We all know that stocks and bonds are typical investments, and we watch the movement of the stock market where many have their 401(k) portfolio. Digital currency, the crypto market, is another type of investment popular today – we’ve all heard about Bitcoin as it rose to over $50,000 per coin as well as its fall to below $20,000 per coin.
But when was the last time you considered investing in a tree? For that matter, when was the first time? Don’t scoff, though. We know the stock we purchase for our woodworking projects came from a tree, so there has to be some money in trees.
But just how much is a tree worth? And what is the return on investment in trees? Can I sell one of my yard trees and make some money from it?
Can you make a living growing trees? Someone obviously does, yes, because the wood we just brought home from the lumberyard wasn’t free. From the tree to my woodworking shop, folks made money.
Let’s consider the walnut tree, and specifically the black walnut tree, to find out how much money there is in a tree, how that value might be calculated, and whether it is a worthy investment.
Black Walnut Trees
Those of us who love working with wood know the beauty of black walnut. Favored as a wood of choice for furniture and cabinetry, black walnut is known for its beautiful color and durability. Black walnut logs are in such high demand that trees have been stolen in the middle of the night by walnut rustlers from tree farms and residential backyards. In one known instance, a helicopter was used to fly one away as it was cut down.
Black walnut trees can be found from Canada to northern Florida, and as far west as the Great Plains. It’s rich-brown toned heartwood is known to resist decay, and was chosen for this reason as fence posts and house shingles by early settlers.
In forest settings where it is surrounded by other trees, black walnut trees will grow straight and tall and usually without low branches. When planted in the open, though, black walnut trees will tend to branch out lower to the ground and develop a spread that makes harvesting the nuts.
It is the former, the forest settings, where the most valuable black walnut trees will be found. The lack of branching in the lower part of the tree, the absence of mars and scars from branching, make that part of the tree desirable.
The Juglone Problem
Black walnut trees, though, have one aspect of their chemical composition that presents problems to many neighboring plants. It is something of a self-preserving chemical called juglone, an herbicide that is exuded by its roots. It inhibits the growth of many plants that could be competition for water, thus ensuring an ample supply for the black walnut tree itself.
Among the plants that are harmed, killed, or have their growth stunted by juglone include garden staples like:
- Berries of all types
And common landscaping plants like:
Notwithstanding the harm a black walnut tree can cause to surrounding plants and trees, it is a beautiful shade tree. Growing to a common height of 50 feet, and even as tall as 100 feet, it casts a wide shade on larger properties with wide-open spaces.
Black Walnut Nuts
The tree produces nuts in abundance and drops them from late summer through October. The lime-green nuts are the size of baseballs, and you would not want to be hit on the head by one falling from the tree.
They are a favorite of squirrels, who have no difficulty gnawing through the shells. Stepping on them will break the husk and allow access to the sweet meat inside. They can be eaten raw, and are often used in baking and even soups.
A healthy black walnut tree can produce over 300 lbs of nuts each year. At $10 – $12 per pound, there can be good money in harvesting the nuts each year.
The Value Of A Black Walnut Tree
The value of crop production, though, is not the value we are considering here. It’s the lumber and the veneer that can come from a fully mature black walnut. Two factors will determine that value: the diameter of the tree from trunk to the first major branch level; and the presence or absence of mars and scars.
The diameter of the tree at its lowest level determines the amount of lumber that can be milled, and the presence or absence of mars and scars determines the lumber and veneer grade of the milling.
The inches in diameter of the portion of the tree to be milled is measured by a Biltmore stick. Its name comes from the estate where it was developed – The Biltmore Estate, one of the first places in the United States where forestry was applied as a science.
Its use dates back to the 19th century. It measures the diameter and height of the lowest section of the tree that will be brought to market. With those measurements, the total board feet of the tree can be calculated, along with tonnage and cubic feet of usable wood to be sold.
That wood will be brought to market either as lumber or veneer. The lumber is graded by quality and the presence or absence of blemishes, which can be caused by branch removal, knots, cracks, metal embedded, or even bird peck scars, for example. Clear wood, wood that is clear of blemishes, will receive the highest grade, and thus be the most valuable, with Grade A indicating no apparent damage, blemishes or knots; Grade B indicating only minor blemishes or light damage, and so on.
The veneer grade will refer specifically to the quality of the wood when cut into thin strips that represent veneer.
A typical black walnut veneer tree will have a 20” or larger diameter at chest height, will have no or very few defects, and be tall and straight. Obviously, the greater the diameter, the more board feet that can be harvested and milled from the tree.
A black walnut that is Grade A veneer at 18” diameter and 12’ in length from the lowest level of the tree can have a value of nearly $900. Add another 6” to 7” and that value can more than double.
In researching for this article, we found a Tree Value Calculator that can estimate values of many different types of trees, and we used this calculator to offer this value estimate.
But a 12’ length of tree can be small, actually. If you want to see just how many felled black walnut trees would represent upwards of $90,000 in value, watch this video. It shows felled trees lined up and ready to be taken for milling.
As a general rule, of course, the taller the tree the greater the value. A tall tree with little or no branching up the trunk to height will be the most valuable and will be expected to be sold as class 1 sawlogs for veneer.
We mentioned tree poaching earlier, and in our research, we found one report that amazed us. Forestry officials were called in on one case that involved the poaching of a 95’ black walnut tree that was worth $28,500, cut down in someone’s backyard while they were on vacation.
Black walnut trees can grow at a rate of 3’ to 4’ per year. A 20-year-old tree can reach a height of 40’ – 50’, and a diameter of around 10”. A 50-year-old tree can reach 80’ and 20″ – 25″ in diameter.
As an investment, black walnut trees will provide a decent return for their lumber and veneer, but only after time. Still, seeing all those downed trees lined up representing upwards of $90,000, is rather impressive.
Good tree management can increase the yield on that return – removing branches early on the lower level from trunk up, protecting the tree from damage that can cause blemishes, and such. And, during its growth, the trees will eventually begin producing nuts that can be harvested and sold.
Value is value, and black walnut trees generate surprising value over time. If you can wait on your investment’s return, and have patience, there is money to be made in trees. After all, we woodworkers are out here waiting for stock to build our furniture and cabinets.