For more than 75 years, state Tree Farm inspectors and volunteer leaders have been educating and assisting family forest owners who want to implement sustainable woodlands management practices. Thanks to their efforts, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) now includes almost 19 million acres of forest lands and more than 70,000 family forest owners who are committed to preserving natural resources and mitigating climate change.
Each year, ATFS recognizes two individuals whose contributions as volunteers for the program have been truly outstanding. At its meeting in February, ATFS presented Garron Hicks of Tupelo, Mississippi, with the 2021 National Leadership Award, and honored Mike Kay of Frederick, Maryland, as the 2021 National Outstanding Tree Farm Inspector of the Year.
"The American Tree Farm System wouldn’t be what it is without leaders and champions like Mike and Garron at the state level. Landowners who may have little personal affiliation with the national program instead see their local committee leadership and inspectors as the face of Tree Farm. Those state leaders serve simultaneously as recruiters, customer relations specialists, and trusted sources of advice, and we are grateful to be able to honor these two individuals for their outstanding service in these functions," said Angela Wells, Director of ATFS.
Garron Hicks has been an active Tree Farm volunteer for 12 years. In addition to his work as a Tree Farm inspector, he has served as a regional chair, state vice chair and, from 2019 to 2021, the state chair for the Mississippi Tree Farm program.
"Garron’s dedication is obvious to all who work with him. This inspires others to volunteer," said John B. Auel, the program administrator for the Mississippi Tree Farm program. "His leadership is such that others wish to work with him on all of his assignments as well as Tree Farm."
Hicks grew up in Haynesville, Louisiana, where he enjoyed many outdoor activities. When it came time for college, he chose Louisiana Tech and graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in forestry.
While in college and after graduation Hicks worked for Louisiana State University’s Ag service as a research assistant doing studies on herbicides, soils and other topics. After two years, he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he took a position with the Mississippi Forestry Commission.
As a service forester, he assisted private landowners in north Mississippi with advice on topics such as forest management, forest fire suppression and various cost-share programs available to them.
"Early on in my career, one of the County Forestry Associations had a program on how to become a Tree Farmer. I attended the meeting and listened to a talk about the American Tree Farm System. I really liked what they were saying, and I thought it was a great program that could really benefit the private landowners," he said.
Hicks learned more about ATFS and took the training to become a certified Tree Farm inspector. "After that, with every landowner, I would meet, I would always try to plug the Tree Farm program. If they weren’t familiar with it, I would talk with them about the benefits. I signed up a lot of Tree Farm landowners through the years," he said.
"I love what the Tree Farm program has to offer to landowners," Hicks said. "They are always looking for ways to do better with their properties, and this was another tool that I could use to help them. I really think of Tree Farm as a benefit to me as a professional forester."
The Mississippi Forestry Commission promoted Hicks to Assistant Regional Forester in 2013. He also became regional Tree Farm chair (and thus a member of the state Tree Farm committee) and helped reinvigorate the Tree Farm program in his area.
In recognition of these efforts, Hicks was named the State Tree Farm Inspector of the year in Mississippi in 2011 and received the Dr. John Green State Tree Farm Leadership Award in 2015 and 2019.
Hicks has made many valuable contributions in his Tree Farm leadership roles.
"As the district and regional chair, as well as the state committee chair, Garron has worked with everyone involved in the program to refine our bylaws and our management," said Auel. "He has really helped me dial down and see what are the specific issues that we have to deal with, and then he offers very good solutions for them."
In his 12 years as a Tree Farm volunteer, Hicks has delivered more than 30 programs about ATFS and organized at least four Tree Farm-specific meetings in 2019 (pre-COVID-19).
He has trained new Tree Farm inspectors for the state and encouraged them to become more active in the program. "He has worked closely with Michael Hughey, also a Commission employee, and together they have made a huge impact on the forest landowners in Region 1. It has more Tree Farms than any of the other three regions in Mississippi," Auel said. (Hughey was National Tree Farm inspector in 2018).
