Meet the Parkers
FLORIDA LANDOWNER AND RETIRED DENTIST MICKEY PARKER HAS ESTABLISHED A LONGLEAF ECOSYSTEM HE HOPES WILL HELP RESTORE THE SOUTHEAST’S NATIVE PINE.
This story was first published in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Forest Landowner Magazine and written by Pete Williams, editor.
Mickey Parker is talking over the hum of his Kubota X1140 utility vehicle as we navigate his 350 acres of forestland in Florida’s Escambia
County, known as Boggy Creek Preserve, just 45 miles north of Pensacola, not far from the Alabama border.
The chatty 73-year-old speaks in the calm, reassuring tones one might expect of the dentist he was for more than four decades.
He planned to still be working on teeth part-time, but the pandemic gave him the excuse to jump-start his retirement and
focus on his passion for longleaf pine.
Some forest landowners like longleaf pine, or at least the idea of restoring some of the Southeast’s native tree, even if
the slower-establishing, higher-maintenance, endangered-species-attracting, wild-hog catnip presents greater challenges
than loblolly. Parker, though, is all-in on longleaf. He’s a board member of The Longleaf Alliance and a part-time longleaf
seedling salesman for Meeks Farm and Nursery. He has planted half of the property he’s owned for more than two decades in
longleaf and will do the same with any remaining loblolly he harvests.
Parker and his wife Stephanie built a beautiful 500-square foot “tiny house” Florida cracker cabin on the property, mostly
out of longleaf. The bumper stickers on his Ford F250 attest to his longleaf endeavors, as does his email address, which starts
with Longleaf Mickey.
Parker grew up in a semi-rural area outside Pensacola on a piece of his grandparents’ land that included a stand of old-growth
longleaf. As a kid, he spent time in the woods getting to know the fox squirrel, quail, and gopher tortoise. A childhood
friend’s father and uncles owned the Estes Timber Co., one of several families Parker knew whose land holdings dated back to
the days of turpentining.
Parker majored in biology with an emphasis on ecology at the University of West Florida, further fueling his interest in
ecosystems and wildlife. He tabled that enthusiasm as a career pursuit, and instead attended dental school at the University
of Louisville, where he signed up for the Navy Reserve, later serving a two-year full-time stint that ended on July 4, 1976. “I
celebrated my independence and our nation’s bicentennial on the same day,” he says.
Having grown up in Pensacola, still a small, mostly military community in the 1970s, Parker had a built-in customer
base for his dental practice. It seemed he was connected to every patient, some of whom would talk like they’d known him
forever. “In the early days, I’d look at my patient list and call my mom to ask, ‘how do we know them again?’” Parker says.
Stephanie Parker, a career dental hygienist who worked for several previous practices, marveled at the amount of time
Mickey spent with patients, asking about their lives. He loved talking to people, even if dentist-patient conversations in the
chair are inherently one-sided. Parker’s staff did gently remind him occasionally that patients might not be that interested in
forestry and longleaf pine.
Parker says he had the luxury of graduating dental school without the massive student loans common today that force dentists
to move clients in and out quickly. “Some have to work the way they do to cover the debt,” Parker said. “Everyone has their
own style, but I’ve always enjoyed talking to people, especially since so many patients were family and friends.”
Late in 2015, Parker sold his practice and planned to ease into retirement, working a day or two a week to help with the
new dentist’s transition. Then the pandemic closed the office for several months and he and Stephanie spent more time at their
tiny cabin at Boggy Creek Preserve, something they never had considered “social distancing” before.
“The more I got away the more I liked being away,” Parker said on a hot morning in late June, noting that hosting a Forest
Landowner magazine editor on a Tuesday would have been impossible for many years. “But I do miss the people.”
The cabin is a testament to the efficient use of space.
Parker wanted a genuine Florida cracker cottage and gave some sketches he made to an architect friend. The exterior siding is
cypress harvested from the swamps of north Florida. The interior walls are all longleaf and the home is furnished with antiques
and hand-made furnishings. There’s even an antique clawfoot bathtub on the front porch that Stephanie will soak in.
One wall in the living area is decorated with forestry signs Parker has picked up at silent auctions at forestry conferences.
The cabin features a cozy bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen all working off a generator.The couple uses a jetpack for the internet, even streaming
movies and television shows on occasion, though video entertainment is a low priority out in the woods.
The Parkers each were married previously and between them have three grandchildren, all girls. One of Stephanie’s sons has camped in the front
yard. “It’s plenty of room for us,” Stephanie says. “We don’t have a lot of room for company and sometimes that’s a good thing.”The couple spends little time indoors while at Boggy Creek, doing nearly all of the work on the property themselves. That means mowing interior roads, but just enough to get by so as not to disturb ground-nesting birds, and spraying for congongrass. They do a lot of the seedling installation themselves, avoiding traditional row planting to produce a more natural, asymmetrical look. Longleaf requires frequent burning, and they handle most of that, too. They have two tractors, along with the Kubota and their Ford trucks.
“Rarely do I hire anyone to do anything mainly because it’s hard for me to transfer my vision to them for what I want to keep and what I don’t want to keep,” Parker said. “Guys with bulldozers frequently do not see my vision even though they are excellent operators.”Driving through the property in the Kubota, there are plenty of typical forestland features, such as older loblolly and food plots Parker has planted; he limits hunting outings to himself and a few friends. In addition to deer and turkey, he goes after coyotes, armadillos, raccoons, and wild pigs.
But there are some unusual land elements, too. The property is surrounded by land farmed for cotton, peanuts, and corn by
members of the Mennonite community. There are cameras set up as part of a graduate thesis project for a student at the University
of West Florida. The Parkers planted pear trees to attract deer and have camera footage of deer on their hind legs eating them.
Then there are the mushrooms. Five years ago they began noticing golden mushrooms. They sent photos to an expert, who said they were chanterelles, which require humid, wet weather and are prized by gourmet chefs. “I love the idea of foraging off the land,” says Parker back at
the cabin over lunch, which includes chanterelles, along with turkey and cranberry sandwiches.
Parker previously served on the board of directors for the Forest Landowners Association – “FLA has its finger on the pulse of the politics of forestry and that’s so important,” he says. – but has gotten more involved with the Longleaf Alliance board in recent years. When he planted his first longleaf nearly 20 years ago, the first nursery he approached was sold out of seedlings. Someone referred him to a newer nursery, Meeks Farms, located in Kite, Georgia, roughly halfway between Macon and Savannah.
Parker bought his first seedlings from Meeks and began referring Florida Panhandle landowners to the nursery. Several years later company owner Steve Meeks asked Parker to help him as a regional salesman. These days, Parker will try to coordinate orders so they can fill an entire refrigerated trailer making the seven-hour drive from Georgia to the Panhandle. “It’s been a great symbiotic relationship,” Parker says. Parker admits that the longleaf crowd’s goals differ somewhat from those of many forest landowners. “It’s an interesting group,” he says. “You meet some folks who wouldn’t care if they have a pine snake or two on their land and if they never cut timber they’d be just as happy. I’m probably the same way,
but then again, I don’t have 100,000 acres. That’s a different set of circumstances. The common denominator we all have is a
passion for the land and its future.”