J. D. BIRKEMEIER
At Timbergreen Farm near Spring Green Wisconsin, USA, our family business engages in all aspects of future-oriented forest management: timber harvesting, wood manufacturing, and direct marketing of our annual harvest as finished flooring installed in our customers’ homes. Installed and finished hardwood flooring is now selling for an average of US$ 10,000 per thousand square feet (US$ 10,000 per 100 square meters). This earns us one thousand times the commercial stumpage rate for small diameter trees, one hundred times the stumpage rate for low-grade sawtimber, and ten times the stumpage rate for our best trees.
The annual growth of our 200 acre (90 ha) forest is about 400 board feet of sawn timber per acre – four times the average for our region. In addition, Timbergreen Farm’s harvests yield twice the usable products of a typical commercial logging operation. Our potential annual harvest could produce over 2 acres (1 ha) of installed flooring, earning us an income of over US$ 4,000 per acre each year (US$10,000 per ha), and we could support one full-time worker for every 40 acres (18 ha) of our forest, if we chose to fully utilize our annual growth. We have found that wood is the perfect fuel for small business.
My passion is to teach other forest owners that: a) their timber is very valuable; b) forests can produce a good annual income; c) there are simple alternatives to industrial practices; and d) forest owners can control their own small forestry business – if they choose to do so. The following ideas may be “seeds” to help change local methods and enhance profit to small businesses in the forestry sector .
I describe Timbergreen Farm’s forest management program in my book, “Full Vigor Forestry – Sustainable Forest Management from the Forest Owner’s Point of View.” We work to encourage fully stocked stands of vigorous, high quality trees that produce an annual harvest. The best ideas from the Dauerwald system of natural forest management (Schabel and Palmer 1999), and the Native American Menominee Tribal Enterprise Forest here in Wisconsin have been used to maximize the many benefits our family gains from the forest. Another guiding principle in developing “Full Vigor Forestry” was to do just the opposite of what I learned was business as usual on private lands in the U.S. timber industry.
In “Full Vigor Forestry”, nearly every tree has high value and increasing species diversity is a key goal. Demand for wood products does not affect decisions relating to the harvesting of timber. We have learned to “watch nature” and harvest just the natural output of the forest. Timbergreen Farm’s most popular product is mixed-species character-grade flooring. Each installed floor is custom blended for the customer, but to be sustainable, we use only a mix of species and the specific pieces of wood. Natural succession and natural regeneration are encouraged. The gentle stirring of the forest through selective harvest encourages regeneration. This natural seeding is so effective that there is even a need to continually thin young trees to prevent over-crowding. The future composition of the forest is somewhat controlled by encouraging the growth of preferred small trees.
We view the forest as a living solar energy collector. A healthy, full-arrayed tree canopy catches available sunlight and converts the sun’s energy into wood. We see also each tree as a living solar energy collector. Hardwood trees are shaped like a funnel. Conifer trees have the cone-shaped funnel upside down, collecting the light on the sides of the crown. A tree with a large “funnel” crown exposed to the sun can grow quickly, whereas a slender tree with a smaller leaf surface will grow more slowly. Our goal is to have trees growing at a rate of ¼ inch to ½ inch (6mm to 12mm) in diameter each year. A crown width that is about one-third of the tree’s height is optimum for deciduous species. For conifers, a crown width to tree height ratio of one-to-four seems optimum.
Sunlight is the main requirement for tree growth, followed by water, and soil nutrients. We control the amount of these ingredients each tree gets by controlling tree spacing. We start with a tree spacing guide that is developed from the crown/height ratio. Spacing is then fine-tuned by observing individual tree- diameter growth. Maintaining vigorous diameter growth is a key goal of Full Vigor Forestry. A small annual harvest keeps the forest canopy intact and at maximum production. This produces much more timber than does a heavy harvest every decade or two.