In 2020, the Mississippi Forestry Commission appointed Hicks to a new role as Assistant Forest Management Chair/Forest Health Coordinator. Although his responsibilities no longer directly involve Tree Farm, he remains dedicated to working with forest owners and promoting the program.
Giving Tree Farmers the tools they need to manage their resources properly and seeing them get the green Tree Farm sign for their property is satisfying. "I really get a good feeling – a sense of accomplishment out of it – and I think that landowners get it as well, because they feel like they’re doing their part," Hicks said.
Growing the Program
Over the last three decades, Mike Kay, a forester with the Maryland Forest Service, has enrolled 188 landowners and their properties in the Tree Farm program. "Mike easily ranks as the most productive Tree Farm Inspector in the entire state of Maryland," said Kenneth Jolly, State Forester and Acting Director of the Maryland Forest Service. In his assigned area of Frederick County, Kay currently has the highest number of Tree Farms enrolled in the program – 122 total – as well as the largest acreage – 17,405 acres. These are huge numbers in a small state like Maryland, representing 15% of all Tree Farms in the state and 17% of the total acreage.
Kay’s success can be attributed in part to his ability and willingness to really listen to what landowners want and then to find ways to help them achieve it. "Everybody’s a little different, and I try to have dialogue with them to get a feel for where they’re coming from, so I can present them with a lot of different options," Kay said.
"Where Mike really excels is working one-on-one with property owners and getting them excited and enrolled in tree farms. That one-on-one is what really builds programs," Jolly noted.
Kay grew up in rural Ohio and graduated in 1981 with a degree in forestry from Virginia Polytech Institute (now called Virginia Tech). It was the height of the recession, so Kay worked at a series of contractual jobs, including a six-month stint educating city kids about forests. He moved to Maryland in 1984 and worked as an arborist/integrated pest management technician for three years. All of these experiences helped prepare him for the technical and educational aspects of his job when he became a service forester in 1987.
During his discussions with landowners, Kay frequently talks about the benefits of the Tree Farm program. He said the program has been especially helpful for many new woodland owners in Frederick County, who previously lived in urban areas and don’t know much about forestry.
Kay said the Tree Farm program not only provides educational tools and opportunities for forest owners but also opportunities for them to learn from each other. Through Tree Farm, they can come together on the local, regional and national levels. "People develop friendships and it becomes one big community. You could go be a Tree Farmer from Maryland and form a friendship with someone who has a Tree Farm in Oregon or wherever," Kay said.
In addition to his work as a Tree Farm inspector, Kay has assisted the Maryland Tree Farm program in several ways. He has recruited landowners to serve on its state committee and helps the committee achieve its priority enrollment and inspection goals each year. He has recruited and mentored other Tree Farm inspectors, and has conducted multiple Tree Farm tours for citizen, professional and governmental groups.
Kay is active in other forestry-related organizations as well, including the Society of American Foresters. He’s Executive Secretary of the Frederick County Forestry Board, and a member of the Livable Frederick County committee, which does comprehensive planning for the county. For several years, Kay helped organize and run a special Boy Scout Forestry Merit Badge Field Day in Frederick County, where scouts had the opportunity to learn about various topics in forestry.
One unique contribution Kay makes to Maryland forestry is his role in an annual walnut seed collection initiative. Kay and other volunteers collect and deliver more than 30,000 pounds of walnut seed to the state’s tree nursery each year.
Kay appreciates the recognition he’s received from ATFS, especially since he comes from a small state. "I like to think of myself as representing the state of Maryland. I won, and Maryland won," he said.
He’s also appreciative of the work that all of the Tree Farm program’s volunteers do to make the program successful. "I talk to numerous people who work hard and spend time and money planting trees," Kay said. "The older I get, the more I’m amazed at how much people care about these things."
Garron Hicks and Mike Kay have demonstrated in many ways how much they care about the American Tree Farm System – and the organization is stronger for their efforts.
This piece was originally published as part of AFF's quarterly magazine, Woodland Magazine. You can read the full piece in the digital edition of the publication.
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