by Briana Binkerd-Dale

The Hobbs connection to New York forests and timber products started at least three generations ago, when Benjamin Hobbs’ great-grandfather opened a saw mill in the Adirondacks. That connection continues to thrive today in Nichols, Tioga County, where two generations live and work together on a 63 acre farm. Thomas and Yvonne (Robare) Hobbs, the elder generation, grew up in Ellenburg Center, Clinton County, NY. Tom earned his B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering at Union College in Schenectady. After working in the Chicago area at CAI for three years, Tom returned to Johnson City to work for General Electric, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed Martin, retiring in 2000.

Tom’s wife Yvonne earned her Art Education at SUNY Buffalo and M.F.A. in Sculpture and Architectural Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. After working as an art educator and sculptor in both New York and Illinois, Yvonne retired from the Susquehanna School in Binghamton NY in 2000.Yvonne’s latest public sculpture was funded by a Marilyn Gaddis Rose and Stephen Ross grant and done with assistance from Mechanical Engineering students and faculty from SUNY Binghamton.

Tom and Yvonne came to the Nichols farm in 1968, when their twin daughters Andrea and Erica were 8 months old. Four years later, their son Benjamin arrived. “After several years of city life we wanted to return to a rural setting and provide a connection to the land and natural environment for our family,” Tom said. They were attracted to the property due to the rural location, livable house and some usable outbuildings, as well as the meadows, woods and permanent stream. The farm overlooks the Susquehanna River valley, with a good view of the surrounding hills. Being within a reasonable commuting distance to their primary places of employment and the good reputation of the Owego Apalachin School District didn’t hurt either.

Tom and Yvonne’s son Benjamin received his education in the field of furniture design and woodworking at the Rochester Institute of Technology, The School of American Craftsmen, graduating with a B.F.A.Ben returned to the Nichols farm after graduation to establish Stanton Hill Studios, his furniture design and building business. Ben’s wife Laura joined the family there in 1999 and helps run both the Studio furniture business and the farm itself, Heritage Pastures. The 63 acres is split almost half and half between woodland and farmland. “Everything we do here improves wildlife habitat and promotes biodiversity,” Ben said. “This land is a bit of the world that we can watch over, protect and enjoy.”

In the early years Tom and Yvonne made the management decisions and did the work.Ben recently completed the training for the NY Master Forest Owner (MFO) program, and has now become the primary decision maker and work force, with Tom’s assistance. Both generations participate in Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) workshops, NYFOA seminars and woods walks, and do a lot of pertinent reading. Tom and Ben enjoy hunting in the woods, and they all hike around the property and relish family work parties.They continue to be inspired to do all that they can on their land when they compare other unmanaged lands with well managed lands.

The overall makeup of the land is heavy side hill soil with some wet spots and seasonal streams. The 8 or 9 acre back portion of the woods containing the permanent stream was never farmed, and consists of mature ash, white and red oak, hard and soft maple, hemlock, a few black cherry and shagbark hickory, very few yellow and black birch and even fewer big tooth aspen. There is minimal interfering understory vegetation with the exception of a few beech trees and ferns, but the stand has poor regeneration of desirable trees due to the closed canopy. Tom did some timber stand improvement (TSI) there in the early 70s, and they are planning on hiring a consultant forester to assist them in opening up the canopy to sufficient levels to allow for regeneration.

The middle portion of the woodlot is abandoned agricultural land that they estimate to have been planted with approximately 1,000 scotch pines in the late 50’s or early 60’s. The Hobbs experience with scotch pine is that they have poor survivability on that land and little commercial value. That stand contains many of the same species mentioned previously, though cucumber trees replaced the birch. The front portion of the woodlot is also abandoned agricultural land that Tom and Yvonne planted with 2,000 red pines and 1,000 balsam fir in 1969. “The red pine had good survivability, but they didn’t put on much growth and they are of low value,” Tom said “The balsam fir are not native to this area and didn’t have a strong survival rate, but have provided us with our Christmas trees for several years.