Forest management is simple, similar to growing a vegetable garden or an agricultural crop. Thinning and weeding are common-sense principles most people can relate to. The basics of forest management can be taught in one day. Trees are primarily affected by the other trees surrounding them. We manage a small group of trees by thinning and weeding, move on to another group, soon leading to the effective management of the whole forest. Tree-diameter growth determines the amount of thinning that is needed. We have demonstrated that all species, including our dominant oaks (Quercus rubra & Quercus alba), respond to release and can be selectively harvested.
When choosing to harvest timber, the Full Vigor Forestry motto for the last 20 years has been simply: “Take the worst first”. My German teachers have a similar phrase: “Harvest the lesser tree”. Every tree has many values: aesthetic, wildlife habitat, stand diversity, resource protection, regeneration potential, wood products, etc. When comparing two trees that are competing, a forest manager assigns value to each tree, taking into account all the different contributions of each. The lesser- value tree is then harvested, allowing the best trees to grow and regenerate for the future.
Timbergreen Farm’s annual harvest potential is roughly about 400 board feet of sawn timber-sized trees plus another 100 board feet from small-diameter trees per acre. This is the volume of one oak tree, 24 inches (60 cm) in diameter and 80 feet (24 m) tall. The farm could produce 500 square feet of flooring per acre each year (100 square meters per hectare). Normally, we would take several smaller trees of a variety of sizes per acre, always taking inferior trees first. A forest growing under full “Full Vigor Forestry” principles will produce logs of all sizes, from 6 inches (15 cm) diameter inside the bark, to 36 inches (1m) diameter or larger. We have no maximum size or age for a good tree, they are allowed to grow as long has they maintain their vigor.
In the process of restoring a typically high-grade forest to “Full Vigor”, most of the harvesting will be of low-value species and small-diameter, damaged, and deformed logs that loggers have rejected in the past. Often, 80% of the harvest will be logs of less than the 12 inches (30 cm) diameter. Small logs are relatively easy to handle and small machines are available for each step. We have developed our skills in sawing these small logs into lumber and producing high-value mixed-species character-grade flooring. Small-diameter logs have small knots and produce an interesting character that is very attractive to niche-market consumers. There is high lumber over-run when sawmilling and very little waste when making flooring. We can earn nearly as much from commercially worthless salvaged logs as from our good timber. All trees earn us about US$ 10,000 per thousand board feet or thousand square feet of flooring (US$ 10,750 per 100 square meters).
We have built an extensive eight mile (13 km) road and trail system through the forest that allows us to carefully harvest any tree on the property any year. No good tree is wasted if it dies or blows down. The trail system makes the whole property more enjoyable for the many people who hunt, trail ride, hike, train, and work here.
Timbergreen Farms selectively harvests up to one tree per acre each year using “arthroscopic logging” techniques. When the land is family-owned and the forest directly provides family income, damage to the resource cannot be tolerated. Directional felling methods taught by Soren Erickson from Sweden are used. Safety for the feller, accuracy and control of felling, and minimizing damage to the butt log all are important elements.
There is an incentive to maximize the use of harvested trees. Stumps are cut as low as possible, partially rotten and hollow logs, crooked and bent logs, dead logs (often oak logs that have been dead for 5 years are still sound, and spalted maple is actually more valuable than white wood), and small diameter logs are also processed. Crotches and sound burls are sawn and dried for highest value use.
Trees are pulled to the trails using a fetching arch and a radio controlled winch mounted on the farm’s 55-horse power 2WD farm tractor. We constantly revive “old technology” while adding modern aspects. The average skid to a trail is less than 100 feet (30 m). A prehauler picks up the logs piled along the trail and carries the logs out of the forest, directly to the sawmill. The average distance from stump to sawmill is ½ mile (1 km). To avoid damage to residual trees and regeneration, we never drive a machine off the trail network Also machines are never driven on the trail if the ground is soft.
