Overlooked Opportunities In Forest Farming


In olden times (how I love to use that phrase) one of the folkloric ways used to repel insects from one’s abode was to put Osage orange balls (hedge balls, we call them) in the basement or around the house foundation. I thought that was only in the sweet bye and bye, but my son, a home remodeler, says he has found forgotten old hedge balls stashed away in basements even today. And, I’ve learned, you can still buy the things online! [http://hedgeapple.com]

The subject came up because a close acquaintance of ours had just purchased several acres of old pasture and woods long ago forsaken by active farming. On it, he found lots of Osage orange trees, one of enormous proportions— twenty-some inches in diameter. I didn’t know they grew that large. The wood, very hard and yellowish in color, will not rot much faster than steel.  Traditionally it has been used for archery bows. Such bows, still being made by woodcrafters, are breathtakingly beautiful and in demand if you’ve got the money. Any woodenware made with Osage orange is ultra-striking— jewel wood, I call it.

I tried to clean out an old Osage orange hedge once— very hard work, very hard wood, lots of thorns. If you try to burn it for fuel, it snaps and crackles like popcorn. But it packs a lot of heat and if you could sell the hedge balls, for say two bucks apiece, well, my friend has a lot of loose cash lying around his new property.  If you can find the right woodworker, a log might be worth more than black walnut. Otherwise you’ve got fence posts that will last forever if you can get a staple into them. And be prepared to sharpen your saw frequently.

The point I’m trying to make is that small, landlocked acreages here and there and everywhere have been abandoned to farming because they don’t lend themselves to industrial grain farming nor to livestock pasture. They are growing up in old trees, young trees and brush. Many of us treasure these neglected groves (we bought one to live in) because they can provide fuel, fence posts, lumber, and all sorts of mushrooms, berries, nuts, teas, and fruits like pawpaws and wild peaches.

Yes, wild peaches. I’ve written about them here a couple of years ago. We built a chicken coop in our woods. The hens get all the table scraps including the leavings from peaches we used to buy. Sure enough, the peach seeds started sprouting in the clearing around the coop. We’d been told that trees from seeds would not come true to the variety, but most of these seedlings have yielded good quality peaches. The trees produce fairly well in our climate which is not generally favorable for growing peaches. We think the surrounding hardwood trees might protect them from spring frost a little. The chickens also seem to control peach borers. Will some enterprising homesteader adapt this idea to forest farming? Some farmers here in Ohio are turning paw paws into a commercial crop. Why not wild peaches which taste a whole lot better?

Right now however, this hedge ball thing has me intrigued. Do they stop termites perhaps? Did those oldtimers who stowed them in their basements know something we don’t?


Gene RE; The dimension lumber rotting faster in recent years: It could be because of an increase in hydrocarbons that are easy prey for fungal and other organisms compared to wood from older trees or trees that were harvested in the past. Of course it could be a matter of perception by the viewer, or moisture penetrating the wood more so than in the past.

Heartwood and root wood in pine is higher in pitch like substances than younger wood growing close to the surface of the tree, hence the extraction of pine tar and related substances from Pine heartwood and roots for finishing and preserving wood. It’s possible that the dimension lumber is cut from younger trees than previously that simply haven’t had time to develop much anti-decay compounds. In contrast, as you know, Osage, Black Locust and Catalpa, among other hardwoods, contain compounds that inhibit such fungal and bacterial rot.

Tony RE; “introduction of deer”.
I’m told via Jerod Diamond’s videos and books such as :”Guns, Germs, and Steel” that at least some tribal folks in New Guinea excel in the manufacture and use of heavy draw weight bows and arrows for hunting, which are made from local woods, bamboo etc and tipped with broadhead points made from steel rebar. Dr Edward Ashby has clearly documented the efficacy of these same human hunters in New Guinea providing themselves with Game meat with such bows and arrows. I suspect that such folks would be excellent resources in how to harvest excess deer, wallabies hogs etc. without the concern over shotguns, or modern rifles that require expensive ammunition. Mankind harvested game since time immemorial without the use of guns.

