The Forest for the Trees

On a peaceful patch of land on the Eastern Shore, Billy and Fann Greer are making a difference 30,000 seedlings at a time

By Leona Baker

The Greers with their Dog, Gracie, on their 200-acre farm near Belle Haven (Photo by Janice Marshall-Pittman)

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.—Henry David Thoreau

 In the late 1990s, when Virginia Wesleyan President Billy Greer and his wife, Fann, decided they’d like to purchase a piece of land on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, they were looking for a place to build—some woods, some water, a quiet respite from work life and a gathering spot for family including their three sons and four grandchildren. What they found was something more.

It was Fann who happened upon a 200-acre property off Route 612 near Belle Haven. It was a lot of space, much more than they needed or wanted. And it would be a lot of work. Sections of it had been razed to the ground, treated with herbicides that are commonly used in forestry to clear the way for a new planting. But love—and sometimes land—chooses us. Not the other way around.

“It was a wilderness, but it had just been cut over,” says Fann, whose comforting Southern lilt belies a woman who is right at home behind the wheel of the utility buggy she and Billy use to navigate the property as Gracie, their 2-year-old Goldendoodle, runs happily a few yards ahead. “It really hurt your heart to look at it. I kind of had a mystical experience.”

Twelve years later, mystical experiences are undoubtedly commonplace here. Shaded paths wind through stands of mature hardwood trees and along sunlit fields recently sown with soybeans. Sandy shores dotted with tall pines overlook the storied Chesapeake Bay. A graying early 20th-century farmhouse adjacent to the Greers’ property greets visitors and speaks to an even simpler time in a place where “come-heres,” no matter how long they stay, are not to be confused with “from-heres.”

The Greers, both natives of Georgia, may never earn locals’ status on the Shore, but they have most certainly had a lasting effect on this little corner of the world. At the entrance to the long drive that leads to their home, there is a green and brown sign officially designating the property a Stewardship Forest. It’s a status they earned by adhering to a set of guidelines detailed in a Virginia Forest Stewardship Management Plan created specifically for their land at Billy’s request.

The plan was written by Eastern Shore Area Forester Robbie Lewis, who has gotten to know the Greers since he helped them establish a plan that included planting and replanting 30,000-40,000 loblolly pine seedlings with the help of a planting crew in the deforested areas.
According to Robbie, Billy Greer had a solid notion of what he was trying to do—from protecting the aesthetics of the place to providing cover for wildlife to preparing for responsible timber harvesting—before the plan was created.

“He’s a really neat guy, a gentleman,” he says of Billy, “and he’s got a lot of neat ideas. For the planting, he designed a layout that included travel lanes and open feed patches for wildlife. The idea was to allow plenty of sunlight to hit the ground to help maintain an early successional cover. That is critical.”

Early successional cover is created by the undergrowth that pops up as the seedlings mature, offering protection from prey for quail and turkey broods as well as food sources for these and other animals. After a number of years, the young trees require “pre-commercial thinning” or cutting of unwanted hardwoods and other growth that inhibit the health of the tree stand as a whole. The thinning also provides further habitat for foxes and rabbits as well as turkey and quail.

For their efforts, Billy and Fann were named Forestry Conservationists for 2011 by the Eastern Shore Soil and Water Conservation District. For Billy, a humble guy who grew up hunting in the woods outside a small country town in Georgia, trees are in the blood.

“My family didn’t farm, but I was raised with a dad who believed in planting pine trees,” Billy remembers. “They were small, and so I’d have to water them. Of course I hated it then. Now here I am planting trees.”

These days he’s happy strolling through those trees with his wife, pointing out a wild turkey that swoops out of the brush or telling stories about the Gracie the dog’s motherly encounters with lost fawns. One of his favorites activities is “bush hogging,” pulling a rotary mower behind the family tractor because, as he puts it, “When I look behind me, I can see my accomplishments.”

Billy’s genuine love for the outdoors is reflected in his 20-year tenure as president of Virginia Wesleyan College. Under his leadership, the College’s sustainability efforts have been recognized locally, regionally and nationally including being selected for the Princeton Review’s Guide to 311 Green Colleges for 2012.

“Certainly, I have great concern for the environment,” he says. “It is imperative that we not only preserve it, but enhance it so for our children and grandchildren.”

Billy is fond of noting with pride that Wesleyan is “not a concrete campus.” Its 300-acre wooded oasis of trees, open fields and flowers also happen to be a designated bird sanctuary and the home of an old-growth beech forest.

The establishment of the President’s Environmental Issues Council in 2005 crystallized the College’s ongoing efforts to enhance responsible management of resources and promote improvement of the quality of the environment at Virginia Wesleyan—from waste-reduction and recycling to green building practices and promotion of public transportation. Billy Greer is also one of more than 250 signatories of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

But out on the farm, as the Greers call the Eastern Shore property, he’s just a husband, a dad and “Poppy” to his grandkids—and the guy who cuts the grass. He also happens to have planted a few trees.

“It has been a great project, a real learning experience” says Fann, “and we thoroughly enjoy it.”