Wild Thyme Farm, Oakville, WA
By Jennifer Whitelaw
John Henrickson’s land speaks to him, and he thinks more people should listen. “We need more people to develop that relationship – to fall in love with the land,” he said.
The particular object of John’s affection is Wild Thyme Farm, a 150-acre forest in the Oakville area of the Chehalis River Valley. John hopes to expand the Wild Thyme Farm land holding in the future, but for now, the 150 acres, which he describes as more land than he and his brothers intended to buy in the first place, keeps him busy enough.
“The land tells you what to do, and this property has taken over my life,” says John, and he couldn’t be happier about it. “My inspiration comes from the magical forests in the story books of my youth,” he says. “I thought of forests that were agrarian, magic and full of big, scary trees. Nature wants that too.”
John believes that mixing agriculture and forestry creates a more dynamic, sustainable business model, a better forest and opens up opportunities for community collaboration. True to John’s vision, a local beekeeper leases space for his apiary at Wild Thyme Farm, and the Farm benefits from the busy pollinating activity of the bees. A neighbor cuts and bales John’s hay and leaves him with 30 percent of the crop to feed his two pet cows, who happily provide manure for his gardens and orchards in return. Several land owners in the area participate in a milk share that delivers fresh milk, eggs and butter to the Farm. For his part, John leases a saw mill to support his logging business, and several of his neighbors sell their logs to John to mill.
Through word of mouth, local woodworkers, home builders and contractors make up the bulk of John’s wood buying market. His three drying rooms feature six species of wood. Busy dehumidifiers keep the wood dry and provide water for the garden beds just outside the door. For a brochure on Wild Thyme Farm’s lumber products, please click here.
Those garden beds play an important part in what John refers to as his food forest. “We’ve planted perennials to mimic the forest, but substituted more human-friendly species, like plants that provide food, medicine or fiber.” He adds that every acre on his property is spoken for in terms of productive potential.
But things didn’t always tick along so efficiently or symbiotically at Wild Thyme Farm.
“We bought the Farm in 1987, and for eight years we did no forestry or landscape work. We just fixed up the buildings. We would have had a top value forest by now if we had known what to do,” John said.
Disaster struck with the 1996 ice storm, which wiped out part of the Wild Thyme Farm forest.
“That storm probably cost us around $250,000, but I know now that it was more due to poor decisions than to nature,” he said.
Soon after he and his three brothers bought the Farm, several locals told John that he should clear cut his forest and plant Douglas Fir, but John balked at the idea.
“They were 80 percent right,” he said. “I should have removed 80 percent of the trees.”
He learned that not thinning a forest leads to quick growing, spindly tree clusters that are structurally weak due to fierce competition for sunlight.
John has since certified 100 of his 150 acres through the Northwest Natural Resource Group’s (NNRG) certification program and has a detailed forestry plan to ensure the future health of his forest and to maximize the value of his lumber. As a certified forest, his lumber can display the Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC®) brand, widely considered the gold standard of sustainable forestry.
“You need value-added production to compete in the lumber market,” he said. “The market outside of certification is desperate now and in the future. The FSC label gives you the first level of distinction and allows you to command a higher retail price.”
John has also elected to participate in NW Neutral, another program developed by NNRG to sell forest-based carbon offsets into the voluntary carbon market. He says that it has in the past been easier to clear cut than to manage a forest sustainably, but that if the carbon market does what it’s supposed to, it will make sustainable forestry more economically feasible.
John believes, however, that government regulations need to change in order to further encourage sustainable forestry. He wants to see government switch their goal from preventing bad forestry to promoting good forestry.
“The innovation is all there, but bureaucracy pushes back. The way to build a diverse economy is to let people be creative,” he said.
You don’t have to look far at Wild Thyme Farm to see creativity at work. The handful of residents who rent space in some of John’s renovated buildings are all cooking up businesses of their own and helping to revitalize a local economy deflated decades ago by the 1983 Washington Public Power Supply System bond default, which cancelled plans for two nearby nuclear power plants. John hopes to add a dairy tenant to the Farm when they acquire more land, and he plans to sell the fruits, nuts and vegetables he cultivates through a local co-op.
From the bounty of the land, John was able to renovate the existing buildings at the Farm. The 100-year old barn is now a beautiful patchwork of hemlock, alder and cedar. All the building materials he used, including the beautiful quilted maple used to craft a window sill in one of the studios, were either harvested or reclaimed.
These days, when John surveys his property, he sees the incredible income potential of a cultivated, healthy, diverse forest.
“The forest is the Farm’s endowment fund. We plan to build the principle and use the interest that comes from taking only trees that the forest itself has slated for termination,” he said.
This approach, which is key to earning and maintaining FSC certification as well as perpetually sequestering carbon, provides another benefit that John values deeply.
“The NW Neutral carbon contract encumbers the land because you have to maintain the carbon stocks you sell for at least 100 years. This helps protect the property even after the original owners are gone,” he said, pointing out that one of the dangers of creating a beautiful forest is that you make it a target for abuse.
Maintaining and restoring such a diverse property is not without its challenges, though. As part of his efforts to restore the riparian habitat around Garrard Creek, which runs through his property, John found himself doing battle with a family of beavers who moved in, attracted by the explosion of John’s newly planted trees.
A federal conservation program that paid for the restoration requires John to plant and maintain a certain amount of trees around the creek, but the beavers kept taking them down to create their own habitat.
John’s efforts to “telepathically plead with the beavers to lay off” continue, but he hopes to claim victory simply by planting at a rate greater than beaver destruction.
“Beavers are not willing to negotiate much,” he said. “Creatures have no interest in regime change.”
For John, the wildlife residing at his farm, including bears, cougars and an elk herd, are an important part of the ecosystem, and he’s even created a special habitat in order to attract band-tailed pigeons.
“The key to turning around the planet is to look to nature and then add ourselves to that restorative power,” he said.
“Nature will do 99 percent of the work, but you have to have some of your spirit and flesh in the game.”