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Conservation Stewardship 210-Years in the Making

The Bembry’s Longleaf Legacy

June 21, 2017 - Johnny Bembry’s family origins go back to the birth of our nation and for eight generations since, they have been improving their Pulaski County farm and community by establishing and nurturing the family and vegetative roots that have held it together for over 210 years.

Family patriarch and revolutionary war veteran, William S. Lancaster acquired the first piece of the farm in 1807.  Over the next couple centuries, the land was used for various forms of agriculture, forestry and other industry.  While cotton ruled as king for many years, other crops as well timber and turpentine production, along with an onsite corn grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin all played important parts in the farm’s history.  

Though the Bembry family always had long-term goals of providing for their family and community, one of the earlier times USDA helped establish their conservation path was during the Soil Bank era.  By converting some of their lesser productive and more erodible crop fields to a variety of pine trees, they were able to revert parts of the farm back to what it looked like before they arrived.  It was an important shift in management philosophies for them and many others in our country at that time. 

In the decades to come, similar conservation efforts to reestablish and improve forestlands would be bolstered by the family’s participation in the Conservation Reserve Program and in more recent years they’ve participated in other Farm Bill programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the former Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program’s Wetland Reserve Easement (ACEP-WRE).  They’ve also worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through their Partners for Fish and Wildlife, while partnering with State and private resources, to improve wildlife habitat and cement the family’s legacy of conservation and giving back to future generations.

Johnny, who is a practicing veterinarian, humbly admits that he is not a formally trained forester, but he is recognized by his peers as a leader and spokesperson for conservation and in particular longleaf pine ecosystem restoration. 

He talks about how it’s not just about the trees or the dollars and cents that come and go.  He and his family believes it’s about finding balance and strongly believes in the founding tenants of the American Tree Farm System – wood, water, wildlife and recreation.

“As I grew up hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and boating on this property and the adjoining waters… it gradually became obvious to me that my concern for the stewardship of this land should not stop at the property boundary any more than the creeks, streams, or rivers stop at property lines,” recalls Johnny.

His family’s approximately 2,200-acre farm is now about 75 percent in timber. Of the roughly 1,650 acres of trees, about 400 new acres of longleaf pine have been planted over the last couple decades.  The balance of trees are a mixture of other pine varieties and various hardwoods that are managed based on site suitability, species diversity and remnants of times gone by.  In fact, some native longleaf trees can be found across the farm that precede his ancestral ownership as well some that still bare chevron scars from turpentine harvesting.  

Today, through EQIP and its Longleaf Pine Initiative (LLPI) in Georgia, as well as CSP, the Bembry family continues to improve existing timber stands, expand their longleaf acreage and establish native warm season grasses such as switchgrass. 

Blending the family’s objectives with the professional advice they receive from private consulting foresters, the Georgia Forestry Commission, their local NRCS Conservationists, among others, they refer to their conservation and forest stewardship management plans to carefully guide them as they conduct regular thinning and prescribed burns. In their established pine stands they burn on a two-year rotation and for a six-to-eight-year rotation on certain hardwood stands.

Pulaski county is a Georgia NRCS priority county for LLPI and through similar efforts promoted through EQIP’s Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative, families like the Bembrys help restore key habitat for game species like deer, turkey, bobwhite quail, as well as nongame species like the threatened or endangered red cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snakes, as well as various rattle snakes.

While Johnny is often recognized by outside groups for his family’s efforts, he is quick to point out that it truly is a family affair that makes their system work for the long-term betterment of the farm and family.  And he recognizes financial considerations are an important factor in people managing their land long-term to achieve sustainable forestry goals.  Part of his family’s long term plans have included the use of conservation easements more recently through ACEP-WRE and previously through the State of Georgia’s Land Conservation Program that began under then Governor, now Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. 

These easements have provided financial assistance and tax credits that go a long way to ensuring their family long-term plans stay intact.  More importantly, these commitments help to ensure these upland and bottomland landscapes will stay connected and productive for the betterment of Georgians, as well as all of those creatures (great and small) that depend upon them.

Leaving something in better shape than when he assumed it, is a core value for Johnny and his family. He explains, “We all have been blessed by God so richly with our natural environment, it's hard for me to imagine not feeling a responsibility to nurture and cultivate it.  As I've said before, I don't think that responsibility is limited by man-made property lines.  Neither the creeks nor the kudzu respect them!”