Derek Lepke didn't start out trying to make history. He just likes trees.
When the transplanted Iowan bought his farm just south of Claude in 2010, he knew he wanted to transform the flat, native prairie grassland into a working conservation model with wetlands and habitat restoration. And plenty of trees.
"Anytime you get into the woods, for some of us, it’s magical," Lepke said. "It’s powerful. Whether you’re in the big thick timber or the hardwood timber or you drop off the cap(rock) and you’re down in stands of lacebark elms, there’s just something about it.
"People love trees. They love shade. They love the beauty."
Lepke and his good friend Brian Scott, a staff forester at the Texas A&M Forest Service, got together to strategize a game plan. In Iowa, every home is surrounded by trees that provide wind breaks and shelter belts.
"Who doesn't like a tree-wrapped farm?" Lepke said.
So he and Scott decided to plant six rows of trees along the borders of his house and his barn and, while they were at it, his entire land. It's not easy growing trees in the Texas Panhandle, especially in 2012. The year before, some parts of the area had received less than 8 inches of rain, including only 7.01 inches in Amarillo, according to the national weather service. So the two friends had to pick the right varieties wisely.
They decided on combinations of hackberry trees, burr oaks, lacebark elms, American plums, flame-leaf sumacs, fragrant sumacs, Rocky Mountain junipers, Austrian pines and Eastern red cedars. The best have been the lacebarks, Lepke said. They got some of the trees from a place near Idalou that grows conservation trees and some from the Colorado forest service.
"With that many we had to mix and match," Lepke said.
Now the trees they got were not the trees you see in nurseries. They weren't 3- to 4-caliper-inch trees; that's the distance around the base of a tree's trunk. They were 8 to 12 inches tall, and none were bigger than the diameter of a pencil.
"If you start with smaller trees and do it right, you can catch and pass nursery-bought trees," Scott said. "And they are healthier."
At that young stage of a tree's life, rabbits are a problem. They can nip the top of a tree, so the tree will be bushy but stunted. That's why the rabbits on Lepke's farm were fair game during those early months of the project.
Lepke and Scott recruited Lepke's daughter, Hunter, and son, Hayden, and some hard-working teenagers from Claude to help do the bulk of the work. Hunter was 15 at the time; Hayden, was about 10. That seems young, but you have to remember these are farm kids, "and farm kids know how to work," Lepke said.
It took the six of them six weeks to plant the trees. Lepke said he worked the older boys five days a week for 10 to 11 hours a day. At the end of their shifts, Lepke let the kids swim in one of his ponds.
"It never felt so good to be in a green, fish-filled mossy pond," Hunter said. "It was the best thing ever.”
Lepke said they had to work fast because the trees have to get in the ground within about 72 hours after they arrive on the farm.
"It's not like a bag of seed," he said. "You don't have three weeks."
When the project began, word spread around town about the new farmer's crazy idea.
"Initially, it was kind of a joke," Lepke said. "But what they didn’t know was that since I started planting trees in 2002, I had planted over 50,000 trees in the Texas Panhandle."
He said he has planted trees around dairies, feed yards and homesteads in and around the Dalhart area. While he and his family lived there for 18 years, Lepke farmed, did wildlife habitat and ran a hunting business.
“As you can see, it does work,” he said while looking over this creation.
So what started out as a big project became the "largest conservation tree planting that’s ever been done in the history of the Texas Panhandle. This is the granddaddy of them all, right here,” Lepke said. “That wasn’t my goal, it just happened."
Lepke, Scott and their team planted more than 8,000 trees in the dry, hot summer of 2012.
"It’s hard to believe six years ago they were smaller than pencils, and within six growing seasons now some of the trees I can’t get my hands around," Lepke said. "They’re 12-to-14 feet tall."
The elms have 5-to-6 inch caliper trunks.
So what's the secret?
Hard work. “You can grow trees here, but ... you’ve got to tend to it," Lepke said.
Lots of irrigation. Lepke said his farm has more than 80,000 linear feet of drip tubing. If the tubing is stretched from end to end it would be 13 miles.
