For Immediate Release

March 20, 2023

The Plains, OH Rural Action, Ohio University, University of Kentucky, Sugarbush Valley Farm, and the White Oak Genetics and Tree Improvement Program (WOGTIP) launched an effort to support selective breeding of thriving and resilient white oak trees in Athens County, Ohio. The partnership was made possible by a generous donation from Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Inc. (SBCI) to fund graduate student research at Ohio University that supports sustainable forestry and regional economic diversity.

White oak trees (Quercus alba) are hardwoods native to North America. The white oak is most commonly used to produce bourbon and wine barrels and high quality lumber. The species is critically important as food and habitat to more than 1,000 animal species in the forest.

Daniel Balser, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, shared that “in Ohio, harvests now exceed growth for white oak. Mortality is also relatively high and natural regeneration is insufficient to maintain a significant proportion of white oak in our future forest.”

Debbie Phillips, CEO of Rural Action, added, “We are excited to partner on this important research, and are grateful to Speyside for their financial support and their commitment to sustainable forestry, and to both Ohio University and the University of Kentucky for their partnership.”

“Our family has been stewarding this land since 1972,” said Hylie Voss, of Sugar Bush Farm. “We believe in sustainable farming and forestry, and are so pleased to provide a location for this project, which aligns strongly with our vision for our own farm and for the region.”

Badger Johnson, agroforestry manager at Rural Action, explains, “We already wanted to reforest some former pine plantations that had been harvested at Sugar Bush Farm, but we were unable to source white oak seedlings. It turns out there is a national shortage! We reached out to Dr. Laura DeWald of WOGTIP to collaborate on solving the problem.”

Dr. DeWald is evaluating fast-growing native white oaks across the eastern United States. White oak tree populations have declined in Gulf Coast states due to climate change. A citizen science brigade of acorn collectors ships Dr. DeWald acorns from the best white oak trees for selective breeding research at the University of Kentucky. The Kentucky Division of Forestry grows seedlings with select acorns. The seedlings are planted in “progeny tests,” which serve as test plantings.

Which acorns will grow fastest in Athens County? The selected acorns are genetic descendants of the champion white oaks of the eastern United States. Researcher Eliana Balit will determine which white oak descendants are most suited for the region thanks to the support of SBCI. Dr. Sarah Davis of the Davis Research Group at Ohio University is Balit’s research advisor. “We are thrilled to engage in research evaluating physiological differences among white oak seed sources” said Dr. Davis.

Balit and a group of volunteers will plant the progeny test on Wednesday, March 22, 2023 starting at 8:30am. Volunteers interested in planting white oak seedlings can contact to sign up.

Rural Action is a regional community development organization with a 32-county footprint working with members and community leaders on a range of quality of life, environmental, and economic projects across rural Appalachian Ohio. Its mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways. Learn more about Rural Action at


Badger Johnson
Agroforestry Manager