Wade McCamey can be described by tags such as “educator,” “biology teacher,” “high school principal,” “school board member,” “community college president,” and more.
As of the last three years, he has a new identifier: “tree farmer.”
In late June, that designation became all the more official when Tennessee Forestry officials, including the state forester out of Nashville, dropped by the McCamey Tree Farm on Warrensburg Road to present McCamey a sign to hang on his property, marking the site as an official tree farm under the American tree farm system.
On its official website, www.treefarmsystem.org, the ATFS is defined as “the United States’ oldest family forest certification program. In 1941, ATFS began promoting responsible forest management on our nation’s private forests. ATFS certification gives family woodland owners confidence and validation that they are doing right by their land.”
The certification indicates that McCamey’s “family forest” meets “eight standards of sustainability and (is) managed for multiple purposes: water, wildlife, wood and recreation.”
The website says that “ATFS certification is now internationally-recognized and meets strict third-party verification and auditing standards,” and is “a strong network of woodland owners who share the same core values of hard work, community responsibility and commitment to protecting America’s forest legacy.”
Now in his early 70s and officially retired from education and public life, McCamey is working as hard as he ever did, but in a different setting and with different motivations. His tree farm isn’t expected to give McCamey himself a commercial return, the farm being only three years old.
A forested area on McCamey’s land already does contain several harvestable trees, but those are not part of the farm operation, being natural growth.
Some of McCamey’s planted trees probably could be usable as pulp wood within a decade or so, he said, but the hardwoods will probably be commercially valuable only 15 or 20 years past that.
But, the farm, which spreads across beautiful land just a few miles from where McCamey grew up around Pates Hill, already is providing McCamey a non-monetary reward.
“When I retired, I wanted to be as obscure and out of the public eye as much as I could, after 47 years of being in the public eye almost every day. Now, when I come out here on this farm and look out that door, I can’t even see that other house sitting over there … I just love that.”
This local former public figure even has taken to quoting the ancient poet, Ovid, who put into lyrical words a concept McCamey likes: “Well has he lived who has lived well in obscurity.”
The hours McCamey spends among his thousands of young trees perhaps don’t qualify as full-out obscurity in that he can be in downtown Greeneville in mere minutes, but he does treasure the silent, unobtrusive company of his northern red oaks, willow oaks, yellow poplars and loblolly pines. Those four tree types are planted in 10-foot grids all across his land, 435 trees per acre.
Due to medical limitations, Ann McCamey, his wife, divides time between the house at the tree farm and the other McCamey home in Greeneville. Their son, Todd, comes frequently from his own home to the tree farm to help with the work.
If trees can provide companionship, then Wade McCamey has a wide circle of friends with roots. He can even tell you how many: 9,450 of them, in four varieties: 1,650 Northern Red Oak, 6,550 yellow poplar, 600 willow oak, 650 loblolly pine.
The trees are planted in a “rows and alleys” pattern that McCamey designed on graph paper — the rows being the lines along which the trees are planted, the alleys being the spaces between the rows.
McCamey also enjoys pointing out what he calls the “diagonals” created by the plantings: lines of trees running diagonally up through the tree grid, adding an extra aesthetic touch to it all.
Aesthetics matter to McCamey. One of the points of the management plan for tree farms is to keep the farms as “aesthetically pleasing as possible,” he noted.
A handful of evergreens at the front of the lower tree field, in fact, are there almost entirely for the sake of aesthetics, plus a bit of visual fun. The trees are planted in such a way that they visually blend to create an optical illusion when viewed from certain angles: the number of trees looks greater than the number actually there.
Whatever the angle of view, the neatly ranked army of trees visible at the McCamey Tree Farm is eye-catching, even though the trees are not yet nearly as tall as they will become.
They are growing fast, though, and proving hardy.
How and why was this McCamey tree-growing operation brought into being?
McCamey has been attracted to life sciences, particularly botany, since his young days, he said. “I always wanted to grow plants.”
He’s helped grow a few student minds along the way in his educational career. A graduate of Warrensburg Elementary School and McDonald High School, McCamey studied at both Hiwassee College and East Tennessee State University, earning a masters and doctorate in educational administration at the latter.
His long career in education led him from the classroom to various administrative posts, including being a principal multiple times, a stint as Greene County Schools superintendent (now called “director”), being an eight-year school board member, and presiding over two community colleges: Roane State and Walters State.
Despite all professional distractions, he retained his interest in biology, botany and agriculture.
His first big commercial effort involved not trees, but 2,000 grapevines. He planted and tended grapes in the 1980s at his old home-place around Pates Hill, selling his crop to an area winery, but fog off the river continually caused molds and mildew issues. McCamey had to use an anti-mold spray on his plants so often he developed an allergy to the spray. The grapes had to go, and did, after about a decade of McCamey trying to make it all work.
Today about 100 willow oaks grow where those grapevines used to be.
For tree farms to succeed, site preparation is essential. Subsoiling is an important early step, and all the trees at McCamey’s farm were planted in subsoiled ground. Subsoiling involves a specially designed blade that is pulled by a tractor and “just opens the ground up,” McCamey said. This helps the trees roots penetrate more easily.
Individual trees are planted using a “dibble bar,” a large tool made of heavy-duty hardened steel. The sharp-ended dibble bars stab into the ground under pressure of a human foot and create holes sufficiently deep and broad to allow young tree roots to be planted without crowding or too much root bending.
The forestry officials who visited McCamey at the tree farm on June 27 to present him his ATFS sign and tour the farm were a notable group. Nashville-based Tennessee State Forester and Assistant Commissioner David Arnold was there, as was District Forester Darren Bailey, who came in from Knoxville.
Area Forester Neal White didn’t have as far to travel, his office being in the former Greene Valley Developmental Center complex. With him was Gary Carter, FA2, who works with White, and Forestry Technician Brad Ball.
White, who has only the highest praise for McCamey’s tree farming skill, knows the farm well. He helped get the thing started three years ago when he brought a team of 16 workers to join him, Todd and Wade McCamey in setting trees.
The next year, fewer trees were ordered – about 1,000 – and McCamey planted those himself.
This year they put out 5,500, White coming in the first day with 19 others to help McCamey get the job done. The next day White returned with 18 people, and the work was finished in early afternoon.
McCamey is gratified by the thriving of his planted trees, which come from a state nursery in the Polk County town of Delano. “It’s just amazing how well they’re doing.”
As if McCamey doesn’t have enough to do, he also raises and sells hay on his farmland.
So why all this bother? Why start such a long-focus enterprise when one is already retired? And why trees?
McCamey’s answer is simple: “It just seems like the right thing to do.”
As for the practical benefit: “Someone’s going to benefit from this. Someday my son may want to sell it, or my granddaughter may sell it, and that’s fine. Meanwhile, the earth benefits from this – all the oxygen these trees produce, the good they do for our environment.”
And then, after a pause, the final and sufficient explanation: “I just love watching them grow.”