In the Pines

A Georgia landowner advances longleaf pine initiative

  • Jacqueline Gray Miller
  • Community Connection
  • Mar 31, 2023

One of nine children who inherited their family’s land in Georgia, Herbert Hodges (above) now lives on the property.

ROUGHLY 150 MILES SOUTHEAST of the gold-domed Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta lies the Willie Hodges Estate Family Farm in Swainsboro, Georgia. In the Hodges family since at least 1883, this tract of private land—which has expanded to roughly 600 acres over the years—today boasts more than 400 acres of longleaf pine, a vital but dwindling habitat in the U.S. Southeast that supports hundreds of plant and animal species such as the gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake and red-cockaded woodpecker. The farm is also a training ground where other landowners can learn about longleaf management and how to keep their precious lands in family hands.

Herbert Hodges, son of Willie Hodges, is one of nine siblings who grew up on the farm before dispersing to pursue other careers. Their farm evolved over time, producing row crops, cotton, tobacco, even turpentine. But in recent years, the siblings became concerned about making the property economically sustainable for their children and grandchildren. Exploring options, Hodges—a retired educator—applied for a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service financial assistance program to grow longleaf pine, and, around 2011, the family’s move into longleaf forestry began in earnest.

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An image of a female Florida Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).

Working with the National Wildlife Federation, The Longleaf Alliance and other partners, Hodges hosts workshops for landowners who want to learn longleaf management. Trainings include prescribed burning (below) that’s essential for the health of longleaf pine habitat, which sustains hundreds of species, including the gopher tortoise (above), Georgia’s state reptile.

Today, the land is a model farm for teaching other landowners about longleaf management. Working with America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative—a collaboration of more than 40 organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, The Longleaf Alliance and other partners—Hodges hosts multiday trainings that teach prescribed burning, responsible chemical application, how to choose and plant longleaf seedlings and other techniques.

In 2021, initiative partners began Longleaf for All, a program specifically geared toward increasing minority participation in forestry, teaching landowners not only about longleaf management but about grant programs, land rights law and other issues that can help them hold onto their property and make it economically sustainable. A training on the Hodges farm in January of this year—which drew a record 40 participants—was the first specifically for Black landowners, teaching about the history of Black landownership in the South, scholarship opportunities and estate planning. “Landowners teaching other landowners is crucial to our regional outreach efforts to restore longleaf pine and connect in authentic ways with landowners,” says Tiffany Woods, NWF’s director of Southeast Forestry. “Mr. Hodges is passionate about teaching others how to work on their land to ensure that it stays in families for future generations.”

An image of Herbert Hodges working with landowners.

“That’s our main goal,” says Hodges, “to keep the property in the family.” His cousin, Calvin Bell—who calls Hodges a mentor—agrees. The longleaf program, he says, “is a blessing, and an investment in our future.”

The USDA financial assistance—as well as the sale of longleaf straw—are making the farm economically sustainable. But that’s not the only upside. “I see more wildlife now than when I was growing up here,” says Hodges, who enjoys stewarding the creatures now thriving on his land. Recognizing the success of trainings on the Hodges farm, NWF and Longleaf for All plan to replicate this model throughout the Southeast in coming years—a gift to wildlife and future generations of private landowners.

Jacqueline Gray Miller is a birder, writer, business owner and director-at-large on the Alabama Audubon Board.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Loving the Land »
Blog: Dr. Mamie Parker Leads the Way for Women in Conservation »
Building a Blueprint: Longleaf Pine Restoration for Black Landowners in the Southeast »

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