Alternatively, it is entirely feasible to manufacture muzzle loading guns fired with homemade black powder manufactured entirely from local resources such as wood, charcoal, iron ore and manure. In North America there are numerous folks that do this for fun and enjoy consuming the meat procured thereby. So if the alien animal stocking project does move forward, possibly view it as an opportunity to provide much needed protein for humans and as an opportunity for humans to manufacture weapons and use them for hunting instead of against each other. We say it here: ” if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

If you want to extract the meat from black walnuts, you must crush them such that the shell cracks more-or-less on the “latitude” lines, not on the “longitude”. One way to do that is to grind the north and south poles flat, then squeeze them in a vise. (I learned this by reading a patent for a walnut-processing machine, accessed through Google Patents.)

At the grocery store today in WI, osage oranges are going for $2.49 apiece, no explanation posted. I tried them a number of years ago against the asian beetles and had no luck, but since then I’ve built a new house and the beetles have dwindled, hallelujah.

Gene –
I don’t know if you know this or not but Osage wood burns hotter than coal. No kidding.
Years ago we had some seasoned Osage wood leftover from a sale to a bow maker and thought to burn it in the wood stove. The wood burns with a blue-green flame and overheated our stove to the point where the baffles glowed red.
What was worse,
(or more exciting depending upon point of view)
was that every time the door to the stove was opened, big walnut and pea sized chunks of Osage coals and sparks would snap, pop and explode like fireworks out of the stove and onto the floor! It was like some kind of crazy pyrotechnic event.
Haven’t ever burned Osage since 🙂

I might consider moonshine ‘gin’ flavored with eastern red cedar berries to be an overlooked opportunity. A little difficult to market (legally) perhaps, but in my neck of the woods (ha!) the raw material is bountiful.

“Gene of the woods” is also one of my favorite manifestations of the contrary farmer. A book that I would highly recommend and had expected somebody to mention by now is “The Man Who Planted Trees”. It made the NY Times list of 100 most important non-fiction books for 2012. I came across it completely by accident and found it highly entertaining, educational and sobering. Local observations of both regrowth and old growth tree and brush stands that are not managed is that in a hundred years they will be predominantly honeysuckle. Our regional forester agrees. It is certainly crowding out all other understory plants in our area and preventing the old hardwood warrior trees from passing on their guardianship to a next generation. Did somebody just mention the dangers of non-native introductions?

    Russ, really! I read that book years ago and thought by now it would be out of fashion. A 2012 important book according to the NYTimes. Wow. A little history that might interest you. That book became a best seller in the U.S. when Bob Rodale mentioned in glowingly in one of his editorials a long time ago. Gene

      Gene, I think the book you mention was written by a Frenchman named Jean Giono and published in 1953. The NYT book was published in 2012 and authored by Jim Robbins, a science writer for the Times. It is subtitled “Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save Our Planet” and was titled in homage to the book you refer to. It is organized around the story of David Milarch’s life ( and near death ) who helped found the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. Their work deals with cloning champion trees and dispersing the seedlings – fascinating. I think you would find it of interest.

    I’d say your forester is wrong about the Honeysuckle taking over.On my farm I have areas that have grown up with no human input for 40 years and the progression is weeds to grasses and brushy type plants like Honeysuckle,Blackberries Multiflora Rose etc then as the large type trees like Poplar,Oaks,Hickory etc get taller they shade out everything else and it eventually becomes a stand of large trees with very little else.Only time brushy type plants can come back is when large trees fall over or if man steps in and cuts the larger trees to open up the ground to Sunlight.Mature forests are not very good as far as food production for animals or humans its the in between stage that many sources of food are produced.

Another consideration: A plain-living acquaintance of mine with a large family and very limited means successfully fed his laying flock through the winter last year on little more than walnut scraps. I believe he hulled and cracked them, picked out the large chunks of nutmeat for himself, then threw everything else to the chickens. With a protein content in the ballpark of 25%, that’s a considerable savings over purchasing a similar feed.

(Looks like a bumper crop for walnuts on my place this year, and I’ll be giving this a try. Last year I tried picking out as much nutmeat from each shell as I could — along with the help of my 6-year-old — and, well, no one likes to bite down on a brownie and feel the crunch of a walnut shell. Think I’ll stick to the big chunks this time around.)

