On both sides of a narrow dirt road leading into Briery Creek Forest Farm, sunlight filtered through the branches of loblolly pines to make a patchwork of light and shadows on leafy shrubs and grasses.

What’s missing, Chris Fields-Johnson pointed out while leading the way through the property he manages, is the woody understory that would be typical for 300 acres in this corner of Fluvanna County, VA, were it not under the care of his Piedmont Earthworks.

The absence of young trees and unkempt brush is intentional. It’s the result of painstaking care and the intervention of chainsaws, herbivores and fires — an intervention that is more common on a farmed piece of land than in a forest.

But Fields-Johnson, 34, a trained forester and arborist, is trying to transform this forest into something less “natural.” But perhaps better.

He, and his wife, Laura Nichols, a program coordinator at the Virginia Department of Forestry, have been leasing and manicuring this land for the last decade. They are among a small but growing breed of land managers who see agroforestry, or growing trees, crops and animals with intentional integration, as an opportunity to transform landscapes and boost their economic and environmental benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service in Virginia gave a nod to practices that manage livestock and trees together, a type of agroforestry called silvopasture, by providing the first cost-share dollars for the practice to a farmer’s tree-growing project in the Shenandoah Valley a couple of years ago.

Fields-Johnson also got a three-year NRCS grant through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program that helps improve forests or implement conservation practices on agricultural lands. But he won’t be seeking conservation easements as a source of revenue for the property, not even for the thick riparian buffers that line its streams and ponds.

“I’m definitely in the proof-of-concept phase,” he said during a walk through the property, which is in varying stages of transition to the type of forest he envisions. He doesn’t want a conservation contract to limit his options as he tries different methods, especially because his vision is to create a re-imagined forest, the likes of which this property — and this part of Virginia — has probably never seen.

A functional forest

“Imagine a tall-grass prairie under huge, cathedral-like pine trees,” Fields-Johnson said, likening the image to the longleaf pine savannas of the South.

Though there is a grove of native white pines on the property, the loblolly pines that represent most of its forest were originally planted here for harvesting. They are native to the Coastal Plain and grow quickly to provide fodder for a timber business. But Fields-Johnson wants to help them thrive as part of a land management approach that — rather than pining for an earlier, pre-settlement time period — asks, “What’s here now and how can I improve it?”

“Climate change is real and it’s happening now, so we’re going to have to be flexible, observing what species are successful here and helping them along while trying to preserve diversity,” Fields-Johnson said.

“I can’t be too nostalgic about the past and say, ‘Oh, well in 1700 this was the forest composition so this is what we need.’”

That said, Fields-Johnson certainly has a vision that he shares with the property’s owners, in his role as the architect of the landscape to enact mental blueprints for its future. To that end, he’s been pulling back layers of the forest to rebuild it in a way that promotes diversity, wildlife and the economics of a functional forest.

“This is a forester’s playground,” he said over the phone one evening as he moved electric fencing to shuttle his sheep toward a new section of the forest, as he does most weeknights. “I’m getting to live my dream.”

Fields-Johnson met his wife in a soil taxonomy class during graduate school at Virginia Tech University. They bought a house about a mile from the property to make his twice-daily stops to check on the animals, move fences and trim trees less of a haul.

Along with his mother and a mix of friends and farm interns, the couple spends at least one weekend a month camping out after a long day’s work at the property.

The owner, Dr. Robert Vaughan, was Fields-Johnson’s family doctor when he grew up in Richmond, and one of the doctor’s daughters was in Fields-Johnson’s classes at forestry school at Tech.

After brainstorming with the family’s ideas to improve the ecosystem of the loblolly pine plantation that’s been in the Vaughan family since the 1960s, Fields-Johnson was tapped to put a plan into action (all while working a full-time job at Bartlett Tree Experts in Charlottesville and pursuing a doctorate in soil science).

Heavy lifting

His agricultural lease with the Vaughans entails paying the land taxes and implementing a long-term management plan that’s updated periodically. Fields-Johnson’s biggest investment is sweat equity, and he’d like to eventually purchase the property about which he’s become so passionate. If he didn’t know before how much time it would take to slowly transform a 300-acre forest, he does now.

Saturdays are when Fields-Johnson does the heavy lifting of forest management. He checks on the roaming chickens, moves electric fencing and fires up chainsaws to cut branches that the grazing sheep can’t reach. Not only does this provide more forage for the animals but also removes “ladder fuels” that would botch a controlled burn in the winter, sending a fire meant for the forest floor up the trees’ trunks and into their canopies.

