On a February weekend, in freezing temperatures, 72-year-old Mike Trial is dressed in work boots and jeans sawing his trees into boards. The 200 acres he owns west of Columbia are full of rolling hills, wooded patches and 50 acres of eastern black walnut trees planted in neat rows.
The trees will be dormant until April or May, but there’s still plenty to do. For 50-plus years, the Trial family has spent the winter months painstakingly preparing their tree farm for spring.
“The work never ends on a tree farm,” he said.
Trial knew when he took control of his family’s farm in 2007 that it would be an exercise in patience. His father, George Trial, started planting eastern black walnuts in 1966 at the age of 56. It wasn’t until 2016 — years after his father died — that Trial finally harvested the first of his father’s walnut trees.
Of the 25 trees he cut, only 10 were of high enough quality to be sawed into boards.
Trial's patience is starting to pay off. He was recognized recently as the Missouri Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year by the American Tree Farm System. He's also just a few years away from a goal he has long pursued on his farm: continuous sustainability.
Trial has been recognized as the Missouri Outstanding Tree Farmer of 2019 for managing his walnut tree plantation business.
For Trial, that concept means there will always be a consistent number of trees on his farm. When he harvests one group of trees, there will be another generation ready to replace them.
“I think anybody who has an attachment to the land or a love of the land wants to see it made better,” he said.
Trial has battled poor soil and invasive plants in hope of achieving his sustainability goals.
His farm along Route UU lacks the kind of soil that trees in southern Missouri thrive on. Mid-Missouri trees grow slower and don't get as big.
He spends about half his time on the farm working to beat back fast-growing invasive plants. One of the main culprits, autumn olive, can grow 20 feet tall, and its stalks can be 6 inches thick, he said.
According to Trial, the land above the Missouri River is not suited for these native trees because of the soil nutrient composition.
There are herbicides that can kill unwanted plants such as autumn olive and bush honeysuckle, but Trial chooses not to use them because they are expensive and can harm the ecosystem.
Once chemicals are applied to the land, they enter surface water with many negative consequences, he said.
Trial is experimenting with alternative methods for controlling invasive species. In the fall, he rented 40 goats to eat the unwanted plants on his property. He used a technique called rotational grazing, through which the animals are kept in temporary fencing and relocated once every two weeks, the time it would take them to eat all the invasive plants in a patch of about a third of an acre.
When the goats aren’t there, Trial mows between the trees to make sure the autumn olive can’t out-compete them for vital nutrients.
Trial frequently uses the duster, left, to remove mold-inducing sawdust off the wooden boards.
Plenty of Missouri tree farmers are dealing with invasive species. Callaway County tree farmer Harlan Palm belongs to the same Walnut Council chapter as Trial and said he deals with autumn olive every year.
“If a landowner doesn’t manage it, they literally just take over,” he said.
Invasive plants like autumn olive become more frequent the closer you are to urban areas, Palm said. That's because plants used in city landscapes often are invasive and can spread to nearby rural areas.
Tree farmers also deal with aggressive plants such as multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle. The number of invasive and aggressive species has increased since 15 years ago, when Trial's father was still running the farm.
At that point, growing walnut trees was a budding hobby for his parents. They bought their farm in 1957, when Mike Trial was 10. He spent his childhood alternating between Missouri and Saudi Arabia, where his father worked for an oil company.
He attended Hickman High School for three years and graduated from MU in 1969 with a mechanical engineering degree. Trial left Missouri after graduation to pursue a career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On one of his trips home, he noticed there were walnut trees being planted on the farm.
Trial became interested in his father's new hobby, and they started doing farm chores together. They would prune the trees with chainsaws, collect the limbs and plant new seedlings during his visits home.
Trial spent 25 years living all over the world, including Saudi Arabia, California and Kansas City. But he'd already been bitten by the tree bug when he returned home to Missouri and started taking care of his aging parents.
The farmhouse his parents built sits on a hilltop. From his back deck, Trial can see sweeping views of his walnut trees, ponds and natural woods. During the winter, he sometimes walks through the trees to check for damage after an ice storm. In warm weather, he will remove invasive plants and check on the new trees.