The annual harvest from Timbergreen Forest is processed into finished products on-site. An electric WoodMizer LT40 sawmill, a band resaw, and a circular two-saw edger are all housed under one roof. Methods for efficiently milling the high percentage of curved logs and small-diameter logs have been perfected. Straight oak logs are usually quartersawn to get an attractive and stable grain pattern. Timbergreen Farm’s goal is to transform each piece of wood into its highest value use.
Sawn lumber is immediately stacked on stickers in one of the pre-drying chambers of our solar cycle kiln buildings. The ends of the boards are protected from over-drying, rain and sun is kept off the wood, and the high roof overhead accelerates the natural air flow to pre-dry the lumber from 90% to 12% moisture content in 3 months.
Once the lumber is fully pre-dried, solar energy is used to heat the air in the kiln chamber to dry the wood to 6% moisture contact in one more month. The farm’s three solar cycle kilns collect 1,500,000 BTUs of free heat on a sunny day, and can operate at 80 degrees F (45 degrees C) over the outside temperature. Only a small amount of electricity is needed to circulate the hot air in the kiln chamber. The daily heating cycle naturally equalizes the moisture content of the lumber each night so steam conditioning is not needed at the end of the drying period. This produces superior-quality lumber and makes the kiln very inexpensive and simple to build and operate. A solar cycle kiln has four main parts: a clear insulated window; a black metal collector surface to heat the air; fans to circulate the hot air; and an insulated wood chamber. Many local building materials can be used to build these kilns: wood; greenhouse materials, concrete blocks, and straw bales. The unique design for the solar cycle kiln developed by Timbergreen Farm is now being in many countries around the world.
The farm’s century old, 100 foot (30 m) long dairy barn has been remodeled to accommodate the business. Upstairs in the hay loft is an insulated and humidity controlled lumber storage room. Wood is stored at 6% moisture content so that it can be used immediately. Some excess kiln dried lumber is sold to area woodworkers, but the priority is to sell most of the wood as higher value manufactured products.
Downstairs is a workshop where a variety of wood products are manufactured. Basic woodworking tools and a Swedish made Logosol 4 head molder are used to make high-value merchandise. Flooring is the central source of income, but custom-made glued-up wooden countertops, stairways, millwork, furniture and gifts add to our sales. When making flooring we can use pieces of wood as small as 1 inch x 3 inch x 12 inch (25 mm x 75 mm x 300 mm). When making wooden pens and glued-up cutting boards even smaller pieces can be used. Scraps are used for fuel. Every aspect of wood manufacturing is controlled, keeping it as simple as possible. Carefully selected tools allow the farm to “turn straw into gold”.
The key to Timbergreen Farm’s success is direct marketing to customers. The retail sale produces the highest profit of any of the steps and more than justifies all of the hard work of manufacturing wood products. The retail profit is about US$2,000 per thousand square feet (92 square meters) of flooring. This is also the easiest and safest step of the entire process.
Every floor that we install becomes another showroom for us and the happy customer becomes voluntary sales staff. Our customers sell the next floor for us! New business is attracted with almost no cost for advertising or retailing. The farm receives a lot of attention in the media, generating additional new business with no advertising costs involved.
Nearly everyone uses wood products everyday. We see every house as a potential project and every person as a potential customer. People prefer to buy from a local producer as compared to the big building supply stores.
One third of the retail cost of wood products in the U.S. is attributable to transportation costs. This is about US$ 3,000 per thousand square feet (100 square meters) for flooring. Timbergreen Farm is able to minimize hauling costs and capture this additional revenue. Generally, the wood is trucked once, from the workshop to the customer’s home, usually during the daily commute to work Most of the flooring installation jobs are within an hour’s drive of the farm. (50 miles or 80 km) Installation is the most fun and profitable step.
We learned how simple it is to install flooring when we built our own log home eight years ago, and we have been selling installed flooring ever since. When a molding machine was purchased four years ago and the entire process from forest to finished flooring was controlled, our costs went down considerably, our profits went way up, and our enjoyment of the business skyrocketed too.
