When envisioning the future of his 170-acre historic family farm in Concord, Virginia, Hokie Athletic Director Whit Babcock knew just where to turn for expertise: Virginia Tech forestry students.

Three seniors in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) are spending their final semester creating a forest management plan for Babcock’s farm as part of their culminating experience — a capstone course called Integrated Forest Management Practicum. The course is a hands-on final test of skills developed throughout four years in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

“I’m beyond excited to have the opportunity to partner with Whit Babcock for the capstone project,” said Hunter Varner, a senior from Stanley, Virginia, who has a job with Dominion Energy as a distribution forester after graduation. “It’s surreal to work with such a well-known figure within the Virginia Tech community.”

The partnership formed over the course of a casual discussion between Babcock and CNRE Dean Paul M. Winistorfer. After Babcock mentioned that he had recently inherited the fourth-generation family farm, Winistorfer volunteered the forestry capstone students to provide professional consultation.

“I think it’s wonderful. It makes me proud,” Babcock said. “It means more to have Virginia Tech involved. This is my school, and hopefully it’s giving the students some real-world experience.”

The land holds a special place in Babcock’s heart. It’s been in the family ever since his great-great-grandparents built a farmhouse and sawmill there in the 1880s. He has fond memories of hunting and fishing there as a child, as well as seeing generations of pine forests planted and harvested — including one stand that paid for his college education.

Babcock hopes the students will help him “gain a better understanding” of the property, “to preserve it as a place to go, to work the land, and have it to pass on to my kids one day.” He also said,  “I hope the students get something out of it, too.”

The capstone students gain the invaluable experience of working with real-life “clients” to synthesize four years of learning into a professional forest management plan, said Scott Barrett, associate professor and extension specialist, who leads the class.

“Many of the students will go on to work as professional foresters, and many foresters will write management plans as part of their job,” he said. “This helps the students prepare for future careers while integrating the skills they have learned in their other discipline courses.”

In addition to the three-person team at Babcock’s property, groups of students perform similar capstone projects on national forest property near Blacksburg, for a private landowner in Catawba, and on the Reynolds Homestead, an outreach campus center of Virginia Tech in Critz, Virginia, that features a Community Engagement Center and a Forestry Research Center.

“This capstone aligns with our commitment to experiential learning and as a land-grant institution serving the commonwealth,” said Winistorfer. “Students are bringing skills forward, developing a management plan around the needs of the landowner, and working with an external client that raises the bar on their communication and professionalism.”

Babcock’s partnership with the students kicked off during a February Zoom meeting, where he outlined objectives for the property including promoting wildlife habitats, developing a timeline for growing and selling timber, and preserving keystone hardwood species such as oak. He also asked the students to explore suitable locations for building a possible future retirement home.

Two students hold the ends of a measuring tape stretched between them.
Forestry capstone students conducted a detailed field inventory of stands of trees on the Babcock property. Photo by Scott Barrett for Virginia Tech.

The student team has spent the past weeks documenting all 170 acres by dividing the property into “stands” — areas of similar tree species and age — and conducting a detailed field inventory of each stand.

“We collect data including tree species, height, diameter, age, hydrologic features, and site quality index, to name a few,” said Mitchell Parvin, a senior from Floyd County, Virginia, who will work at Weyerhaeuser in Georgia after graduation. “We then input the information into data tables and growth modeling software. This allows us to analyze the data and make an informed plan to manage forest resources now and in the future.”

In May, the teams will present their management plans to the landowners, classmates, and other faculty in the department, along with a written plan.

“This experience has been a valuable exercise in professionalism and application,” said Ben Stauffer, a senior from Catonsville, Maryland, who will practice arboriculture at Bartlett Tree Experts after graduation. “I’ve enjoyed using my knowledge to help a forest landowner achieve their goals and sustainably manage forested land.”

He added, “Getting to roam the woods with a couple friends to put together a final project has also been fun.”

Written by Marya Barlow

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