“I can go down to one of the little groups of trees planted over the 50 acres and shut off the machinery on a summer day,” he said. “It’s quiet. It’s beautiful. It’s very nice.”
The tree bug bit Trial’s partner, Yolanda Ciolli, too. Ciolli is an artist and owns the book publishing company Compass Flower Press in downtown Columbia. She shares some of the farm work with Trial and helps him move thicker walnut boards that require two people to lift.
They cut the trees in the winter because the wood is drier and better suited to woodworking. The trees are around 10 inches thick, with dark-colored bark and walnuts the size of golf balls.
Trial uses his sawmill on the farm to make boards. The mill has a large blade about 2 feet long that slices the trees into even sections. The blade makes a high-pitched buzzing sound, and sawdust fills the air as Trial pushes it through the walnut logs. After the boards have been cut, he brushes the dust off them to reveal any flaws or quirks.
The boards must dry for a year before woodworkers can use them. Trial stacks the boards about 4 feet high while they dry, leaving space between each board and marking the date they were cut.
The barn serves as a storage space for the trees after they are cut down. They are left for one year to dry there. “The next step is to find a woodworker to buy my boards,” Trial said. “I’m not in it for the money. It’s just a hobby to pass the time.”
If the trees can’t be made into boards and sold to local woodworkers, they can be used as firewood to heat their home. Ciolli has her eye on a few walnut boards that Trial cut, and she's considering making them into pedestals for her art works.
“We will use all the wood in one way or another,” she said.
Walnut boards have a dark vertical stripe running through the center that is surrounded by lighter wood. Trial sometimes has the wood polished and made into bowls that still display the characteristic dark stripe.
These logs, which are between 15 and 16 inches long, are used to heat Trial’s second home, which is only a few miles from his main home. "If you have an efficiently designed house and a modern heat stove, you can heat it throughout the winter," he said.
It wasn't until the past few years that some of the trees on Trial's land have grown big enough to harvest and sell. Trial thinks he's only five years from his goal of a sustainable continuous harvest.
Sustainability is one mission of the American Tree Farm System, the organization that recognized Trial's commitment to sustainability. He demonstrated that by keeping hundreds of pages of records on practices like integrated pest management and timber stand improvement, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“I was floored and very honored,” Trial said. “There are a lot of good tree farmers in Missouri.”
The award came shortly after Trial celebrated 50 years in the organization’s farm certification program.
In Missouri, foresters from the conservation department are responsible for determining whether a tree farmer meets the American Tree Farm System standards for certification.
Trial, who purchased the sawmill in August 2016, has been tree farming for more than 40 years. "From here on out, I want to make this a sustainable operation," he said.
Fred Crouse was working for the department when he was assigned to visit George Trial at his farm in 1979.
He kept visiting the farm over the years, working with both George and Mike Trial to use integrated pest management and alternative farming practices. At one point, he even watched a team of mules Mike Trial rented harvest a group of walnut trees on the farm.
Crouse said that the longevity of the farm is part of what makes it stand out from the rest.
“There’s a lot (of farms) that go great for a while, and after a few years it quits being fun,” Crouse said.
The Trial farm isn’t one of them. Over the past 50 years, both George and Mike Trial have managed the farm in hope that the trees could someday be harvested. As Mike Trial gets older, he plans to hire contractors to take over some of the work.
One thing Trial has learned is that growing fine hardwood trees doesn't require a lot of acreage. It can be done on 50, 30 or even 10 acres, he said.
Trial and Ciolli have been domestic partners for more than 11 years. "Mike and I started a relationship, so it seemed natural to help out with the planting, cutting and pruning of the trees," Ciolli said.
The farm remains several years away from breaking even. He’s working to achieve a continual harvest of trees by controlling the invasive species and planting groups of trees so they are one to five years apart in age.
Luckily, the wait has already been worth it.
“I do feel a good bit of satisfaction,” he said. “I think all tree growers do when they see something beautiful made out of walnut wood.”
He does have some advice for those considering growing walnut trees: Have patience. Start when you're young, and stay with it.