To your question, Gene, I can only think that the thousands of acres of brush and new growth forest is a huge opportunity, provided we as a whole can have the wisdom to look at it as something to be stewarded and used rather than left alone and “preserved.” I suppose with only a woodlot of a certain size one could pretty much provide a living: flour and meal from acorns, hickories, and walnuts; meat from deer and squirrels and other critters (would require use of the acorns, of course), or rotate a few hogs and graze a couple goats for dairy; fruit in the form of wild blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, grapes, plums, and more; mushrooms; veggies and leafy greens might be a bit harder to come by but I’m sure there are possibilities; and of course all the building material a person could need. Indeed, I’ve never bothered running the numbers but I imagine we could probably raise enough hogs to feed the state of Missouri alone in just the Mark Twain National Forest, with no feed input.

And to the second part of your question, I’d call it good news even if it isn’t opportunity, but with the assumption that with all the diversity that a forest provides humanity would eventually come to realize the opportunity and make use of it. When we realize how much more food (and building materials and fuel and fiber and recreation, and so on) we can produce on, say, 1000 acres of forest versus 1000 acres of corn/beans, and how much better that food is, seems to me that can only be a good thing.

Gene-Yes I have heard that giant ground sloth,mastodons and other megafauna dined on the hedge apple. The book “The Ghosts of Evolution” is a great read about about prehistoric plant/animal relationships with plenty of talk about turds,pellets and scatological sleuthing.

Tony, while I am by no means an expert, and would defer to anyone else in the group who knows more than I, what little I do know suggests that the introduction of non-native species, animal or otherwise, can be an unmitigated disaster. Rabbits in Australia come to mind, as does kudzu in the American South, starlings in America, North American grey squirrels in Europe, rats in the Pacific islands and pigs in Hawaii. Without predators or intensive hunting to keep the population in check, it doesn’t take long for deer to overpopulate. Here’s a good basic explanation: http://library.thinkquest.org/03oct/00946/effects/effects.htm

I enjoy reading this blog and I now need something from you.
This is a call for assistance from WAU in Papua New Guinea, The Governor of our province wishes to introduce Deer and Wallabies into extensive grass lands with hundreds of Hectares of Leuceana scrub scattered throughout. The thousands of villagers have very few shotguns with low availability of cartridges. They have a few illegal hi power rifles also with poor supply of shells. Where they have fences they are between 3 & 4ft high. Gene says that deer are a great nuisance and can jump a 6ft fence.
They do have hunting dogs, how they breed depends on how lucky they are.
Many have unfenced plots of rice, peanuts, corn, bananas etc. There are large areas of grains fenced against cattle.

Is this an action to be recommended? My email aflynn@datec.net.pg
Tony Flynn 75 yrs

We collect Osage orange balls each autumn to keep in a huge wooden bowl, simply because it looks lovely. Nice to know they repel pests too. The oldest farm near us was planted decades ago in Osage, with wire wrapped around the trunks to form a fence. Even the trees that have died form a strong and lasting barrier.

I just checked local lumber stores a few weeks ago. There is no Osage lumber available locally that I can determine, nor Black Locust; both are good woods for bow making.. I just wanted a hardwood board to make a couple of archery bows and a few wooden arrows. I ended up paying nearly $10.00 for a 1″ x6″ by 6′ sapwood hickory board. So it seems Gene is quite right in regard to hardwood plots being more valuable than corn ground. I suspect the reason there isn’t more done with such land is that is takes a lot of manual labor to make a profit compared with driving tractors and combines on corn fields. Harvestable small wood lots are probably a poor fit for big logging machinery, but great for homesteader types. It also seems that manual labor is no longer much in vogue in America. At the same time the nation is plagued with obesity and associated illnesses. So a small scale business opportunity sounds good from here.

