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Area tree farmer earns national recognition

East Otter Tail was logged in the 1880s, which means the oldest trees in the entire area are about 120 years old. They were youngsters when the mature timber was taken. And it was these parcels of cleared land where families carved out small family farms throughout the countryside. Bob Sonnenberg's stewardship plan calls for management of the existing timber-stands, as well as reforestation of marginal agriculture acreage.1 / 2
Bob Sonnenberg, in his sawmill.2 / 2

As woodsmen, sawyers and lumberjacks go, Bob Sonnenberg doesn't fit the mold.

He cuts trees, plants trees, saws lumber, splits wood, stacks logs and wears a mustache; but when it comes to tree farming, Newton Township's best-known woodsman spends just about as much time with a computer as he does with a Swede saw.

"I take an engineering analysis approach to tree farming," said Sonnenberg, who was recently honored as North Central Region National Tree Farmer of the Year. That places him among the top four in the entire nation-believed to be the highest honor a Minnesota tree farmer has ever attained. Sonnenberg will represent nearly a dozen Midwestern states as a tree farming ambassador.

Paul Bunyan would be scratching his head over this odd forest colleague with his fancy electronics, radio engineering degree and methodical forest management practices.

You won't find a blue ox on Sonnenberg's 550 acre spread a few miles northwest of New York Mills; Sonnenberg draws his horsepower from Komatsu and John Deere.

He is probably the only woodsman with a bonified mission statement: To take an old dairy operation, split it between two components-crops and trees-and make them both viable economic activities.

Instead of a shed full of logging camp whiskey; Sonnenberg's spirits are tapped from a handcrafted wine cellar-oak harvested from his tree farm. In the cellar are ornate bottles, labeled with peculiar names that even a French-Canadian Voyageur would have difficulty pronouncing.

The joke around the Bob and Ingrid Sonnenberg household is that his distinguished forestry honor was won by bribery. A bottle of Bordeaux was uncorked for a visiting New Jersey tree farm judge. By the time the session concluded, the flush-faced judge would have gleefully appointed Sonnenberg U.S. Secretary of the Interior and crowned him Lord of Sherwood Forest.

Engineering nuclear weapons to tree farming

Sonnenberg's professional career was a sharp contrast from the retirement 'career' he chose on the family farm. Sonnenberg is a retired nuclear weapons engineer-but his roots are deep in East Otter Tail farm country

There were seven kids and "no money," recalled Sonnenberg of the family's hardscrabble existence.

"That was the norm for a little dairy farm at the time, 160 acres," said Sonnenberg. His parents, Edward and Ethel (Johnson) were tenant farmers in Corliss Township north of Perham when they first settled in East Otter Tail County. The Sonnenbergs acquired the land in Newton Township when Bob was young. The family moved to the predominately Finnish settlement community in and around New York Mills.

His parents lived on the home place until they passed away; Edward in 1985, and Ethel in 1990.

After 50 years away from the family farm, Bob returned in 1991 and started to make improvements. The farm was worn out by overgrazing and poor land management.

"I bought the remaining legacy of the Sonnenberg farm in 1959," said Bob, who left the Mills area in 1946; served in the Air Corps, and went on to earn his engineering degree in Chicago.

As an engineer, Sonnenberg designed nuclear weapon detonators. The end result of his work is displayed in the "bunkhouse" and office he built outback-with photos of mushroom clouds from New Mexico nuclear testing sites.

20 years of forest management

"I moved up here in 1991. Now I've been at this forestry business for 20 years," said Sonnenberg. "I love the trees, I love Minnesota, and I'm having the time of my life...It amazes and flabbergasts me that I keep winning these awards."

Sonnenberg speculates he received the recent honor based on the fact that the work is performed entirely by he and Ingrid.

Many winners have been, for lack of a better description, "gentleman" woodsman with 3,000 acre tree plantations-often in the deep south. Much of the work on those farms is performed by hired hands.

"Bob is unique because he is a smaller private landowner-but he thinks on a state and even national level with regard to land stewardship," said Kathleen Preece, coordinator of the Minnesota Forest Resources Partnership.

Since 1998, Sonnenberg has planted more than 80,000 trees. He has harvested and sawn over 600,000 board feet from his and his neighbors' lands of white pine and oak trees. Sonnenberg cuts and splits over 175 cords per year. Over the last 15 years he has produced about 2,600 cords of firewood, He also operates a sawmill on site, as evidenced by numerous pallets of rough-cut lumber.

By purchasing contiguous land, the operation has expanded to 550 acres. He is a tree farmer, not a crop farmer. But his management plan is one of diversification, so he rents the cleared acreage to neighboring farmers, who plant grains and alfalfa.

Harvested wood is by-product

Though he produces firewood and lumber, he views that activity as strictly a by-product of his primary objective. He describes the Sonnenberg tree farm as something of an experiment; a demonstration site: that proves to smaller landowners that they can also have sustainable forest operations.

"If you can't show others that there is a potential dollar return, along with the land stewardship component, they won't be successful," said Sonnenberg. He acknowledges that his own operation would not generate enough revenue to make a living, but he is demonstrating to other landowners that such an operation has the potential to pay for itself.

"My product, so to speak, is sustainable forestry," said Sonnenberg. "People tell me I'm crazy to work like days a week, year-round. But I'm trying to learn something new all the time."

Continuing education, involvement in forestry groups has been crucial for Sonnenberg

New York Mills area tree farmer Bob Sonnenberg's first Forest Stewardship plan was done in 1996 from Department of Natural Resources - Forestry.

Bob was made a Tree Farmer in 2002 by DNR forester Dave Johnson.

With a plan in hand, Sonnenberg began to plant his marginal fields into trees.

Sonnenberg has a myriad of interests: he and his neighbor have started a white pine nursery, and he works with the University of Minnesota on hybrid aspen clones. His penchant for engineering has resulted in some interesting 'tools' of the forestry trade; he has designed a variety of machinery for timber stand improvement activities.

In 2002 Sonnenberg took his first classes as a woodland advisor. He completed it and became the local expert. His neighbors look to him for help in managing their woodlands. He joined the Minnesota Forestry Association in 2000 and has served as its co-treasurer.

"He has a keen sense for managing forestry land for the greater good. He has great foresight for what should and could be done, both on the ground and in terms of pubic policy," said Kathleen Preece, coordinator of the Minnesota Forest Resources Partnership.

Sonnenberg served as chairperson of the state forest partnership in 2008-09, and he was the first private landowner to ever serve in that capacity, said Preece, adding that prior officers have been primarily government forestry officials.

This group represents the counties, state, federal, tribal, industry and private forest owners throughout Minnesota.