Wood Lots Equal Potential Acreage Profit
US Forest Service studies indicate most people today are drawn to own acreages for reasons of natural beauty, privacy, protection of natural features (habitat, the forest, water, etc.) and for recreational opportunity. In addition, many prefer to be self-sufficient when possible and would like to use their property to improve fiscal independence. While many landowners carefully till fields, tend to pastures and care for livestock, few pay enough attention to the part a forested wood lot can play in achieving personal goals for the land they value. A question being asked by the Forest Service and, increasingly by the owners of small parcel forests is, “How can a landowner properly manage a wooded property, retain the beauty a forested lot offers, and still make enough money to cover expenses in a down economy? “
According to the U.S. Forest Service, today about 420 million acres of forested property are privately owned by about eleven million people. Currently, eight million owners have parcels of 50 acres or less in size and that number is expected to increase by about 150,000 new owners per year as 44.2 million to 57 million acres of currently industrial private forestland is developed to accommodate residences on “small” acreages over the next two decades. The new lands are being created as holders of large forested properties, previously held to provide timber, divide and sell their properties to non-industrial landholders who desire qualities other than timber production from the land.
Harvesting Options (There’s More Than Just Cutting it All Down)
Expressing concern that new landowners may not manage their land for either economic reasons or because they do not realize an untended small forest is often an unhealthy forest the USFS says, "Smaller, more fragmented (or disconnected) parcels can lead to a host of changes in water quality and aquatic species diversity, timber volume and management, native wildlife populations, forest structure and function, wildfire risk, and scenic quality and recreational opportunities."
A key issue is the general belief by landowners that it is too expensive and difficult to properly maintain a forested parcel, or that the only way to do so profitably is to severe or clear cut. Fortunately, the modern version of an old tool is changing that perception - the portable, thin kerf, band saw mill. Although band saw mills have been around for quite some time, recent innovations have made them affordable, efficient, and highly portable. Most are small enough to tow behind regular pickup trucks, cost less than many tractors and can be easily set up and ready to cut lumber in 15 to 20 minutes. Best for the landowner pursuing self-sufficiency, even the most inexperienced can learn to mill quality lumber with a few hours of training and experience.
The efficiency comes from the thin width of the cut, called "kerf," made by the modern band saw blade. While traditional circle saw mills and high production conventional mills often have kerfs ¼-inch or greater and produce lumber that often requires additional processing prior to use, thin kerf saws remove as little as 1/10th of an inch to produce smooth and consistent lumbers often useable without secondary processing. More and higher grades of lumber are produced from each log because of the narrow cut, increasing productivity and profitability. Also important, because the mills use a band blade, they are much safer in those situations where there may be foreign objects in the wood. When the blade dulls, it can be changed in a matter of minutes, and may be re-sharpened for more work.
Mills as a Small Business
Recent research conducted at Auburn University has demonstrated the simplicity of the mills, the portability and the low cost all combine to make thin kerf sawmills an important tool for the small parcel landowner looking to maintain a healthy forest at minimal cost. The Auburn studies also point out the importance the mills can play in providing for the kinds of “micro-enterprises” (very small businesses) necessary to sustain many rural economies.
Ralph Rice’s northeastern Ohio farm stands as an example of the potential attention to the small farm woodlot has in terms of improving both the farm and the bottom line of an agricultural enterprise.
A few years ago, Ralph recounts, he purchased a neglected 73-acre homestead with the goal of bringing the land back to productivity. About half the acreage is wooded. Desiring to sell farm products Ralph decided to build a roadside stand. Because plenty of trees were available he hired the owner of a portable band sawmill to saw some of them into lumber for the construction.
Seeing the cost savings gained through the use of a portable sawmill to process his own logs into lumber Ralph realized those savings could be compounded if he had a mill of his own due to the number of projects he had in mind to achieve the rebuilding of the homestead. Considering the projects he had planned, Ralph calculated it would only take about 3 years to offset the purchase cost of a mill, less if he were to mill for others as well.
After doing a bit of research, Ralph settled on a Wood-Mizer brand mill equipped with hydraulics to make handling the wood easier. Once he had the mill Ralph began to cut trees removed to allow the building of a cross fence on his land. Using his Percheron draft horses to move the logs to the mill, Ralph soon had the lumber he needed to build outbuildings.
Before long, Ralph found himself milling for other landowners in his area as well. “People started calling almost as soon as I bought the mill,” he says. “The mill is so flexible I can cut to custom sizes with a few seconds of adjustment. That means I can mill lumber that would otherwise have to be custom ordered from a conventional lumber store and would require a lengthy lead-time.” As a result Ralph comments, "Even imperfect or dead trees can be viewed as standing lumber - a much more valuable resource than firewood."
Timber Management Pays Off for Wildlife
A third of a continent away near Bat Cave, North Carolina, another owner of a small acreage has learned how valuable thin kerf portable sawmilling can be. Robert White, now the owner of Burnt Shirt Wood Products, learned about the importance of even small holdings of forests as he studied for a degree in Fish and Wildlife Management, and about the value of portable band sawmilling as a management tool for small farms when he saw a mill in use on a farm and followed up with the owner of the mill.
The mill’s original owner, William, took Robert under his wing and hired Robert to operate the mill with the goal of eventually turning the mill over to him.
Robert was so impressed by the effectiveness of the mill as a farm tool that he purchased a smaller version of the mill and began to use it to manage his own lands. Using the knowledge he’d gained earning a Fish and Wildlife Management Degree, where a portion of the class involves the fundamentals of stand management, Robert began to use the mill on his 12 acres to restore his own forests and pasture. “My stands were harvested 75-100 years ago,” he comments. “No provision was made for regeneration of oak and hickory. Now I am applying a cleaning technique to my stands; essentially removing invasive species with mechanical applications to remove young, undesirable and invasive species to make the stands more suitable for oak and hickory regeneration. I do not expect to see the fruits of my labor during my lifetime but hope that some of my kids and wildlife will reap the benefits.”
Burnt Shirt Wood Products is also an example of the validity of Auburn’s research regarding small-scale portable sawmills as the core of viable micro-enterprises in rural areas. After gaining experience milling for William, Robert saw enough potential in milling to lease the equipment he was running as an employee and begin his own business. At present, he explains, “Ninety-nine percent of my service is custom milling for other landowners in the area. Many of those owners are craftsmen and women making furniture or cabinets."
The availability of locally-produced lumber milled by small business entrepreneurs in rural areas throughout North America creates a real synergy between the owners of small acreages, the needs of the larger community for clean water, natural landscapes and wildlife habitat, and the aspirations the owners of small acreages have for their land. In the case of Robert White and Ralph Rice, the mills not only allow them to manage their own lands effectively, they provide an important service to the community of fellow rural landowners. In terms of societal needs, the mills provide the ability to manage smaller landholdings for environmental enhancements.