It is easy to sell the farm’s flooring and other wood products directly to customers. We have advantages in this approach over a wholesale market where you are competing with big industry. We guarantee our work and wood, and since we are the producer, the consumer’s confidence is high that we will do what we say.
How we earn US$ 10,000 per thousand square feet (US$10,750 per 100 square meters) of flooring:
US$ 250 per mbf1
US$ 250 per mbf
| Kiln Drying
US$ 250 per mbf
Tongue and Groove Flooring
US$1,500 per mbf
US$7,000 per mbf
My father, my partner, and I each work part time in this business, though our forest’s growth would support six full-time workers. Our family gains benefits from the forest in addition to timber income. We operate a native wildflower nursery to help other forest owners reintroduce natural plants that have been destroyed by overgrazing. We produce shiitake mushrooms on small-diameter logs coming from logging residues and timber stand improvement thinning. Wild mushrooms are collected from the forest. We lease most of our land for wildlife hunting, earning almost enough to pay the property taxes. We also harvest deer meat for our own consumption. The extensive trail system makes all areas of the property accessible for recreational use by family and friends.
We burn fuelwood to heat two homes and provide firewood to our neighbors. We are currently trying to find a practical method of turning our waste sawdust, planer shavings, slabwood, and harvest scraps into usable and exportable energy. Possible products being considered:
Being the first consulting forester to ever advocate for the small woodlot owners in the region, I was overwhelmed by thousands of sad stories of how timber owners had been “ripped off” by timber buyers. I found a timber market with no competition, no information, and no significant government marketing assistance available to forest owners.
As a forester and forest owner, over the years I participated in government forestry programs and worked within the conventional timber industry. What I learned in college about formal inventories and complicated harvest plans for long-interval harvests just did not work on small woodlots. Every effort failed to produce responsible and profitable forest management on small private forests. Only a small percentage of woodlot owners in the U.S. even try to manage private forests today.
Eight years ago a third generation German forester visited me. After driving 40 miles (65 km) from the airport to Spring Green, Dr. Ingo Grebe noted, “I see that you don’t manage your timber here.” (Two years ago I visited Germany and instantly understood the difference between German industrial forestry and U.S. high-grade forestry). Americans don’t value their forests as Europeans do. It could be said that U.S. forest owners have low “forest-esteem”. The reasons became clear talking with local forest owners: the prevailing timber market is a horrible deterrent to practicing forestry on private lands.
Timber prices are too low to make forest management profitable. The U.S. timber industry is a US$ 300 billion per year giant. Everyone in the industry makes good profits, except for the forest owner. Forestry will never be sustainable if the producer is not being adequately rewarded for his or her efforts and investment. Timber prices at mill yards are controlled by supply and demand, and are so low that timber buyers are pressured to minimize what they pay the forest owner just to stay in business.
In rural America, the daily market prices for many agricultural crops are broadly announced, but there is no regular or standardized market information system. Every timber sale is the result of a negotiated price between an experienced buyer and an inexperienced landowner. Every attempt to provide meaningful price information to forest owners has failed and reported prices are too low to be profitable. Variations in grading and scaling standards make it difficult for the forest owner to interpret what price information is available and appropriate.
Logging equipment is becoming larger and more expensive. Heavy harvests are therefore needed to make a profit for the logger, and the expensive machines often must be operated even in bad weather to make the payments. The timber industry accepts damage on private land as normal and necessary to feed the mills with a steady supply of wood.
Theft and fraud are common and usually ignored or covered up. Investing in forests appears excessively risky when the likelihood of theft is great.
Most forest owners in north central U.S.A. do not respect or eagerly deal with foresters. The profession has failed to bring about significant sound forest management in much of the United States. The average forest owner ignores their timber, and then deals directly with a timber buyer when enough mature trees are present for a harvest - where just the good trees are taken.
