As a State Farm insurance agent Johney Haralson is one of the best. As a tree farmer, wildlife manager and old fashioned raconteur, he is competing with the best of the best in the 2007 Southeastern Tree Farmer of the Year competition, and hopefully, National Tree Farmer of the Year.
Haralson grew up in a small town in South Carolina and spent most of his early years either working in the family grocery store/lumber business or following bird dogs. An early morning quail hunt, punctuated by a mid-day stop for a big orange drink, hoop cheese, saltine crackers and Vienna sausage, followed by an afternoon with his favorite bird dogs was how he grew up in Neeses, S.C. Sadly, that is an era gone by for most Southerners.
For Haralson, the old days of quail hunting aren't quite gone. With six bird dogs, a team of mules, a 1942 U.S. Army jeep, some innovative tree farming equipment and a fond remembrance of how things used to be, Haralson has created the perfect blend of trees and wildlife.
“When I finished college and my military commitment, I decided to come home to South Carolina to make my way in the world,” he recalls. Haralson and his wife Roxie started a small State Farm insurance office, and he set out to ply his trade in such communities as Norway, Bamberg, Blackville and Denmark. He and Roxie spent a large part of their life raising two daughters and growing a business.
Working from seven to seven and seven days a week left little time for quail hunting, and the idea of tree farming hadn't even begun to formulate. Over time his business became successful. His daughters Kristen and Kacey grew up and started their own families. Though he never lost his interest in quail hunting, it was sporadic and always on someone else's land.
“One day it came to me, that one thing I missed in life was the smell of the pine rosin that I had grown up with. I guess it's in my blood, but I hadn't taken the time to understand how important trees had been in my life as a young man. At that point, I knew I wanted to be involved in growing trees, and I knew I wanted to always have bird dogs and hunt quail,” he says.
What started out to be a way to restore quail hunting to something like it had been in his youth turned out to be one of the greatest passions of Haralson's life. Working with trees and tree farmers and sharing his knowledge with thousands of people has been among his biggest accomplishments, he says.
Along the way, he was been active in state and national tree farming organizations, acquired a certificate for prescribed forest burning, and has held leadership positions in many professional associations linked to forestry and wildlife.
In 1988, he bought his first farm and planted it in pine trees, leaving 30-foot wide food strips in the middle of every field of pine trees. His motive for leaving the food strips was for wildlife, but when the CRP program came into effect, it was easy for him to take out outside rows of timber and meet the 48-foot stem to stem thinning requirements mandated by the new program.
Now, Haralson owns a little more than 400 acres, all planted in pine trees, and he manages timber rights on over 400 more acres of land. In less than 20 years, Johney Haralson went from tree farming novice to one of the most knowledgeable and passionate tree farmers in the Southeast.
He started out thinking he would preserve quail populations by not allowing any chemicals on his farm. Now, he says, he is a staunch advocate of selective herbicides. He built his own herbicide applicator and does all his own spraying.
He didn't like the way others were using prescribed burning on his farm, so he became certified by the South Carolina Forestry Commission and now does all his own burning. “I am very hands-on with my tree farm,” he says with a grin.
Haralson is one of the founding fathers of the Salkehatchie Forestry Landowners Association, the largest in the state.
He is state chairman of the South Carolina Tree Farm Committee, vice-chair of the Bamberg Soil and Water Conservation District, treasurer of the South Carolina Forestry Association, and is on the National Board of the Forest Landowner Association. He is also chairman of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.
His presentation skills have made him one of the most sought after speakers at state and national forestry, conservation and hunting events.
His involvement includes sponsoring a high school FFA forestry organization that meets regularly at his tree farm. “I believe in being involved and in giving back to the industry I love. These students are the future of our industry, and I am happy I can provide a place for them to learn more about forestry,” Haralson says.
As part of giving back, Haralson's family recently established a scholarship at Clemson University. The scholarship provides tuition money with first priority going to a student from the greater Bamberg area.
“My profession is providing insurance and financial services to my clients, my passion is growing trees and a side benefit is being able to hunt quail, much as I did in my youth,” Haralson says.
Mostly self taught, Haralson can identify every species of tree, weed, and flower in the forest and has become a much sought after expert on controlled burning. He hires a forester to cruise his timber, but in reality he could make a good living doing that for other people.
His tree farm and his knowledge have become a classroom for thousands of tourists, invited hunters, students and civic club members who visit his farm on a regular basis.
Haralson spends much of his free time looking at his trees and the trees he manages in a vintage 1942 model U.S. Army issue Jeep. His other popular mode of transportation is a mule-drawn, custom-built hunting wagon that he says will one day take him on his last tour of his beloved farm after he's dead and before he's buried.
Growing trees is a passion matched only by his goal of restoring quail hunting to something close to an era he knew growing up in rural South Carolina. Quail hunting with Johney Haralson would be right up there with playing the blues with B.B. King.
“Making quail hunting as close to wild bird hunting, the way it was when I was growing up, has always been a goal of mine with the tree farm. I buy very young birds and put them in a flight pen. From the flight pen these birds go into 3X5-foot Johnny houses from which they are released for hunting. Plus, I release some birds into coveys over the hunting season,” he says.
“We harvest about 40 percent of the birds we release and call back another 40-45 percent of the birds. “These birds are never touched by human hands, and I think that makes a difference. I win a few bets with shooters who think they are coming here to shoot slow moving tame birds. These birds are the real deal, and they fly very much like the wild birds I used to hunt as a boy,” he adds.
Every tree farm is criss-crossed with food plots for wildlife. Each of these plots is bush-hogged, disked, chisel plowed and planted with one of the world's more innovative planters. The rig includes a vintage grain drill and bed springs used much like a modern day culti-packer.
Each of the food plots is planted in June with a five-way mixture of brown-top, pearl, benny and proso millet, plus sesame. In addition, the tree farm has over 30,000 sprigs of bicolor lespedeza, an annual plant that has long-been the staple quail feed in the Southeast.
Haralson took a run-down barn and converted it into a bird pen, complete with flight pen. He can keep up to 400 birds in the bird barn and can run the birds into catch pens and on to the onsite Johnny houses without ever touching the birds.
Near the quail barn is a huge oak tree. Under the oak tree is a cemetery for all the bird dogs who have hunted the farm since 1988. After every quail shoot, the hunters are required to stop by and pay homage to the dogs. Spent shells are placed in the cemetery as a tribute to the dogs that make the hunts so enjoyable.
An autumn quail hunt on the Haralson farm is a true Southern event. Hunters atop a custom-built cypress hunting wagon, pulled by a team of mules, get to watch the bird dogs work and enjoy the splendor of the Southern forest. As a bonus they get to shoot a few quail and to listen to one of South Carolina's premier story tellers.
Though quail hunting brings big money to hunting preserves scattered around the Southeast, money can't buy a hunting trip with Johney Haralson.
“When we first got started with our quail hunting preserve, I went to some of the top hunting preserves, paid for the hunts, just to see how they do things. We don't do it for money, we host hunts for family and friends and for the pure enjoyment of it,” Haralson states.
If he wins the Southeastern Tree Farmer of the Year Award and goes on to compete for the National title, it would be a great opportunity to share with other family forestry landowners the sustainable forestry story.