Leonard Ellis, 71, of Florence has dedicated his life to black walnut trees, or at least the vast majority of the second half of it.
His admiration for timber came through as he described a veneer walnut log he harvested.
The tree was about 70 years old when Ellis, owner and operator of the National Forestry Service contracted someone to cut it down. With the service, he travels all over Kansas performing timber stand improvement. This means landowners contact Ellis when they wants to get rid of a dying tree.
“Trees get old and die, just like a person,” Ellis said. “We try not to ever buy and harvest healthy trees.”
Ellis clears the old trees and sells the logs to mills. He said only walnut is a profitable enough wood to ship out of the state. Truckers receive $3.50 a loaded mile. Ellis was shipping black walnut to Reedsburg, Wis., on Thursday, an 800 mile trip.
“Walnut to a man is as precious as a diamond is to a woman,” Ellis said. “It is where all the dollars are at.”
Veneer wood is worth the most money in the lumber industry. It requires a perfectly straight log with a straight grain. The log must be at least 12 feet long and 18 inches in diameter.
Veneer logs cannot have imperfections; Ellis said he finds about one veneer in every 100 trees he cuts down. The mill will slice the log 32 times per inch for paneling and high-end furniture. To Ellis, the log is worth $400, nearly five times more than the next best grade.
“If I do something now, I want to make money,” Ellis said.
Timber is a numbers game for Ellis. He manages eight tree farms and he has trees on his own property in Florence. He planted trees about six inches apart in rows. About 70 percent of nuts will germinate. Of those trees, 10 percent will be eaten by rabbits; another 10 will be killed by deer. When the remaining trees grow tall, 10 percent of those trees will be killed by wind damage or lightning.
Ellis said multiple times that trees are like people. He tries to stack the deck by using nuts from privately owned veneer trees, the advantage in genetics boosting their chances for survival.
Of course, the final number that matters to Ellis is cash value, as is the way he measures his production. Making money is not his only pursuit.
“My love is for the timber,” he said. “I get military retirement. I get social security. I don’t need this.”
Ellis got into the timber business 46 years ago. It was his third career attempt, previously trying the Air Force and Army. Like the trees he harvests, Ellis’s ability at the job has grown over time.
“I learned from the school of hard knocks,” Ellis said. “My first week I cut logs, I smashed three chainsaws.”
Ellis said his profession is populated by older men. He and his partner Joe Heath are in their 70s. All of the owners of the tree farms Ellis manages are in their 50s or older.
Dale Miller, 86, is a volunteer worker with Ellis.
“It’s all that clean living,” Ellis said as he took a draw from a menthol cigarette.
Ellis has had thoughts of a legacy — one of his favorite accomplishments was planting a tree farm for the city of Florence.
Ellis, Heath, and Miller planted several rows of trees using both seedlings and nuts in March 2006 on the west side of the Cottonwood River. The tree farm was paid for with a $3,500 grant from the hardwood forestry foundation.
They also put in a nature trail and a picnic area up on one of the concrete structures on the dam. Visitors can look over the river or the grove and observe wildlife.
After five years, some of the trees in ideal locations are over 20-feet tall. The city of Florence will have the rights to sell the trees when they are old enough.
“I’m not ever going to see these trees harvested,” Ellis said. “But I want to leave something for future generations.”