By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
FISHHOOK, Ill. -- Greg and Pat Zak were looking for a place to hunt and camp in Pike County.
They ended up with almost 300 acres of timber and a statewide award to recognize their effort.
The Zaks, the 2010 Illinois Outstanding Tree Farmers, will host a field day Saturday, Oct. 1 on their farm near Fishhook.
"They try to recognize people like the Zaks who spend a lot of energy and money to improve their forest, and with that type of recognition, I'm sure other people should be getting involved," said Bob Church, district forester with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office in Pittsfield. "We have a lot of people in my district heavily involved in improving their forestland and planting trees. It should be a really good field day."
Showing off a tree farm wasn't the plan when the Zaks bought 40 acres in 1987.
"The fellow I bought it from had enrolled 22 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program. It called for planting grass on there, then keeping the grass mowed for the next 10 years and the government would pay us for not growing a crop," Zak said. "Trees seemed to make more sense. If you plant trees, in 10 years you have the beginning of a forest."
Zak took the idea to local, state and federal officials before winning approval to plant trees on the CRP acres. Cost-share funds, half from the state and half from the federal government, helped with the cost, and with a borrowed tree planting machine and tractor, they planted 22 acres of walnut, red oak and white oak trees.
"That winter, the deer ate all the trees," Zak said. "Next year it was replanting time. The first year we used six-inch trees. We replanted 18-inch trees, and lo and behold, probably 70 percent survived the deer."
By 1990, the Springfield couple bought another 240 acres, adjacent to their land, which had a small amount of tillable acreage and a large amount of rough forest.
"We had about 60 more acres of trees to plant then," Zak said. "With replanting for deer damage, we probably planted a total of about 50,000 trees on our land."
Along with planting, the Zaks also worked with Church to improve the existing forested acreage. "Probably by 1993 we had our planting done and we also had gone through the existing forestland and done what they call timber stand improvement to kill undesirable trees and vines," Zak said. "We spent a good portion of our winters out there and a fairly good portion of our springs working the trees. Now we've got almost 300 acres of forestland."
The work was a labor of love for the Zaks, important for conservation, hunting and for investing in the future.
"Believe it or not, except for one year, we lose money on it, but the big return is the appreciation of the land," Zak said. "While we may lose a few bucks on the farm itself, we also realize at the same time if we turn around and sell it, the value of the land just skyrocketed, and it's well worth losing a few dollars a year on maintenance."
The couple have no plans to sell the land. They intend to leave the farm to their son, who has taken an active role for years in helping to manage the acreage.
The conservation facets of the farm may be the most rewarding for the couple.
"It really helps out the water quality in Pike County. Forestland holds the soil in place. The water that runs off from forest area is very clear, clean water," Zak said. "We do need to have grain growing in Pike County, but it's still nice to have some of the land in forest to offset any impacts from conventional agriculture."
People with five or 10 acres can echo what the Zaks have done, either doing the work on their own or hiring out trimming and tree/brush removal.
"If a person starts out at 40 years old or 50, they can handle 40 acres fairly easy. If they're real enthusiastic, they can do what we did, go from 50 to nearly 300 acres," said Zak, who has "retired twice" after 29 years at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and another 10 in his own consulting business as a noise control engineer. "Now we're down to doing the tree farm as a labor of love, but still a job. We plan on doing that as long as we can."