"That would put you north of Claude, halfway to Conway,” he said while sitting in his barn that's about eight miles south of Claude.
Heavy-duty weed-barrier fabric. Using the material around the base of the trees keeps the moisture trapped, so the ground remains damp, reducing the amount of watering.
The right equipment and more hard work. They had a GPS on the tractor so the rows are perfectly straight, which makes it handy when it comes to mowing.
Lepke and Scott used a 300-horsepower Ripper to try to loosen the compacted dirt.
“Compaction is the enemy of baby trees,” Lepke said. “If you can put them in a nice fluffy seed bed of loose soil” that will give them a good start to reach their full potential.
Scott said instead of ripping the soil the more traditional depth of 6 to 8 inches, they ripped it 18-20 inches deep.
“The ground was so hard that with a heavy ripper and a 300-horsepower tractor we tore the hitch off the tongue of the ripper," Lepke said. "And it was a big John Deere tractor.
“The cool thing is if you do it properly it just works.”
"Derek’s a professional wind-break installer,” Scott said.
But the trees do more than just block the wind. They add diversity and value to the farm and have improved the family's quality of life.
“He’s taken this section of land, and he’s converted it into just so many different opportunities," Scott said.
Lepke said some farmers who are interested in planting hundreds or thousands of trees can qualify for technical and even financial assistance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service because the department wants to promote good land practices.
"People think that a tree is pretty, but it also creates habitat for wildlife and for people," he said.
A grove of trees creates thermal cover as quail will tuck up under the shrubs. They create a micro-climate, Lepke said, because the moisture that the trees retain will give a home to insects. Those insects then attract the quail, turkeys and pheasants.
“When you add habitat, here comes the wildlife,” Lepke said.
Scott said, "This is a working model of conservation and wildlife-habitat improvement."
“Human-habitat improvement,” Lepke added.
“It’s really neat what he’s done," Scott said. "We’d really like to promote it as much as we can.”
Lepke said, "If you follow these specific procedures, not only will they grow, but they’ll thrive."
But the trees are, obviously, good wind breaks.
"Here we live in the wind capital of the world, and everybody gets blasted by the wind," Lepke said. "They don’t like the wind, and the sun's so hot in the summer. Well change it. People say, 'Yeah it won’t work here.' Well, I would probably argue that a little bit."
It doesn't take 25 years to bear the fruit of a tree-planting project.
"When people come out they ask when is the best time to plant a tree? I say 20 years ago," Lepke said. "Then they say when’s the second best time, and I say tomorrow morning.
"We’re not tree-huggers. We’re tree-planters.”
People don’t impress Lepke by hugging a tree, he said he wants them to get out there and plant one.
“That’s what’s going to make the difference," he said.
Leaving a lasting legacy
“Can you think of a better place to play hide-and-seek than out here at Pop’s farm," said Lepke while watching Hunter hold her 6-month-old baby, Huntlee. "(The grandkids can) play in the trees and eat plums. Climb trees and break your arm and all those things that farm kids need to have the opportunity to do. It’s wonderful, but ultimately you’ve got to give the credit to the Lord. We try to water them the best we can, but God grows 'em.”
In addition to being a good steward of the land and providing a memory-making environment for the next generation, Lepke has another reason he enjoys planting so many trees. His grandfather Harry Lepke was a tree man from central Iowa.
“Nobody’s going to remember me (when I die), and that’s fine," Lepke said. "But 20, 30, 50 years from now people are sure going to know I was here. I’m not saying that to be self-aggrandizing. I'm just saying somebody’s going to drive out here when Huntlee has her first baby and say, 'Wow, Pops did all this.' In Dalhart, somebody will say, 'Somebody put a lot of effort and time into this.'
“It’s kind of a cool way to leave it better than you found it. My grandfather, that’s what he always said. While you might have the privilege of paying the taxes on the land, you never really own it. So leave it better than you found it. I think that’s pretty sage advice.”