Ashley Farms: 2020 Jon Gould Florida Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year
By Ginger Morgan, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Mr. Don Ashley and his sister, Ms. Theo Meadows, have transitioned their 570-acre multi-generational tobacco farm into a showcase of sustainable multiple-use management and habitat diversity in Madison County. A visit to Ashley Farms elicits awe of the family’s hard work to implement forestry practices that involve timber production and reforestation while improving wildlife habitat, soil and water conservation, and recreational opportunities. In recognition of their efforts, Ashley Farms has been selected as the 2020 Jon Gould Florida Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year and serves as a model for encouraging other landowners to become great land stewards of their forests.
In 1962, Ashley Farms’ began growing shade tobacco for use in wrapping cigars. Today, Mr. Ashley can describe their land’s history of where each tobacco field was located, where paths crossed to transport their harvests, and where the drying barns once stood. Walking towards an old pond, Mr. Ashley can even share the location of an old fishing spot where he caught a big bass but has long dried out and a neighbor’s house now sits.
The Ashleys stopped growing tobacco in the mid-1970’s. As with any property, landowners are sometimes faced with modifying their land management objectives due to current economic and personal situations. After the Ashley’s tobacco crops were no longer farmed, they decided to transition into planting pine trees and became a certified Tree Farm in 1984. Ashley Farms is now a diverse land of pine plantations, woodlands, wildlife food plots/openings, and integrated corn fields. The property operates with multiple-use objectives for timber, wildlife habitat, soil and water conservation, recreation, and aesthetics in a sustainable manner.
Ashley Farms’ ability to achieve sustainable practices was developed through Mr. Ashley’s and Mrs. Meadows’ relationships with community, friends, natural resources professionals, and especially with their consulting forester, Dave Lewis of Southern Forestry Consultants. Dave began working with Don, Theo and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Ashley, over 25 years ago and is proud to have them recognized for their hard work. Dave first guided Ashley Farms in 1992 using their existing management plan, written by Jim Buckner, which laid out an activity schedule to achieve their property’s goals. Throughout the years, Dave has appreciated Mr. Ashley’s flexibility in his thinking, a concept called adaptive management. Mr. Ashley has learned from the surrounding agricultural community that growing timber is a means of farming which can be affected by factors such as weather, markets, regulations, and other variables that are mostly out of his control. Dave attributes part of the Ashleys’ success to the fact they are great at “rolling with the punches” and are not inclined to complain or point fingers. Dave says, “Mr. Ashley takes management obstacles in stride, just as he has done in other aspects of his life, by making the best of things.” Mr. Ashley’s flexibility allows Dave the freedom to keep Ashley Farms positioned in a way to take advantage of changing markets and technology and to manage for a diverse forest that integrates timber, wildlife, recreation, agriculture, and conservation.
Typical forestry practices at Ashley Farms include reforestation, thinning, and salvage cuts as needed for southern pine beetle outbreaks. Mr. Ashley prefers to reforest with longleaf pines where site indexes are favorable. Mr. Ashley understands that prescribed fire is important in managing a healthy forest and how fire in an ecosystem benefits wildlife, so they have increased their burning activity, starting with 54 acres in 2014 to over 123 acres in 2019. Additional forest management practices include annual disking of fire lines along with understory chemical and mechanical treatment to reduce competitive hardwoods and remove invasive plant species such as Chinaberry and Japanese climbing fern.
Wildlife management at Ashley Farm’s focuses on game species such as northern bobwhite, wild turkey, waterfowl and white-tailed deer. Active management for these species also benefits non-game species such as squirrels and songbirds. Mr. Ashley remembers planting small groves of oak trees for the wildlife with his dad for purposes of benefitting wildlife and is proud to show off those trees when visiting the property. He is also proud to show off the cypress trees planted many years ago around the banks of wetter areas to prevent erosion. Ultimately, these practices increase species diversity and the family’s ability to enjoy wildlife viewing and recreational hunting.
Not only is Ashley Farms a great Tree Farm, but their family is also well-respected in the community. Mr. Ashley is involved with hosting local community groups to learn about the environment, providing field tours for the Forest Stewardship Program, participating with the Madison County Landowner Group, and serving on the Board of Directors for the Madison County National Wild Turkey Federation. Ashley Farms is recognized by many for balancing many different objectives while maintaining aesthetic values. The Ashley family’s ability to adapt to management guidance, manage for a diverse forest, and be actively engaged with taking care of the land are keys to the property’s success. Primarily, Mr. Lewis says it is this type of active engagement that he’s observed over his 30-year tenure as a forestry consultant that contributes most to a landowner completing their land management objectives. Ashley Farms is a prime example of how actively engaged landowners achieve their goals.
Throughout their 36 years of being a certified Tree Farm, Ashley Farms has stood firmly in their desire to be great land managers by enrolling in the Forest Stewardship Program in 1993 and then being awarded the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Florida State Forest Stewardship Landowner of the Year Award in 2007. Since 1984, Ashley Farms continues to exemplify the Tree Farm Program values of sustainable management of water, wildlife, wood, and recreation and well-deserves to receive current recognition as the 2020 Jon Gould Florida Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year.
To learn more about sustainable forestry and how to become a certified Tree Farm in Florida, please visit the web site of the Florida Tree Farm Program
Author’s Note: Florida’s Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year Award honors the memory of Mr. Jon Gould, a respected member of Florida’s Tree Farm Program State Committee and a proud Tree Farmer and advocate for forestry for more than 30 years throughout the southeast. Mr. Gould was selected as the Florida Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 2006 and as the Southern Regional Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 2018. Sadly, Mr. Gould recently passed; however, his legacy lives as an ultimate model of the Tree Farm Program for which the Florida award is now renamed beginning in 2020. Learn more about Jon, his wife Carol and the Gould Tree Farm at: https://www.treefarmsystem.org/south-nominee-goulds
This article was written and submitted for use in this blog by Ginger Morgan, Landowner Assistance Program Regional Coordinator, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.