The Hobbses abandoned 3.2 acres of meadow in the mid 1980’s and over the next few years planted a few hundred Fraser fir, Norway spruce and 50 American larch. The Fraser fir did very poorly, but the Norway spruce and larch had a much better survival rate. In the last 10 years Ben has planted some black walnut, black cherry and black locust in that same abandoned meadow area, with very little success. “We’ve learned that the type of soil, preparation and maintenance of the site, and terrain are all very important factors to be considered,” Tom said. The abandoned meadowland was finally designated wildlife habitat as part of an EQIP grant, planted with a variety of native fruit and mast bearing shrubs, and is now performing its function beautifully.

That same EQIP grant was used to preserve the waterways and ponds on the land from animal pressure on the farm. Fencing was put up to exclude livestock, and a new well and water lines were installed to compensate for the loss of access to protected areas. Animal pressure is also used to advantage. Invasive species have been moving into the woods and hedgerows for years, and Ben has been working aggressively to combat this in the pastures and hedgerows via silvopasture. Utilizing their herd of 14 cattle, he goes in first with a brush puller to get the worst of it out and then grazes the cattle there. He has been doing this for the past three or four years now and progress is showing. Thorn apple (hawthorn) was a major issue in the early years in the woods, but they were able to successfully reduce the population via extensive manual removal; regrowth was prevented by the dense overstory. Ash yellows disease is now causing a slow die-off of the overstory, however, enabling a resurgence of the invasive species. Multiflora rose, beech, honeysuckle and buckthorn are ongoing problems, but the Hobbses are dedicated to continued management of them.

Improvements have not been limited to the land. In 1971, Tom and Yvonne built a one story addition to the south side of their house with locally sourced lumber. That was followed in 1984 by a second one story greenhouse addition on the south side of the 1971 addition. Both of those additions were removed in 2003 and replaced with a single two story timber frame structure, using timbers and lumber that was harvested and sawed on the farm. In 2007, the deck was rebuilt as a timber frame structure, also using material harvested and sawed on the property. The Hobbses have also fully insulated the house, put a steel roof on, replaced all of the windows, and installed an in-floor hot water heating system on the 1st floor. They have been providing all of their own heat with wood harvested from the farm since 1978; after starting with partially heating Tom and Yvonne’s house during that first winter of 1968, they now have a wood furnace that heats the homes of both generations. Ben estimates that they go through 20-25 cords per year.

All building and construction work has been done in house by the family, with a strong emphasis on timber framing that began in 1995 when Ben moved back to the farm to start his furniture business. At that time, they enlarged the existing workshop in one of the farm’s original buildings with a timber frame addition that doubled the workspace.In 2000, they purchased a saw mill, harvesting and sawing timber from the woods for a drying shed. The first two bays of the drying shed were built in 2003, with a third bay added above them in 2006, all timber frame construction. A barn was built in 2010, and several portable farm buildings have also been built over the past 16 years, all with timber harvested and sawed onsite. And of course, Ben also uses choice timber from the farm for the furniture he designs and builds for his Stanton Hill Studios business. “We want to be good stewards of the land, growing quality lumber,” Ben said.

In the last several years the Hobbses have inherited four parcels of mostly woodlands totaling 179 acres in Clinton County, NY. They have harvested some cherry up there, but are trying to evaluate what to do with the property given time and distance constraints, and are setting up a meeting with a forester to figure out next steps. Their biggest challenge overall is T.I.M.E., a phrase known to many Master Forest Owners as Time, Interest, Money and Energy. Advice to other forest owners? “Do attempt to learn about and to control invasive species early. Work in small manageable segments; don’t attempt to do the entire area all at once. If anyone is going to start a planting learn about the soil, terrain and moisture content of the land. By all means, don’t do a timber sale without consulting a qualified forester. NYFOA is a very good source of information and help.”

Briana Binkerd-Dale is a student in Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology at Cornell University.
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