This story is another in a weekly series called "Planting the Seed: Science for the New Millennium." These stories feature ideas and advances in agricultural and environmental sciences with implications for the future.
Georgia's fast-growing population is using up wood and wood-fiber products almost faster than tree farmers can grow trees. But University of Georgia scientists say with a little extra attention, growers can supply wood fiber to keep pace with demand.
"Georgia is the sixth-fastest growing state in the nation," said Doug Bachtel, a housing and consumer economics professor with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
More People = More Homes, Furniture and Paper
"As our low unemployment rate attracts people, they'll need new homes and the furniture to go in them, as well as paper goods at their work places," he said. "So besides what we export, there is a huge domestic demand for wood and wood products."
In the United States, the average person's use of paper and paper products has increased by nearly 30 percent since 1980. Experts say paper use will continue increasing by 1.5 percent to 2 percent each year to an estimated 1,053 pounds in 2020.
And as the world population keeps rising, so will the demand for wood products.
Same Trees, Less Growing Time
To help meet this ever-increasing demand, Georgia tree farmers are growing about 6.1 million acres of planted pines that will be cut for pulp and sawtimber. And they're learning how to manage those trees to produce the same fiber volume in less time.
"Intense pine management for high pulp volume is most effective on land that's already well-suited for agriculture," said David Moorhead, a professor of forestry sciences with the UGA Warnell School of Forest Resources.
"A lot of timber is planted in sensitive areas," he said. "But that is managed less intensively, and we don't look at that land as our high-volume production areas."
Moorhead describes intense management as having three main parts: site preparation, weed management and adequate fertility.
Weed Control and Fertilizing are Musts
Site preparation ensures young trees get a good start. Weed control keeps other plants from using up the nutrients and water the trees need. Fertilizing boosts tree growth, too, particularly in the first five to seven years.
Using these management practices, farmers can cut a fiber-production rotation in half, Moorhead said. Farmers can grow in 12 to 14 years the same amount of fiber that used to take about 25 years to grow.
It takes a little longer to grow trees for lumber because of the wood strength needed, Moorhead said. Still, intense management has cut the time needed to grow sawtimber by about a third.
Many timber and wood product companies are creating "engineered woods" out of fiber and flakes from the more quickly grown trees. Moorhead said in some instances, engineered wood products are actually stronger or more well-suited for structural use than solid lumber.
"These products open the market for what was considered unusable trees, particularly the trees thinned from young forests," he said.
"Our industry structure here includes the land to grow the trees, the people to manage and cut them and the processing and refining sites to get products to consumers."
Georgia Climate Good for Growing Pines
In Georgia, where the climate is nearly ideal to grow pine trees, about 18 percent of the timber is planted in pine plantations. "We have a real competitive advantage here in that we've got a great climate and good soil to grow pines," Moorhead said.
More than half of the wood produced in the United States comes from the Southeast: Georgia, north Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.
Georgia farmers planted 360,000 acres of trees in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available. Economists say the impact of Georgia forestry is about $19.5 billion, second only to the poultry industry.
(Photographs by David Moorhead, University of Georgia Warnell School of Forest Resources.)