Maybe manual labor like working in a woodlot isn’t as: ” cool” as running in skin tight, breathable clothes or going to the gymnasium to “Work Out”. BUT maybe Gene is turning a key to help reverse the :”Recession” by putting more of us to actual physical “work” in the woodlots. There are logging arches available that allow one person to readily move a log up to 16′ in length for around $500. So think about it; if a person could obtain a good cross cut saw operated by hand or a good chain saw and some really good axes, mauls and pruners and another person with a bit more capital could obtain one of those portable band saw mills to make lumber right out in the woods; well think of the opportunities presented. Of course it will take :”Work”, but it has long been known: “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. I’ve met a few folks who actually do this for a living and they all comment that it certainly keeps them fit.

    James, a builder just told me that two by fours and two by sixes today rot in only a few years. He was really upset and concerned but neither of us know why this is happening. Have you heard of this?
    Robert Rebant: A friend just told me that the natural range of Osage orange is the same as the range of the giant sloth of prehistory. Every hear of that? Were the sloth eating the hedge apples?
    To all of you. Your observations are SO interesting. If there are thousands of acres just growing up in brush and new forest, as Gary Burnett says (there’s a hundred acres like that right behind me here in Ohio) is that opportunity? Is it good news or bad news even if it isn’t opportunity? Gene

      Gene I’d say its good news for several different reasons,Much of the land being grown over is steep hill and mountain land that was cleared and then washed by rains when it was plowed now its being regenerated as the weeds and woody plants take over.Wildlife has also benefitted in a big way as new growth thats in between crop fields and deep woods takes hold.Also I feel in the future much food production will move to places with climates like the East where we have plenty of rain and food production needs little or no irrigation then some of this land can again be cleared and put into production.Hopefully land clearing will be done in a more sensible way this time around as I clear land now with a chainsaw and goats keeping the new growth down.Also leave lots of Oaks,Persimmons.Hickorys and other useful trees in the pastures for food as well as shade nothing I hate seeing more than a cattle or goat pasture with no trees for shade or gathering places for the animals to hang out and deposit their manure.

thetinfoilhatsociety September 19, 2013 at 8:12 am

Osage orange has another use, if you plan to do any fiber arts. It makes a beautiful yellow to orange dye by itself, and makes a lovely base for greens if you dye over it with indigo, or the oranger reds if you dye over it with any number of red dyes like madder or cochineal. I have more than a pound of ground Osage orange sitting next to me as I type that is destined for the dye pot. I bought it from a woman in N. Carolina because as far as I know it doesn’t grow in Arizona.

My daughter uses manzanita (considered by most people a junk wood, good only to be brushed off and burned) for walking sticks, bird perches and wind chimes. She sands each piece and oils it, then rubs the oil in well to give a faint sheen. The wood is a light reddish-gold, with dark brown or black striations. The wind chimes are particularly pretty, with various beads, copper wire coils and similar decorative items.

Trees are my favorite topic on your blog Gene. You might enjoy a book called ” The Ghosts of Evolution-Nonsensical Fruit,Missing Partners,and Other Ecological Anachronisms” by Connie Barlow. The Osage Orange story is one of the most fascinating tree tales in the book.

I am using the old hedge row to locate the property lines on some property I am renting. Some of the hedges are so big around you could not even put your arms around them, and the old barb wire is sticking out of many of them. Large gauge single strand barb wire. The trees and brush have crept about 30 yards on either side of the old hedge row. Several of the trees are mangled and twisted and toppled over.
Gene is right, get used to sharpening your chains.

As long as we’re talking about wood one of my favorite trees that takes a little doing to find growing in the woods is iron wood. I like iron wood because it’s virtually indestructible, makes good tool handels.

    Ironwood trees grow like weeds here in Central Virginia especially on North sides of hills.Another very hard wood is Dogwood.

    Peter, most of the ironwood I see has multiple stems, none of which so far as I’ve noticed gets bigger than maybe 3 or 4″ in diameter. I wonder, are you putting branches/stems on a lathe? Are you just using stems that are about the right size as is?

I went to great lengths to bring out some Osage hedge balls from a visit with my son’s family in Indiana. Well actually if just mushed the balls and brought out the seeds so I could have my own stand of Osage for making archery bows, fence posts, firewood etc, if I should live so long. I had them started in a small pan with potting soil and they were growing fine until my chickens escaped and scratched them into oblivion.

