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Tree Farmer of Year: Hanna Gamble takes up where her dad left off

Hanna Lucia Gamble’s father sowed the seeds of his daughter’s future when he taught his little girl how to plant pine trees on the family’s beloved DeSoto Parish land and enrolled her as a lifetime member of the Louisiana Forestry Association at the tender age of 9.

“My dad did a lot of molding,” Hanna said, as Jack Gamble Jr. made it plain to her “you are going to be a pine tree farmer.”

Though Jack died in 2013, Hanna has continued the family land stewardship legacy; she and her mother, Carol, co-own and manage the plantation, a set of contiguous, forested tracts that stretch across the parish from north to south.

At 28, Hanna oversees the 1,833-acre farm known as St. Lucia Plantation and is the 2017 selection for Louisiana’s Tree Farmer of the Year. Located about 20 miles west of Mansfield, in the heart of natural gas country in northwest Louisiana, the expansive tree farm sits between the communities of Logansport and Longstreet.

“It means the world to me that Hanna is my partner in this,” said Carol, who divides her time between New Orleans and St. Lucia Plantation. Although leaving the day-to-day work to her daughter, the mother and daughter share in decision-making.

“Our goals are so aligned,” Hanna said.

“This is what we envisioned when we started growing and nurturing this land,” her mother added, “hoping that she would embrace it.”

One area of the farm was planted the same year Hanna was born, meaning she and a group of her trees grew up together. Friends and school groups were frequent visitors to the farm during Hanna’s childhood, starting a tradition of sharing the land with others that continues today, as children are welcomed for recreational and educational outings.

The plantation is named in honor of the Italian Christian martyr, St. Lucia, as well as Hanna’s great-grandmother, Lucia McMichael Parry, whose family first owned land in 1893. But it was Jack Gamble’s father, Jack Sr., who started the tree farm his son enlarged and his granddaughter now continues to enhance.

The elder Gamble (who once served as director of vocational agriculture in the state department of education), purchased a 160-acre tract in 1939. He and his family used it as a livestock farm and camp, adding a wooden farm house and a small lake. Once Jack Jr. — an oil and gas attorney in Mansfield — took over management, he began adding to the family land holdings by buying adjacent properties as they became available. When he realized the profitability in livestock was declining, he switched to growing trees, which he knew would involve less intensive management.

That continued for 40 years, leading to Jack Jr.’s 2008 purchase from Weyerhaeuser Corp. a 640-acre tract that contained his grandmother Parry’s 19th century home site, a hard-won, 10-year effort described as Jack’s “proudest moment” by the family’s Shreveport-based forestry consultant Steve Muslow.

In the same vein as her father and grandfather, Hanna recently made her first purchase as manager of the plantation by adding a 20-acre upland hardwood tract to the plantation.

“The property is a shining example of the Gambles’ vision, hard work and determination to create a unique parcel which has been intensively managed to promote timber production, recreation, wildlife habitat and general overall biodiversity,” wrote Muslow in his nomination letter. In addition to the Muslow firm’s work advising the Gambles on forestland management, Steve and Jack were longtime friends and occasional business partners, explained Hanna.

A tour of the property with Hanna and foresters Steve Lenox and Jason Muslow revealed the results of the family’s stewardship and teamwork with professional advisors. A rustic wooden “St. Lucia — Greaux Local” sign hangs above the property’s entrance, with the LFA’s familiar green and white Tree Farm marker attached to the gate below. Down a long, winding road that leads to the beautifully renovated cabin her grandfather moved here, lie a hay field and new horse corral. A couple of tranquil fishing ponds, separated by a small dam, are nearby.

Extending out from this pastoral scene are acres of pine and hardwood trees of varied ages, all easily accessible by a network of roads that also connect the nine natural gas well sites scattered through the tracts. Income from the gas wells — the first drilled decades ago — have helped fund the forestry management.

Acknowledging the benefits of mineral activity on the farm, Hanna remembers her father telling her, “You are a pine tree farmer first,” and that remains her primary focus. Her close adherence to the advice of consulting foresters also began with her father’s words, “Listen to your advisers.”

And she has done just that since 2010 when she began managing the plantation, taking steps to improve the condition of her timber stands. Hanna and Carol have followed a timber harvesting schedule developed by Muslow Forestry to improve the overall health of the forestland.

“This is probably the most intensively managed property we take care of,” said Jason Muslow. “Jack was willing to try the newest and best things available. And Hanna has a very hands-on approach. She asks questions, like ‘Why do I need to do this?’ That started with her father.”

Reflecting upon what she has learned in the process of becoming a tree farmer, Hanna wrote, “A farm is a living, breathing being with a mind of its own. As stewards of the land, we must listen to the woods and learn the best way to manage through history and hands-on experience. Nature is the world’s greatest teacher and I feel so blessed to work with her every day.”

The importance of land, wildlife and natural resources was instilled by her parents early on. Harvest rotations, planting, water and wildlife management were early lessons. She even learned about gardening from her mother.

“These early experiences helped me develop a love and respect for the earth and my fellow creatures, and I feel so lucky to be able to be an advocate and protector of our natural world,” she wrote.

Good management practices are an essential part of the Gambles’ commitment to protect and sustain their property. Working from a forest management plan designed by Muslow Forestry, they periodically thin the plantation’s seven distinct stands of timber to promote optimal growth and their overall health and vigor. A harvest in 2012 on about 68 acres was performed to improve stocking levels of pine timber. Reforestation activities on the farm have recently included extensive mechanical site preparation, burns, planting of containerized loblolly pine seedlings and the application of both herbaceous and woody chemicals.

Tree farming is not without its challenges, which for St. Lucia have included periods of drought, a significant wind storm that blew through here a few years ago and pine beetles that caused tree damage after that. Trespassers and the trash they deposit are an ongoing annoyance as well, said Hanna. One of her father’s pastimes was picking up trash and debris along roads in this area. She has continued that habit on her property.

To consume logging debris and encourage the growth of wildlife browse, Hanna and her team conducted a controlled burn in March on all acreage of the farm supporting merchantable timber. Drainage improvements continue to be made as needed to maintain good flow through the property. For instance, last October Hanna employed a mulcher and dozer to redirect water from a portion of the property that had historically been under water and unusable.

Hanna and Carol have embraced the use of technology as part of their management plan.

“This is the first farm in which we have used infrared drone photography to give us a clearer picture of the property, to show timber density and any insect infestations,” said Steve Lenox.

Streamside management zones have been created and maintained adjacent to creeks and drainage areas, bottomland hardwood sites and non-forested parts of the plantation. The Gambles also place a high value on promoting wildlife habitat, protecting water quality and creating areas for recreation, including hunting, fishing, hiking and horseback riding.

“My cousin’s children have all caught their first fish out here,” Hanna said, pointing to the ponds next to the cabin. “I like exposing the next generation to how much fun it is to be outside rather than inside on an iPad,” she added.

Another of her outdoor passions is horseback riding. With the addition of the newly built corrals, she is now able to meld her dreams of horseback riding and land management. Being able to explore the farm on horseback allows Hanna to see and enjoy the farm from a whole new perspective.

She juggles her time between St. Lucia and her home at Eightfold Farms, a 173-acre farm she owns in Benton near Bossier, where she trains horses and teaches recreational and therapeutic riding. In addition to her membership in the LFA and other forestry and landowner organizations, she supports nonprofits such as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International and the National Service Animal Registry that promote bonding between animals and individuals in need of healing, such as special needs children and veterans. Hanna and her dog Stella also serve as a registered therapy team, teaching dog safety to preschoolers.

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