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Professor John Ball ‘The Tree Guy’ travels the state

todayJuly 10, 2024 2

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — There isn’t a day that goes by that Professor John Ball doesn’t get a phone call from someone with questions about their tree.

Ball is undoubtedly the preeminent expert on all things trees in South Dakota.

John Ball loves living in South Dakota, not because of the trees but because of the people.


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“South Dakotans love trees, why? Think of all our communities. We didn’t clear forests to build communities. We planted the trees.” said Ball. “And they do really have a special place in the heart of South Dakotans.”

Not only is he a professor of forestry at SDSU, he is the South Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Forest Health Specialist. Ball covers the entire state of South Dakota, and his expertise is often called upon in other states. Those who have learned from him, like Master Gardener Cami Jacobson of Sioux Falls, can’t say enough about his dedication.

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“He just jumps in the car and drives hours to go look at something and a problem at the drop of a hat all the time. And he’s really been there for us. He’s been through the pine beetle crisis now he’s been through, going through the emerald ash borer crisis, and we just have a wonderful, wonderful resource in him. It’s just crazy,” said Jacobsen.

Jacobsen is right. In June alone, Ball put more than 6,500 miles on his car responding to different situations involving trees. In South Dakota, Ball is “The Tree Guy,” and he’s okay with that. A lot of his time is spent diagnosing.

“I’m going to take a look at your tree, and I have to look and say, why isn’t it doing very well? But the first thing I have to do is talk to you and find out what do you see wrong with the tree, why did you call me? What have you been doing with your tree? You know, sometimes we find out that maybe, and I’ve had this several times already, well, your ash tree is declining. I’m looking at the leaves. They are not coming out quite right. Oh, the lawn looks pretty good. Have you put any herbicide on your lawn? Oh, no, no, no, no, I just use fertilizer. Do you have the bag? Oh, it says right on here do not put under any desired tree because there is an herbicide, well you just killed your tree,” said Ball.

Ball can also spot insect and disease problems, but he warns diagnosing trees takes weeks not hours. He says South Dakota is unique in that it has both eastern forest land and western forest land.

“So I’m in a state where you get to see it all, said Ball. And that means I get to see insects that are common out in Michigan, kind of like Emerald Ash Borer, it started in Michigan in this country. And then I get to go out and work in the Black Hills where you’ve got mountain pine beetle that big epidemic and that came from the west, so South Dakota, you’ve got to be up on everything.”

We couldn’t have a conversation with Professor Ball without getting at least a little advice.For instance, you can use pruning to train a young tree to grow one single trunk in the first ten years of its life.

“On this particular tree here, what you want is one main leader, and here, what we have are four, one, two, three, and four,” said Ball.

Another piece of advice, he believes big jobs should be put in the hands of a trained arborist.

“In a perfect world, you are cutting branches that are maybe the size of your thumb, and then you start cutting them the size of your fist here. That is about as big as you want to do, and that doesn’t really harm the tree,” said Ball.

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With people losing their ash trees, what should they plant instead? Ball warns against planting too many maples he’d like to see more Bur Oaks like this one native to South Dakota.”The nice thing with bur oaks is they are tough they are going to live two hundred years plus.”Speaking of years, Ball isn’t slowing down, just yet.”I’m still doing the job in my 70s, and I love it. It’s a lot of fun. What I like is the variety I can have out working on the trees at the state fair. We were out there felling some trees, working out in the hills working here, but I’ll tell you one of the places you will probably expect to see me after retirement is right here in McCrory Gardens being one of the volunteers, yeah I have a passion for trees I love working with them I love being outside so it’s a perfect combination so my expectation would be if you are out here in ten years interviewing somebody else, the guy walking around pruning the young trees that’s me.

“He is a state treasure,” said Jacobsen. You know his dedication, his work ethic, his brilliant knowledge of the topics. He’s just; you follow him around, and he thoroughly knows the forest. He’s dedicated decades to this state; it’s crazy what he’s given.”

Ball reminds people that we can all help slow the spread of the emerald ash borer by following quarantine rules. That means no firewood should be transported out of Minnehaha, Lincoln, Union Turner, and Brookings Counties.

Written by: The Dam Rock Station

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