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The Whittaker Family Makes Empress Tree Farming A Family Affair


The Whittaker family live in the small community of Donalsonville, in the southwest corner of Georgia, on farmland that has been in the family for generations. The land is primarily pasture land, but in the past they have grown peanuts, corn, cotton and more recently pine trees, all typical crops for the area.

Today, Jean Whittaker and her sons Steve and Billy, together their spouses and children, manage over 40 acres of Empress Splendor trees, planted in partnership with World Tree.

It all began after Hurricane Michael destroyed much of their 15-year-old pine plantation in October 2018. They were looking for a new revenue-generating tree crop that would not take another 30 years to mature. Jean was intrigued when she saw an ad for Empress Splendor (Paulownia elongata and P. fortunei) trees supplied by World Tree in the Georgia Farm Bureau magazine. They contacted World Tree, and a representative visited them shortly after that. The family agreed to take a chance on this new, incredibly fast-growing hardwood tree. They planted their first 25 acres in the spring of 2019 and haven’t looked back!

“We could not believe these trees!” said Steve when describing how the trees grew in the first year. Based on their initial success, they decided to plant another 15 acres in 2020.

For Jean, who is almost 80, her Empress trees are much more than a crop – they have become her friends and companions. Every day her and her husband drive around the tree field in a tractor so she can check on them. She is so familiar with many of them, she has even given some of them names (including naming two after her sons!).

The trees have also been a source of comfort in troubling and uncertain times. During the COVID lockdown periods when they couldn’t see family and friends, or even go shopping as much, having the trees for company and to keep them busy, was a blessing. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning. I love being outside in the sunshine, checking on the trees. I still also do as much manual work, like hoeing, as much as I can” Jean said.

But the Whittakers have also learned that growing healthy Empress trees requires hard work, and being able to adapt to changing weather and other local environmental conditions.

The excessive rains experienced over the past summer months were hard on the small trees in the field. Wind storms also blew some of them down, and others experienced broken off branches and leaves. Most recovered, with some having already grown back 15 feet, while some needed to be replaced by World Tree.

At other times in the past, they have needed to water the trees on a regular basis. Billy has also experienced problems with deer eating his young trees, and has had to install a high fence to try and keep the pests out of the fields.

This work is very different from growing pine, that basically you plant and walk away from.  But each crop has its own threats, with many pine plantations being harmed by pine bark beetles, not to mention low prices for the lumber.

“It’s a lot of work, no way around it, but we’re in it for the long haul” explained Steve. The extra work also includes pruning, mowing the grass between he trees and fertilizing as necessary.

While growing Empress trees requires more care and attention than some other tree crops, the many rewards include having a field of beautiful trees that bloom in spring, mature in only 8-12 years, and regrow multiple times from the same root system, eliminating the need to replant.

Jean is confident she will see the trees mature and be harvested in her lifetime, a service paid for by World Tree (along with milling and marketing the lumber).  Her family will also benefit from multiple harvests in the future, potentially providing income for generations to come.

Whittaker farm signOverall, they are very happy they chose to be part of the World Tree farming program. “No two ways about it, this is an amazing tree. We’ve had a few issues with the trees, but (the program) is a great thing” said Steve.

And others are noticing as well. While the Whittaker’s farm in is a rural area, they still get a fair number of people stopping by the roadside to inquire about the unusual trees growing in their field. They are so proud of their trees, they have erected their own sign letting people know what kind of trees they are.

World Tree is grateful to work with farmers like the Whittakers – people who are willing to learn and grow with us as we expand our program in the Southeast. Together we will all benefit from the sale of the lumber with 50% of net profits shared with our farmers.

Find out more about the World Tree Farming Program and if it could be a good fit for you and your land: www.worldtreefarmers.com.