There are only a few Osage Trees I know of In my county here in South Central Washington, but they are beautiful. Possibly one stand growing in a 1850’s historical army fort were seeded by pioneer folks or soldier folks. They are magnificent trees and indeed some of them are at least 24″ in diameter at breast height. The other stand is planted in an arboretum, but I mushed up those balls from the arboretum (w9th permission of course) and found nary a seed. Evidently they were female trees with no males present.

Also I understand Osage Orange was commonly planted in hedgerows to fence in livestock and delineate property boundaries. Also the thorns were allegedly the inspiration for the creator of barbed wire. I also understand they are highly coppicable, meaning they are a great renewable resource regrowing from cut stumps. Osage staves for bows sell for a hefty price and think about the fact that a single tree can be harvested multiple times. The only reasons I can think of in regard to why the Osage products aren’t advertised more often is that the thorns and the hardness of the wood can complicate harvest and in fact be somewhat dangerous unless the harvester is armored and uses a steel tracked vehicle to drag the logs from the woods so flat tires aren’t incurred.

I once read that the seeds are edible because squirrels enjoy them. Well, being an adventurous sort in regard to wild food I tried the seeds after drying them and roasting and salting a bit. It’s an experience akin to cracking melon seeds in your teeth with a flavor somewhere between pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts and pine nuts all mixed together. In fact it was difficult to only roast and salt a few seeds and save the rest for planting because the eating and tasting process was rather addictive. Permaculturists take note.

I’ve not had luck yet with propagating the Osage seeds from local trees for reasons I’m not sure of, although the hedge apples from the old fort that dropped into a moist area complete with oak leaf mulch have resulted in some vigorous but gnarly reproduction so I know the local seeds are viable.

Traditional archers are willing to pay hefty prices for the wood for bows but no one locally seems to want to grow the trees as a source of local supply although farmers hereabouts will grow nearly anything else including herbal medicines and Christmas trees. Maybe they think it takes too long to see a return. Seems to me to validate Gene’s arguments and indicates that being contrary is probably a good thing, else how would any change ever occur?

As I indicated, so far my efforts at growing the Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) have come to naught, but not because they aren’t adapted to this area, if planted in moist soil or irrigated. Similarly my efforts with hickory have come to naught as well.

In regard to other hardwoods, we do have some local Oregon White Oaks (Quercus garryana) which were once highly sought after as a tough hardwood,used for building wagons and wooden boats, but with the advent of trucks and steel boats to replace those items, there is very little local hardwood available commercially in this area. You folks who are blessed with harvestable acreages of hardwoods that grow without irrigation should indeed count your blessings and take advantage of such tremendous resources.

Perhaps someone could select for thornless Osage, similar to thornless Honey Locust and the thornless Osage trees would then become all the rage as a town tree to soften the images of concrete and asphalt. Then I could get my fix for munching Osage seeds just during a walk through town and with a bit of judicious larceny, masquerading as pruning, obtain my own bow wood from local city streets. Also note that the squirrels that munch on Osage Seeds are quite tasty in their own right, if properly cooked.

    There are at least some thornless cultivars of osage orange in the nursery trade, although the ones the nursery trade propagates all seem to be male. ‘White Shield’ may be the most common thornless cultivar. Some cultivars are apparently more thornless than others, especially at different stages of maturity. Brenton Arboretum in Iowa has quite a collection of thornless cultivars, I’m guessing a couple dozen. I talked on the phone to a guy there about them last winter. If I remember correctly he said he got a lot of those cultivars from the collection of John C. Pair of Kansas State University (formerly, I think), who collected them from all over, but especially in and near Kansas. The Starhill Forest Arboretum in Illinois also has a collection of thornless cultivars, I believe.

Thank you for this post! I happened upon these balls while out for a walk on a country road. I wondered what they were….so now I know! Gah, I wonder at all the wisdom lost from past generations….seems like since the Chemical Age, we threw away natural wisdom for *cough* modern stuff.

