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Eric and Eleanor Randall


Member Profile:

Eric and Eleanor Randall

by Peter Smallidge

A Tale of Three Counties – The Randall Woodlots

Most days it seems like the best of times, especially when wisdom is applied to management decisions. In the three counties with their woodlots, Eric and Eleanor Randall have enjoyed the fruits of their hard labor, and have gratitude for the work of their predecessors. They willingly accept their role as stewards.

Eric describes the lessons learned from farmers and sugarmakers about the necessity of taking care of the land and the trees. He used those early lessons as a foundation for a career of teaching others the same concepts. He describes his sense of good fortune to be able to couple early hands-on lessons with advanced educational opportunities which provided a forum and platform for research, and a venue for distributing information to a broad audience. Eric shared that he always enjoyed being able to provide the public with an opportunity to discover new knowledge relating to the environment and a legacy way of life.

Eric’s background started with a childhood on a dairy and cash crop farm, followed by undergraduate and graduate degrees in botany. His first career was as a professor at SUNY-Buffalo, where he eventually chaired the Department of Biology. After a very short retirement, he became Dean of Science, Management, and Technology at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Eleanor and Eric met as graduate students at The Pennsylvania State University. Previously she was a biology teacher and then returned to Penn State where she earned a MS in genetics and subsequently a MLS in library science. Although raised in the city of Johnstown, PA, Eleanor looked forward to spending time at camps in the mountains and forests of western Pennsylvania. Over the years her urban background contrasted and complemented Eric’s rural heritage in many interesting conversations. The lessons learned from this background difference helped to forge the basis for developing their educational programs for events like Maple Weekend activities.

For the Randalls, wisdom is both learned and shared among generations. Eric notes that to understand forest management one must accept responsibility for forest stewardship. The ever-changing forest ecosystems mature on a scale that is 3 to 4 times that of the lives of most owners. Eric and Eleanor view their management in the context of efforts by the previous generation. They also think, for example, about future history, 150+ years in the making, that will be needed by the 2” diameter white oak sapling that helps support a maple tubing system before it will someday compare to a nearby 30” diameter 3-log specimen, just shy of 1000 board feet.

Their largest parcel is in Wyoming county, with 100 acres of row crop agricultural land and 50 acres of woodlands managed for almost 6 decades under forest management plans most recently to produce maple sap from 2600 taps. Eric’s parents originally purchased this property in the 1940’s. Management from the 1960s to the 1990s focused on timber stand improvement (TSI) and USDA Conservation Reserve Program activities. The woodlands include mixed-aged stands with a significant population of mature white, red, and chestnut oak, black cherry, sugar maple, cucumber magnolia, and a few birch. This property is held in a trust by Eric and his sister.

The homesite is in Genesee county on 24 acres that is largely wooded and houses Randall Maple for sap processing. Also included are a fruit orchard, small vineyard, and sugar maple plantation of Cornell sweet trees including an original sweet tree provided by Josh Cope. Eric and Eleanor made the purchase in 1975, and began with a poorly maintained swamp woodland on a seasonal dirt road. Undeterred to reach the best of times, they began the construction of all the buildings, a sugarhouse, a round barn, toolshed, carriage house, and several smaller buildings.

The third county where Randalls tread is Livingston, near Conesus Lake. This small wooded lakefront property receives attention for their efforts in detection, research, and management of watershed invasive species such as Hydrilla, Myriophyllum, hemlock woolly adelgid, and others. The Randalls, through planning and major renovation, have helped this property develop as a site for family gatherings and recreation.

Their three properties have strikingly different environments. The Genesee county homesite rises to 1010 ft on the Allegany plateau. With 40 years of effort, stewardship, research, cultivation, and teaching they now have about 100 woody species; this complements the natural forest cover of sugar and red maple, basswood, and both bitternut and pignut hickory. There is a nine acre-foot spring fed pond adjacent to the sugarhouse. The pond and springs on our property contribute to the headwaters of Murder Creek, a tributary of Tonawanda Creek. The native understory, here and at the other properties, has been largely eliminated by deer. In Genesee, they now mostly grow poison-ivy and bush honeysuckle in the understory.

The Wyoming County farm, also at about 1100 ft elevation, includes highly productive and well-drained gravel soils and is on the south end of Silver Lake. The woodlot, with similar soils, provides for an impressive array of oaks, cherry, sugar maple, basswood, cucumber magnolia, and a few butternut. Some of the white oak are more than 350 years old; one retained Eric’s 30 inch increment borer and complicated the future aging of trees. Hydrologic features include two small ponds and several streams that serve as a source for Wolf Creek which enters the Genesee River at Letchworth State Park. Eric is planning now for the eventual harvest of the large amounts of white ash as a pre-salvage prior to the arrival of emerald ash borer.