In a managed forest such as this, prescribed burns mimic the conditions that would historically maintain the grassy floors of pine plantations. These periodic fires help recycle nutrients into the soil, and prevent catastrophic wildfires that could take out forests or nearby homes.

The Nature Conservancy uses controlled burns and other management techniques to maintain a similar loblolly landscape at Virginia’s Piney Grove Preserve in Sussex County. That 3,200-acre preserve is home to the state’s last breeding population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the northernmost population of the bird that once sprawled throughout the Southeast and into New Jersey. Its decline has been tied to the loss of old-growth pine habitat, due in large part to modern fire control methods.

While encouraging a certain type of forest more than a particular species inspires Fields-Johnson’s goals at the property, he employs similar forestry methods to that end.

“Here you can see unmanaged forest, what it was like before we came out here,” he said pointing to his neighbor’s lot while standing in a patch of forest a few years into its methodical transformation.

The neighbor’s lot looked like a typical Virginia loblolly plantation, with a dense mix of shade-tolerant maples and poplars in the understory. On Fields-Johnson’s side of the forest, neat rows of the planted loblollies made room for little more than a few select juvenile hardwoods, some understory brush and a blanket of leaves and needles below the canopy overhead.

Another portion of the managed forest showed even more progression toward the goal. Over the course of 10 years, this section of the forest had been commercially thinned of certain hardwoods, then burned three times with the animals grazing through it in between.

“We are slowly getting to that pine savanna structure here,” he said, noting the power of burning to speed the process along.

“One of the central ideas here is that we’re trying to pull together a lot of different things on one piece of land.”

New forest

And each of those is edging the forest closer to a new composition — and toward economic viability. The timber that’s cleared, for example, is sold, with a portion of the money going to Fields-Johnson.

The goats and sheep (and chickens, to a lesser degree) provide mowing and thinning in exchange for little more than what they consume from the landscape until the winter months when commercial food augments their meals. Still, “the first time you buy a goat, your life changes. It’s kind of like having a kid,” Fields-Johnson said. “You’re always thinking about what they need, when to move them, whether they have enough water.”

Fields-Johnson also invested in two Great Pyrenees dogs to protect the flock from predators. The dogs require about 20 pounds of food a week and provide puppies that the farm sells.

The sheep and goats are sold as meat and breeding stock to bring in revenue, and Fields-Johnson would like to add a dairy operation in the future. Other revenue streams include hunting leases, mainly for white-tailed deer and turkeys, and the EQIP grant, which provides about $1,800 a year.

Fields-Johnson also ran a survival school camp in the summers but has turned over the reins to his protégés.

These creative land uses both reflect and influence the type of landscape the loblolly plantation is becoming.

Fields-Johnson said there aren’t many records of what this section of the Piedmont looked like historically, but a few indicate open pine savannas maintained by Native Americans were mixed in with other forest structures. He wants to curate that diversity here, too. Though his focus — and greatest challenge — is on fostering capacious savannas on the property’s uplands, he is making room for meadows and dense hardwoods on the slopes. He’s picky about the trees he’ll let coexist with the loblollies, but also wants diversity.

“I don’t want it to be 100 percent loblolly pine,” he said walking through the emerging forest. “Like that white oak there, I’ll leave it. But a lot of the little poplars and cherries, they’re not going to be part of the final forest. We’ll cut them, they’ll keep re-sprouting, and eventually they’ll go into decline from repeated grazing.”

Fields-Johnson also allows beavers to dam up small streams to create wetlands and change the waterways as they see fit. And he’s keeping an eye out for the new ecosystem that’s emerging.

He’s conducting a few experiments to compare plots of the forest, concentrating animals rather than fires in some sections to see if their “hoof action” can stomp out woody competition for the pine trees as they provide fertilizer for more favored growth. The burning that does take place gets safer every time as unwanted fuels are removed and the landscape settles into a familiar cadence.

Already, opening up the forest, lowering the browse line and burning to diversify the forest floor has delivered wildlife dividends.

“Deer, fox, raccoon, wild turkey — and I’ve heard the quail moving back in,” Fields-Johnson said. “I can’t even count the number of songbirds that have moved in. It’s like a symphony.”

Leslie Middleton contributed to this story.