The life of a Mississippi forester

How a forester in the US South builds on centuries of family expertise.

Kevin Callender’s family has a long history in forestry. Go down to the Wilkinson County court house and you’ll find the family he married into – the Nettervilles – working in timber since records began.

“I married into a family that’s been doing this, right here, for a couple of hundred years,” says Callender. “I’m the third generation that’s still alive and working in these hills today. My wife’s grandfather, who’s 80 years old and still works in timber, can remember working here with his grandfather as a small child.”

Today, Callender and his team fell trees in responsibly managed working forests for land and forestry business Weyerhaeuser and deliver them to manufacturers and producers. One producer they supply is Drax Biomass, which uses low-grade wood such as thinnings to create compressed wood pellets for electricity generation.

This is a relatively new market and product for the forestry industry, but Callender is carrying on the sustainable practices that respect the land and have allowed Mississippi forests to thrive.

Sustaining generations

Mississippi’s climate lends itself well to growing trees – roughly 65% of the state is covered in forests. These conditions also allow the forestry industry to operate year-round, something other parts of the country can’t do. “Up north they have seasons when they can’t work, but we can full time,” says Callender.

However, it wasn’t always this way. When Europeans first began settling in the area, much of the forestland was converted to cattle pastures or cotton fields. But this took its toll on the land, damaging soil quality and crop yields. Forests soon re-emerged as the dominant land-type and the landscape returned to its more natural state.

While the technology at foresters’ disposal has changed over time from two-man saws to 18 ton harvesters, a respect for managing forests in a sustainable way has remained important to the longevity of the forestry industry in Mississippi.

“I’ve only ever seen one stand that hasn’t been replanted,” says Callender. “And it was a private tract where they wanted to let it grow naturally. Other than that, I’ve never cut anything that wasn’t intended to be replanted within a two-year period.”

This management of forests benefits not just the wood-product market but also the wider environment. A report by Forest2Market found that between 1953 and 2015, while tree harvests increased by 57%, annual wood growth increased by 112%, and inventory increased by 108%.

These younger, replanted stands absorb carbon dioxide faster than older stands , which tend to get less vigorous as they age. This means they make a greater contribution to slowing climate change and offsetting the carbon emitted during the manufacturing and use of wood products.

A vital industry

Callender grew up in nearby Centreville and after high school worked in oil and gas, a job that took him just about everywhere east of Colorado. He returned to Mississippi to settle down and start a family, which brought him into forestry, an essential industry in the state.

“I love my work, everything about it. I get out of bed at four and go all day,” says Callender. “This is different than oil field work where a boss doesn’t know your name. I work with these men every day. They’re like family.”

Callender’s story is just one of many in a state where forestry employs more than 70,000 people and generates a revenue of $12 billion annually. As a result, the stability of the industry has far-reaching consequences.

“Forestry is one of the few careers in the area where you can make a good living,” says Callander. “If timber were to completely tank, south and west Mississippi, maybe the whole state, would go through a depression.”

Drax Biomass is one of many companies that ensures that in Mississippi and across other parts of the southeastern US, there is a demand for wood. More than that, it means there is a steady stream of flexible, renewable fuel helping power homes and businesses in the UK as a lower carbon alternative to coal. It’s this modern application of an age-old resource that allows a centuries-old industry – and the people working within it – to continue to thrive.