Their biggest management challenges occur on their Wyoming county farm, and their right to farm on land that is under nearly constant development pressure. Over the last 60 years there have been at least four notably unpleasant attempts to condemn this land for public parkland, public utility, and private/public enterprise. Despite their earnest efforts, during this time nearly half of the original farm has been lost.

Management decisions are thoughtfully made in support of ownership objectives. Eric and his sister share decision making for the property in Wyoming County, and Eric and volunteers and friends complete the work. The decision-making process depends on information from bulletins, scientific literature, the MFO volunteer training Eric received, life experiences, and related types of sources.

Their investment in the ownership, and corresponding stewardship, of these lands, includes miles of drainage tile, contour planting, and managed diversion ditches to prevent erosion. The woodlots have been cultivated via TSI and CRP programs with professionally guided forestry assistance. The NRCS professionals have been instrumental in management decisions as evidenced by archival records dating to 1941. The family recognized the value in keeping large harvesting equipment off this land, despite the greater revenue from other types of crops such as potatoes. Rather, they worked with a neighbor who is a responsible land steward. As an indication of their success in this endeavor, the soil’s tilth, pH, organic matter, microbe levels, and drainage remain pretty much as they were a half century ago.

A significant part of the Randall’s woodlots connects with their interest and heritage for maple syrup production. The family has been making maple syrup for over 170 years. Trees are tapped at the Wyoming and Genesee woods, with processing at the sugarhouse on the Genesee property. This property also serves to support their enjoyment with public education. They have hosted Maple Weekend (www.MapleWeekend.com) the two weekends after St. Patrick’s day for almost 25 years. They also have planted numerous trees and shrubs used by Eric in his professional career studying botany. The plants, a bit out of place geographically but surviving, include: dawn redwood, bald cypress, big leaf magnolia, hazelnut filberts, nectarines, willow oak, and Carolina allspice.

Maple production started with a few taps, but like so many who are bitten, now includes about 3000 taps. Their flat pan evolved into a “state of the industry” demonstration evaporator, and they use reverse osmosis to concentrate the sap and pressure filtration is used prior to bottling. Eric and Eleanor were among the originators of Maple Weekend that introduced the public to their sugarhouses, sugarbushes, and maple products as a way of life. Maple Weekend is a popular attraction for people from rural and urban areas where legions of people visit to enjoy a time-honored recognition of spring and to learn about maple production. True to form, they embed maple syrup production in an educational context of agrotourism and a primer to showcase agricultural history, techniques, “field to table”, and the agrarian/green way of rural life.

Their role as maple producers allows them to extend their role as educators. The sale of products from their farm stand may be a brief transaction, or may develop into a lengthy conversation about some aspect of maple and woodlands. They enjoy and expand upon these interactions, as evidenced by Eric’s (and thus by default Eleanor’s) activity with the NYS Maple Producers Association and Eric’s recent service as President of the North American Maple Syrup Council. NYFOA has added to these interactions, providing a connection to Eric’s participation as an MFO volunteer and involvement with federal, state, and regional invasive species councils.

One benefit of wood-fired evaporators is the opportunity to annually manage your woodlands to ensure an investment of sunlight in the best and most productive trees. However, as all who heat with wood know, firewood is not free. To optimize their effort Eric and Eleanor have invested in a high efficiency evaporator that also harnesses the “waste” steam to assist with the early stages of evaporation. The throughput of this evaporator is about four-fold greater than before, while using about one third the wood. High vacuum sap extraction, underground mainlines and a substantial tubing system have greatly increased both production and labor efficiencies. They replaced older, two-wheel drive farm tractors with compact, four-wheel, 35 and 60 hp diesel tractors with loaders. A PTO logging winch makes easier work of removing cull and firewood trees from beneath the maze of tubing. Dump trailers and hydraulic lifts prove valuable in many ways. Starting ten years ago, Eric and Eleanor enjoyed the energy and assistance of a local high school student who approached them; he wanted to learn and to “help” in the woods. Now, he still contributes to all parts of production. Eric and Eleanor also enjoy their friendship with a long-time neighbor to boil or when Eric breaks something. The neighbor, a professional agricultural mechanic with a family history of syrup, does much of the boiling in the sugarhouse. At 80+ years he shows little sign of slowing down.

Eric and Eleanor credit their success to their two children, grandchildren, parents, and grandparents who were generous with their time, expertise, muscle, and excitement in support of this old cottage industry. Eric and Eleanor develop plans, practices, and innovations with the intent that these will direct the work of those who follow. That requires patience and really long-term planning, plus a fervent hope for the transfer of forest stewardship principles to children and grandchildren.

Thus, the story of three woodlots, in three counties, is actually that of sacrifice. The untold, unknown, and often forgotten sacrifice of those previous owners and managers, and the dedication of the current owners striving to ensure that future generations have equal opportunities.

Author, Peter Smallidge, is NYS Extension Forester and Director, Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Support from the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and USDA NIFA.

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