Time Spent in the Woods as a Child Helps Shape Delaware Timber Buyer & Landowner
Glenn Rosenholm, U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry
It may come as no surprise to some readers that Douglas Simpson of Bridgeville, DE, said that his early childhood experiences of playing in the woods helped to shape his career and lifestyle.
Simpson, age 60, is a long-time timber buyer for Johnson Lumber in eastern Maryland. He is also a major forest landowner in neighboring Delaware.
He described his work routine at the lumber mill, including how he goes about buying timber.
“I keep the inventory flowing to the mill,” he said. “I handle all of the inquiries into timber. We also get referrals and have long-time customers. I review the jobs and work with the forester at the mill. We go over any endangered species issues [on a seller’s land], and our forester will do the ‘cruises’, which involve going to the site and evaluating the timber for size, diameter, height, grade, species, etc.”
The forester at their lumber mill then sends a copy of the report to Simpson and to the mill owner. “At that point I meet with the mill owner and review any unusual site conditions,” Simpson added. “The mill owner sets the price and then I negotiate with the seller. I’m responsible for the timber procurement, delivery, and logging management.”
Simpson has been working in the woods – and handling wood in some way – for nearly his entire life. He said he was raised in a rural community, and his own family’s land bordered a large forest.
“I grew up rural, adjacent to a large industrial forest owned by a paper company. That was my playground. Growing up in that environment absolutely impacted my life decisions. There were 700-1,000 acres of industrial forest land that I used to play in as a kid.”
He added, “I remember when they came to timber that property and the loggers cut trees when I was 9 or 10 years old. I remember that they came in and logged it, and then they came back later and replanted the trees. I realized it was all one big cycle.”
Eventually, his childhood play turned into adult work, though he never left the woods completely.
He remembered a time when he was 15 years old living near Bridgeville. “When I was a kid, my neighbor was a logger and his son and I were buddies,” he said. “The father told me I would have to get a new fishing buddy because his son would be working with him in the woods that summer. So I went into the woods with them, working. I was ‘limbing’ the timber and cutting off the tops.”
Simpson said he first went to work full time for Johnson Lumber in 1982, adding, “I’ve worked for three generations in the owner’s family.”
Interestingly, he did not need a college degree to prepare him for his job as a timber buyer. Instead, he learned about the field mostly through on-the-job training and experience. He also had the help of a like-minded person in a similar field.
“I met a forester in 1977-1978 and I was fascinated by his job in the industry,” he said. “I bought my own library of forestry books and I studied them. [Today] I work hand in hand with the forester at my job and I understand all of the principles.”
After work, people can often find Simpson in his own forest in Sussex County, in the lower end of Delaware. He lives on the land with his wife, Stephanie. They’ve been married for 6 years. He has two adult daughters from a previous marriage.
Simpson made his first land purchase in 1985. “I bought 40 acres initially and added to it from there,” he said.
All told, today he owns around 800 acres of land in two farms. About 20 acres would include his roads, home, and wildlife food plots. “The rest is forested,” he said. “One of them [parcels] is my primary residence and has approximately 700 acres. The other parcel has a little over 100 acres.”
He said his reasons for buying the land were based on his personal goals of retirement security, practicing timber management, forestry, and building a family legacy.
“It’s very important for me to be a good steward for the next generation,” he added. “It’s an obligation. If you own land, it’s an obligation to take care of it. It’s important to me to know that I’m leaving the land in good condition for the next generation.”
He also works his forest land. “We manage for wetland habitat restoration for an area that was once drained by agricultural ditches. In the 1800s deed, the area was referred to as Big Belly Swamp. This area has red maple, swamp white oak, and black gum.” He added, “The wetlands are for wildlife and timber management.” They also have loblolly pine plantations and hardwood management areas on the property.
In earlier years he developed a Forest Stewardship plan. “The goals were forest management, wildlife habitat, and soil and water protection and recreation,” he said. “I started that in the early 1980s. It is never complete. It’s always ongoing. My plans are written out generally for 50 years. The timber business is a long-term venture. It’s generally more than one generation.”
His current forest management goals include recreation, timber investment, and wildlife, though not in that particular order, per se.
“It’s an ongoing process; there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “We planted loblolly pine or managed what was here,” he said of the forest land.
He is also enrolled in Forestland Preservation and Aglands Preservation, two related programs administered by the State of Delaware.
Describing his feelings toward his land, he said, “It’s part of me. There were several reasons why I bought it: security for retirement, long-term financial security, and to provide a family legacy. I love being in the trees, being in the forest, and taking care of it.”
“I’m also a hunter,” he added. “To have a place to have time with my family and friends is important to me. I hunt white-tailed deer and turkeys, mostly. We practice QDM, or Quality Deer Management. It’s managing the size of the deer herd to the carrying capacity of the land and letting the bucks mature to an older age.”
Building His Business
One of his favorite improvements to his land in recent years was the saw mill that he built. Now he is finishing the construction of a wood shop for milling his plank wood into different products.
“I’ve always been involved with timber procurement. It was a simple thing for me to become involved in acquiring logs for my own mill. My mill is up and operational. The shop is getting close to completion. I’m building and working on a hobby mill that I, my grandson, and my son-in-law can use. We’ll use the shop for making flooring, paneling, and finished lumber.”
“I have been milling some wood for the last year. It’s more of a retirement hobby than a capital venture. My accountant doesn’t think so, though. If you asked my accountant, he would say I’ve made some money back from my considerable investment, but not much. It will take me years to recover my total investment,” he said.
Simpson said it was an easy move from his role as a timber buyer to his side business of buying, selling, and milling wood.
His goal in starting his business was to make needed things using the natural beauty of wood. “It’s a natural thing being around timber. All of the uses of the wood, they go hand in hand,” he added.
“The primary focus of my business will be to buy and get unusual products for my customers that they can’t get from other conventional building supply warehouses. My prices are also very reasonable compared to them. We sell walnut, cherry, sassafras, cypress, eastern red cedar, sycamore, holly, persimmon, and other types of wood. I’m not in competition for my day job with these types of woods. They don’t want them anyway. It’s a niche market. They’ll refer customers to me for specialty items.”
His goal “is going to be more about having more time in retirement,” he added. “I don’t want a retirement business that requires me to be there every day all the time. But I also want to have a reason to get up in the morning and go to work. I love the beauty of wood. The grain of lumber brings joy to me. It’s almost an art form you can say.”
Concerning his efforts to market his mill products, he said, “It’s all been word of mouth. I haven’t done any advertising. Everyone has come to me by word of mouth. I really don’t want to be a large business; I want it to remain a hobby.”
He said his grandson and son-in-law share his passion for milling wood. “It’s as much of a reason for it [having the mill] as anything. They both love the mill. I set up a family trust to make sure that it stays in the family for generations to come.”
“It’s great having a grandson and son-in-law who are so interested in the operation,” he added. “I didn’t have any sons, so my son-in-law is like a son to me. They share the same affection for milling the wood as I do. They marvel at the beauty in the wood when they mill the logs.”
Timber management, wildlife management, and leaving the land as a family legacy are his long-term goals today, he said.
“Interestingly enough, I have two daughters. One of them has no passion for owning the land. The other one has a deep passion for the land, and it is her son, my grandson, who I mentioned earlier that shares her same passion for the land. I’ve been very blessed in being able to create two family trusts, one with the tree farms and the other with investment property. My oldest daughter will inherit the tree farms. My youngest daughter will inherit the residential and commercial properties.”
Simpson was named the Delaware 2018 Tree Farmer of the Year.
All photos courtesy of Karen Sykes, U.S. Forest Service, unless otherwise indicated.