Gene you’d be in overgrown field heaven here in central Virginia,there are thousands of acres of former pasture and crop land that has gone back to natural and not so natural growth
because the fences to keep in livestock have detoriated to almost nothing and the owners didn’t want to pay to have the land bushhogged.Russian Olive,Osage Orange,Red Cedar,Black Locust as well as Oaks and Hickory of various types have taken over.Don’t think the owners of most of these stands get much from their properties except a tax bill from the county of course thats their fault for not looking for value.

My mother, who was born in 1916 and brought up in New York City, said that her grandparents had 8 peach trees in their backyard. Every year they would plant the pit from the best peach, and cut down the oldest tree. Paradise!

    as with so many other industry saws, the message is to stay away from the seed whatever it is, it’s a recipe for trouble etc. especially when it comes to fruit trees, planting the seed is a fool’s errand: “only one in a hundred trees will bear anything worth eating,” “culture fruit trees are reproduced by grafting.” yet in the last few years seed movement activiststs and peasants in turkey (where i live) report doing just this & coming up with perfectly decent trees & fruit. maybe it’s more true for some varieties than others.

Hey Gene, interesting post.
Sometimes guys are selling hedge balls at the farmers market in our area.

On agroforestry, we have been grazing cattle through very thick stands of hardwoods ourselves.
Our pasture rentals consist of a handful of long forgotten farms which the trees and brush have taken over. The trees and broad leaves act as a mineral pump, very good for the cattle. We intend to harvest the osage orange for fence posts, and the different lumber for various things. I think it is important when thinking about stewarding the land, to not only think about the microbes deep in the soil, but also the trees which tower overhead.

There’s a town here in southwest Missouri named after the hedge tree — Bois D’Arc. Looks elegant enough, until you hear it pronounced “Bo Dark.” Missouri has a way of bringing those fancy French words down to earth. (Versailles = “ver-SALES” is another good one.)

Anyway, a market gardener friend of mine has quite a few hedge trees scattered around his property, and at times he’ll send his girls out to harvest the hedge apples, which he then sells at the farmers market for something like $0.50 each. The claim around here is that they ward off spiders. (Personally I’d rather have the spiders — I can only imagine they help keep down the fly population in our old farm house.) Apparently they move pretty decently. Not enough to pay any big bills, but who can argue with free money?

My wife has made some beautiful decorative wreaths harvested entirely from the woods: a base of wild grape vines, with sprigs of eastern red cedar (from female trees — with the berries), spicebush, and other miscellaneous greenery. When you look at what people will pay for a mass-produced version of the same thing at a retail store in town, I’d think there’s got to be a pretty good market for them, especially around the holidays.

Also in our 9-ish acre woodlot we have a fledgling pawpaw patch (put on fruit for the first time this year) growing in the deep shade of the big old oaks and walnuts. It’s small, but maybe the market exists for some kind of “gourmet-exotic” fruit?

I’m reading a lot in the academic literature about the benefits of agroforestry and the return to grazing animals in the forests. This last week I was at a conference and learnt about the Montado landscapes of Portugal, which is a way of grazing animals amongst cork oaks, that maintains a particular look to a landscape. The Swedes are now grazing cattle amongst the trees too. Intercropping willow stands with grain, apparently is beneficial with the willow being used as biofuel and the grain doing better with the protection and water pulled up by the trees. Those are just a few of the benefits I have read about. You’re onto something there Gene.


Being in the wood industry I totally agree. A well managed small woods will yield as much cash over a lifetime as corn and beans will. I know that to be true because I had my father purchase a woods I did timber stand improvement on 40 years ago. Between firewood mushrooms and timber you can not beat the long term return. Of course the woods is a great place to get away and enjoy nature as well.

    Ken, I’m the would-be-proud owner of a few acres of forest. Can you suggest any sources for advice on how to manage a small wood well? I’ve talked to the county forester, but he’s all about commercial exploitation of a few familiar species. I’m interested in the outliers. I’ve got a couple osage oranges, a bunch of nice hackberries, plenty of walnut, and of course all the boxelder and ash I can eat.

What I’ve heard about Hedge Balls is that they repel crickets.

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