Few things bring more peace and pride to Glenn and Scarlett Riley than a walk through the forest on their farm in southeast Henry County.
The couple’s love and dedication to the land — and each other — combined with a desire to share their property to educate others, earned them the title of Alabama’s Tree Farmers of the Year. Their 300+ acre farm is in the Barnes community just south of Abbeville.
“We grew up here, and we were high school sweethearts,” said Glenn, who retired in 1996 after owning several grocery stores in Alabama and Florida. “When we moved away for my career, I never dreamed we’d come back.”
Scarlett’s family owned the farm, a portion of which she inherited. Eventually, the Rileys purchased the rest of the family land, and the couple moved from Daphne back to the home place.
“Our weekend trips here turned into weeklong trips,” Glenn said. “Those turned into monthlong stays, and in 2004, we decided to buy a trailer and live here while we built a house.”
The couple joined the Alabama TREASURE Forest Association and developed a property management plan in 2003. Its rolling hills are dotted with loblolly and longleaf pines. Majestic oaks and other hardwood species fill bottomland woven with winding creeks. Their land is home to wildlife, walking trails, a reflection pool and multiple prayer benches nestled in peaceful settings.
Eleven miles of fire lanes crisscross the land, creating tracks from 10 to 30 acres. Signs mark a roadway system and carry the names of the Rileys’ children, grandchildren and other family descendants. Their farm has open areas for wildlife food plots and a pond stocked with bass and bream. Signposts mark and protect numerous gopher tortoise burrows.
For 12 years, the Rileys have shared their property by hosting Classroom In The Forest field days for nearly 250 Henry County fifth-graders.
“It’s amazing when you see all those buses pull up here,” Scarlett said. “The students are so excited to be in the woods. They’re divided into groups and visit stations set up throughout the woods. They learn about water quality, tree identification, wildlife and some of the products made from wood. Volunteers help us with the stations, and some of our volunteers were once students who came here when they were in school.”
Boy Scout troops and church groups also enjoy trips to the Rileys’ farm.
Continued improvements to their farm takes a lot of time, said Glenn, who usually works about 30 hours a week on the property. The couple works together much of the time and has help from Glenn’s brother, Jerry.
The Rileys hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. As Alabama’s 2016 Tree Farmers Of The Year, they are finalists for the 2017 Southern Tree Farmers Of The Year Award, a preliminary to the National Tree Farmer Of The Year Award that will be announced later this year.
The Tree Farmer Of The Year Award recognizes private landowners who do an exceptional job of forest management and actively promote sustainable forestry. Through the program, individuals are honored as forestry leaders who demonstrate the benefits of good management.
In addition to being a certified Tree Farm and TREASURE Forest, their farm is a designated Stewardship Forest. The Rileys also won the prestigious Helene Mosley TREASURE Forest Award in 2016, which recognizes outstanding TREASURE Forest landowners.
Awards are nice, and sharing their property brings great joy to the couple, who have been married 57 years. But they say a greater calling led them back home to Henry County.
“I think when God gives you something or puts something in your hands, it’s for you to manage the very best that you can,” Scarlett said. “The more I learn about the forest, I realize it’s so much more than just a tree growing. We believe this is what God wants us to do.”