During a tour of his property in Pickaway County, Wayne Vickers points out some of the trees he's planted over the years: a conifer poking its head above its neighbors in a woodlot; a cedar next to a persimmon along a driveway; a row of apple trees with a few branches missing because of deer feeding; a cypress at the edge of a pond. In all, he's planted 170,000 trees since 1995, but the most impressive tree on his property is one that's been around much longer than he has. It holds the record as the largest bur oak in the state, with a trunk that measures about 27 feet around and a canopy spread of over 100 feet.
Nature needs centuries to grow a tree that big, and it can take decades for nature to reestablish woodlands on cleared land. Vickers is working to give nature a boost in reestablishing forests and grasslands while keeping his most productive farmland in agricultural production. He knows he'll never see the trees he's planting grow to maturity but planting them will improve his property for generations to come. "I'm paying it forward," he explains.
Vickers is being recognized with a 2018 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award for his efforts to restore and preserve his property, which includes several farms and an abandoned quarry near Circleville. He has a successful business career outside agriculture, but his conservation work is his passion. For him, the work is "mental therapy," he says. He likes the challenge of improving his property's wildlife habitat, property values and productivity. "I want to leave it better than I found it," he says.
Vickers first tried his hand at conservation in the late 1980s on land in Ross County where he developed an 18.1-acre wetland, which still exists. He sold that property when he bought his first farm in Pickaway County in 1995 and began converting it to woods and grasslands. He's purchased additional properties since then and now has about 370 acres of woodland, 500 acres of farmed land, and 320 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program. Another 80 acres is in lakes and ponds.
For his tree plantings, Vickers mixes a variety of species, such as evergreens and deciduous species. "Where one doesn't do well another one does," he says. He likes to include hard mast species such as oaks, hazelnuts and walnuts along with soft mast trees such as apples, persimmons and crab apples. That provides a variety of food sources for wildlife, he explains. The evergreens also help wildlife by offering thermal protection.
Vickers uses a single-row tree planter to put in the rows of mixed tree species, using three- or four-year-old seedlings. To manage new plantings, he mows between the rows for four or five years until the trees are established. He also manages established tree stands to remove undesirable species such as locust trees, tree of heaven and grapevines.
One of Vickers' properties is an abandoned sand and gravel quarry that was left with poor soil and rough terrain covered with vines and brush. He's been removing debris left at the site and smoothing out piles of stone and soil. "Land like this, you can't farm it," he says.
Instead, he is working to skip a few steps in the natural vegetation succession process. He's been clearing away undesirable species such as autumn olive, honeysuckle and locusts before planting trees in some areas and mixtures of native grasses and forbs in other areas. Plots with the best soil have been planted to alfalfa or clover and will be used for hay production.
The quarry property includes a lake of about 60 acres, plus several additional ponds. The sand and gravel base in the lake helps keep the water clear, however it doesn't provide ideal conditions for aquatic life.
"These quarries are notorious for not having habitat," he says. He's added artificial structures to the lake to provide cover for small fish. He's also selectively feeding fish to build populations. Besides the fish, the lake supports a population of indigenous mussels, turtles and many species of water fowl.
The smaller ponds on the quarry property also provide habitat for wildlife. One sheltered cove that used to be a sand wash pit is now used as a nesting ground by wood ducks. They like the shelter of the surrounding brush and the shallow water, Vickers explains. To provide even more protection, he has put in nesting boxes for them.
Vickers gets help with management of his land from Doug Ricketts and other part-time employees. His farmable acres are leased to Keith Peters, who also helps with conservation efforts. The farmland is used for production of corn, soybeans and hay using no-till. Because of the hilly terrain, much of his land is not suitable for row-crop production, Vickers points out. "You use your good ground and you preserve the habitat on the rest," he says.
Part of Vickers' land borders the Scioto River and one of its tributaries, Little Walnut Creek. Previously, some of the land had been farmed right up to the creek, causing erosion problems. Other floodplain areas were susceptible to soil loss from regular floods. To minimize erosion and rebuild the soil in problem areas, Vickers is maintaining cover of native warm season grasses, forbs and legumes. These plantings also support a variety of wildlife species including pheasants and quail. Along field borders he's planted filter strips that also serve as wildlife food plots. They include native species as well as annual food crops such as corn, oats and Egyptian wheat. The annual crops help keep the cover in place as the native species are becoming established, he explains. The food crops also help divert wildlife feeding pressure away from the adjacent farm land.
Conservation of land and water resources is an ongoing process, Vickers stresses. As he travels along trails through his land he sees more he wants to do to restore and protect the natural habitat. "You just have to keep after it," he says. "It's a lifetime of work."
More on T. Wayne Vickers
• The conservation team. T. Wayne Vickers works with Doug Ricketts and other part-time employees on land management. Keith Peters, who leases his farmable acres, also helps with conservation efforts.
• The family. Wayne and his wife, Debbie, are the parents of three grown children: Josh, Courtney and Bryan. They have four grandchildren plus one on the way.
• The property. Wayne's property, located near Circleville in Pickaway County, includes about 500 acres of farmed land, 320 acres of land in the Conservation Reserve Program, 370 acres of woodlands and 80 acres of lakes and ponds. Part of the property is an abandoned sand and gravel quarry.
• Environmental education. Wayne has hosted tour groups through the local Soil and Water Conservation District to show how conservation efforts can enhance wildlife habitat. His land has also been used by Pheasants Forever to conduct youth programs.