One of Virginia Tech’s finest outreach programs impacts one of the state’s top manufacturing sectors

Forests cover more than 62 percent of Virginia’s landscape, totaling over 16 million acres. Private individuals and families (405,000) own more than 62 percent of these woodlands, with Virginia’s forests growing more timber than is being harvested. As such, the forest products sector consistently ranks among the state’s largest industries.

Whittman and Ball
Rep. Rob Whitman (left) of Virginia’s 1st Congressional District talks with Page Ball, president of his family’s Tidewater Lumber Corp. in Essex County, about the sawmilling and planing operations at the company, which ships pine and hardwood products along the East Coast and overseas.

So it’s no wonder that 40 years ago Harry Haney, the now-retired Garland Gray Professor of Forestry, saw the need to educate forest landowners and had the vision to start the popular and highly successful Fall Forestry and Wildlife Field Tours. Since 2005, Jennifer Gagnon, Virginia Cooperative Extension associate in the college’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, has managed the Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program that runs the field tours, which is the longest running event of its kind in the state.

Ward Burton
A highlight of the Dinwiddie/Nottoway Counties field tour was Ward Burton’s passionate rundown on his conservation efforts, which include partnering with Fort Pickett in Blackstone to provide the U.S. Army with EPA credits by his turning previously forested land adjoining the base into quail habitat. The retired NASCAR driver is one of the state’s most prominent forest landowners, known for his reforestation efforts and management of endangered species.

“In Virginia, we rely on private landowners to conserve more than 10 million acres of woodlands as healthy and productive forest,” said Department Head Jay Sullivan. “Faced with the challenges of invasive species, insects and diseases, severe weather, ever-changing markets, and continuing turnover of owners, our forests need wise managers. Jen’s program provides landowners with the training they need.”

Combining education, networking, sightseeing, good food, and an opportunity to experience local communities, the field tours offer an incredible outdoor classroom on sustainable forestry management. Participants see and hear about forest farming and wildlife planning firsthand, making for an impactful and long-lasting lesson.

Page Ball, his wife Deborah, and their sons hosted about 40 forest landowners and natural resource professionals on a tour of their Essex County mill that started with the logging trucks coming in, then the logs being debarked (pictured), and finally sawn into the finished product.

But it takes a village, as dozens contribute to planning the tours. Virginia Cooperative Extension partners with the Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Forestry Association, other agencies, companies, and associations. They work together to share best management and multi-use practices, and showcase research projects at private farms, public lands, sawmills, and other forestry industry operations across the state.

“Extension’s four district natural resources agents are vital to the program’s success because they personally know the forest landowners who have good practices to share,” Gagnon said. “Neil Clark, Adam Downing, Jason Fisher, and Bill Worrell are instrumental in planning the stops for the tours.”

Clark and Gagnon
Extension Agent Neil Clark helped Jennifer Gagnon plan the Essex County tour, which included visits to a tornado-damaged forest, a forest site prepared with mechanical and chemical treatments to ensure successful reforestation, a site that is bringing back the diminished longleaf pine, and a hardwood site that is being improved.

During this 40th anniversary year, the tours spanned the entire state, from Prince William and Essex counties to Dinwiddie, Nottoway, and Lee counties. At each stop, participants of all ages met with landowners to hear their stories and learn valuable lessons — not only about what to do but what not to do.

A series of videos celebrating the 40th anniversary show the effectiveness of these programs, which have served more than 5,600 participants over the years. Participating landowners share how the workshops and field tours have greatly helped them. (To view the videos, visit and select Impacts from the list of tabs.)

In recent years the tours have also attracted local politicians, citizens interested in sustainable forestry and wildlife practices, Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and K-12 teachers, a particularly strategic group because they can weave what they learn into the science curriculum and begin to educate the next generation of land stewards.

Jim Vadas
Tour speakers included Jim Vadas, a consulting forester who discussed the best management practices used at Essex County’s historic Blanfield Plantation, which has 2,500 acres of managed forests.

In addition to the field tours, Gagnon develops educational programs, newsletters, materials, workshops, a website, and online classes for the state’s private forest landowners. To reach new woodland owners, she helped develop the Real Forestry for Real Estate Program, which engages real estate professionals who sell woodland properties by offering them continuing education credits on forestry topics.

Gagnon has garnered national and state awards for her exemplary work, including the Virginia Agribusiness Council’s Land-Grant University Award in 2015 and the 2013 Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Excellence in Extension. Forestry industry members attribute her success to her effective engagement with both landowners and the forestry industry.

Feller buncher
Extension Agent Bill Worrell helped plan the first-ever tour in Lee County in the far southwest corner of the state, where participants got to see a low-impact feller buncher (pictured) cut trees and move them to a log landing for loading onto a truck for transport. Also on the tour was a visit to the B.J. Fortner Hardwoods mill, where the family-owned business demonstrated its commitment to sustainable forestry and showed how high-quality logs are cut into lumber and graded for the veneer export market.

More than 103,000 Virginians are employed in the forest products industry, which contributes $17 billion annually to Virginia’s economy. One of the state’s largest manufacturing industries, forestry ranks first in employment, wages, and salaries. The value of recreation and ecosystem services also add to the state’s gross domestic product.

In sum, forestry is an enormous contributor to the economic and general well-being of the citizens of Virginia. The Fall Forestry and Wildlife Field Tours help to ensure the sustainability of this powerhouse.