of Forestry, North Carolina State University.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Changes in forestry program opportunities, forest management behaviors, and participation in the forestry sector are all influenced by the long-term nature of forestry activities. We have observed a few instances in which limited-resource forest landowners have already improved their practices, explored new ones, and have initiated applications for forestry and other support programs. The short-term impacts of our research and education program can be measured by the enthusiasm of participants, and perhaps by the pace at which forestry information passes through communities. Long-term impacts, however, will be tied to larger institutional and sectoral change in the rural south. Funding for forestry and conservation assistance programs, if increased, should have a positive long-term effect. Forestry markets, which seem to be turning from short-rotation pulpwood to long-rotation high quality timber, may also have a positive impact. However, holding quality trees for longer periods introduces a greater level of risk for the small landowner and requires more intensive management. We do not know yet if public and private assistance foresters will be able to increase their level of service to limited-resource forest landowners, or if in turn limited-resource forest landowners will become more open to investing in longer-term land management strategies. We suggest, however, that proactive, persistent, and targeted assistance and outreach will be required to ensure successful ventures into woodland management that are both ecologically and economically productive.


Areas needing additional study

Given the long-term nature of forestry activities, we need to maintain contact with the limited-resource traditionally under-served farmer participants in the project to determine what changes, innovations, or opportunities they have initiated in their land management systems. We should track their use of outreach publications and their impact on landowner skill development. We should also keep community members apprised of policy and program changes that affect forest management decisions. Some members of the original project team are applying for funding to monitor progress in the study counties and expand participation throughout the coastal plain.

The difficulties attendant in identifying limited-resource traditionally under-served forest and farm land owners are common throughout the South. Information available from multiple databases requires extensive cross-matching and ground-truthing. The process is greatly complicated by ownership structures, such as heir property ownerships, life estates, and absentee owners. Efforts by USDA and non-profit rural groups to establish and maintain a small farm directory and the minority farm register may in part alleviate such problems. In the meantime, creating a comprehensive database of landowners who can be categorized as socially disadvantaged requires hard labor and use of non-traditional sources.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.