Professional foresters typically tell forest owners that they are not qualified to manage timber. The message is often conveyed as, “Only a professional can write a management plan or mark timber.” Technical language and industrial practices overwhelm most individual landowners.
Foresters cannot act as brokers for landowners while simultaneously serving as “procurement officers” for industrial mills without facing serious conflicts of interest. Feeding the big mill with cheap timber becomes their overriding priority. Consulting foresters who “work for landowners” in reality are often more loyal to the big mill, not the forest owner – as the forester’s income is tied to future sales to the mill and a simple forest owner is expendable. Foresters have compromised due to the steady pressure from the big mills to work in ways that increase industry profitability.
There have been limited alternatives to the traditional timber market system which is dominated by large corporations. A few forest owners have learned to make the best of a bad situation, but the market generally discourages sound forest management on small private forest ownerships.
At Timbergreen Farm, we have developed a new and separate timber market that encourages and rewards sound forest management on small forest holdings. One common question is whether the market exists for other forest owners to adopt our successful model. We have never been afraid of competition from other forest owners, or worried that we would saturate the market with our good wood, driving down the price. The opposite is true – forest owners need strength in numbers to control the timber market for their advantage, not the benefit of the big corporations.
Forest owners must realize that when their timber is harvested, the finished products can be sold in the retail market directly to customers. A choice exists between selling their trees to a timber buyer and letting the industry make 99% of the money, or controlling the marketing of their wood. Most indications are that customers would prefer to buy directly from local producers t they know, rather than some faceless retail outlet in the city.
To enhance forest management it is proposed to initiate community-based, value-multiplied cooperative businesses. Our goal was to control the marketing of our own timber, capture middlemen’s profit, and pay professional loggers and forest owners fairly.
So far in the U.S., efforts to establish “Sustainable Woods Cooperatives” have been blocked. The few sustainable forestry cooperatives that still exist in the Midwest of America have largely been steered by the professional foresters interested in instructing what forest owners are “supposed to do”; holding educational field days featuring “expert” foresters, attending inspirational walks in the woods, and holding meetings to talk about group marketing of trees into the traditional timber market.
Timbergreen Farm was the first Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified private woodlot in the Midwestern U.S. and Timbergreen Forestry was the first FSC-certified resource manager in the region. Upon receiving certification, we were immediately flooded with calls from all over the world that wanted to buy shipping container-load quantities of “top-quality” FSC-certified wood at “rock-bottom” prices. Based on this experience, we found that FSC certification was too complex, expensive and ineffective, and that it actually discouraged good forest management on private woodlots.
At Timbergreen Farm, we now simply tell our own story in our local community. We show customers how we work with wood and help them become discriminating consumers. We find that this is much more effective for our business than paying for a global eco-label.
The following are my recommendations for forest owners and loggers to responsibly manage the forest in a profitable and sustainable manner.
Organize a business to meet the needs of the family and community. Create new and separate markets for high-value wood products through direct sales. If no direct marketing opportunities exist in the area, products can be shipped to metropolitan areas. A producer-owned factory outlet store may be one option. Finished products have been traded for thousands of years. Today it is much easier than ever via electronic communications technology. Always sell the local story of the wood to the customer.
A growing number of successful small businesses have been developed following our forest-to-finished- flooring concept. “Timber Techniques Training” is our week-long program at Timbergreen Farm where individuals or groups can see it all for themselves and receive hands-on training to learn the system.
Key characteristics of this new market include:
Although priority lies with marketing locally, a website enables you to sell to the world since today, wood can be shipped anywhere, anytime. In a global economy, virtually no one is isolated anymore. The only limitation to the enterprise is lack of imagination.
Schabel, H.G. and S.L. Palmer, 1999. “The Dauerwald: Its Role in the Restoration of the Natural Forest”, Journal of Forestry, 97(11): 20-25.