Outside the Box
Niche wood markets available for creative landowners
Most timber harvests result in wood being trucked off to a sawmill, pulp mill or firewood processor. But sometimes logs are sent on a less traditional journey-to niche buyers in specialized markets.
Photo by ronnieb/morguefile.com.
Most timber harvests result in wood being trucked off to a sawmill, pulp mill or firewood processor, where it serves a general purpose. But there are also cases where logs are sent on a less traditional journey - to niche buyers in specialized markets.
"There are a number of small wood manufacturers and craftspeople and woodturners out there. Those kinds of folks are often looking for something unusual, whether it's a log that's really large [in] diameter or has burls or other oddities to it," explains Paul Frederick, wood utilization specialist with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. "These tend not to be significant markets as far as the size, but they may be a way that a landowner could supplement their income."
Frederick cautions that these types of buyers often have very specific requirements. "Sometimes craftspeople are looking for something particular. They might want book-matched lumber, and that's not something that most commercial mills are going to deal with. Or there might be a particular pattern that they're looking for," he explains. "So if you have a special log, it might be worth having that sawn on a portable mill for a craftsperson."
Some buyers might also require kiln-dried lumber of specific species and grades in order to make their products. "While you might be able to get rid of the real high-end, high-grade lumber pretty easily, you're going to be left with a lot of pallet-grade material that you're going to have to deal with," he notes.
There are also wood buyers who are following the "buy local" model that's been established in other segments of agriculture. Frederick cites Lathrop's Maple Supply in Bristol, Vt., as one example. The company buys logs and manufactures its own line of flooring, trim and other items, including a line of "Exclusively Vermont" products made only from trees sustainably harvested in Vermont. Landowners can explore similar buyers in their area who may be interested in directly purchasing local wood in order to ensure they are working with a local product.
As far as connecting with artisans and craftspeople working in wood, Frederick says, "Probably the best way to get ahold of these types of buyers is to look at membership lists on websites of various wood manufacturer associations or furniture maker groups or woodturner groups - those types of organizations. That would probably be the best way to uncover direct markets for wood. You might be able to develop a relationship with a particular manufacturer or craftsperson."
Peter Grima, service forester with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, suggests that another avenue for uncovering possible purchasers of unique wood is to attend artisans' expos or wood products shows in order to make contacts. "I spoke with one landowner earlier this year who had some very large-diameter ash. The person he sold it to liked large-diameter and ash butt logs because he carves sculptures out of them. So that's one example of serving a very niche market," says Grima.
In this example, and others like it, sales of timber typically happen when a buyer hears about a landowner with specific types of wood available, or the landowner learns about buyers seeking something they have, and a relationship develops. "These people come out of the woodwork - no pun intended," jokes Grima. There is a multitude of craftspeople and artisans working in wood, albeit on a small scale. "In the rural communities in this part of the country, it's often a case where people meet and just establish a relationship. It's often a natural thing that arises."
Farmers or landowners and artisans working with wood may be different in many ways, but they share one important trait in common, notes Grima: "They have an appreciation for the woods. Both groups can often tell you 10 things you didn't know about a particular species of tree." So buying and selling between the two groups is usually a natural phenomenon, rather than part of a formal supply chain mechanism.
Some wood buyers follow the "buy local" model that's been established in other segments of agriculture. Lathrop's Maple Supply buys logs and manufactures its own line of flooring, trim and other items, including a line of "Exclusively Vermont" products.
Photo by DuBoix/morguefile.com.
Because of the low volumes involved, these types of niche wood buyers often escape attention. "But, depending on what they're making, an artisan might be able to make a living by producing and selling only a few items per year, so it's very much a value-added process," says Grima. For that reason, they can be very particular about the wood they work with. "They will look to build relationships with someone who can reliably deliver the quality that they are looking for," he adds.
There are some examples of direct wood sales at a slightly higher volume, says Grima, citing the timber frame market in particular. "They will demand a certain quality of pine and hemlock logs. Often the landowner doesn't come to them, but they come to the landowner through the foresters," he explains. "Foresters will know that if they have a woodlot that has a certain quality of pine, for example, they'll make sure that [the timber frame buyers] will get a bid invitation. And timber frame markets can add up to volume."
In that regard, it's always helpful for landowners to work with a forester who has a keen sense of the markets and an understanding of the value of different types of wood. "They'll know who is looking for what. A savvy forester might be aware of special markets like that," states Grima. "I often think foresters don't love wood enough, or forget how much they love wood."
Unless a single landowner is large enough, they may have difficulty supplying enough volume to buyers who are searching out local lumber. In these cases, it may be possible for woodlot owners to join together. Grima says there are some examples of cooperatives where landowners pool their resources, and their wood, in order to produce a product or service a particular market. For 10 years, the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative operated such a program, manufacturing wood products like flooring, but recently stopped. Vermont Family Forests, for example, operates a NeighborWood program where wood is sustainably harvested from members' woodlots and sold locally as firewood. That organization also works with a distributor to offer its own line of wood flooring that originates from members' certified woodlots.
Grima adds that there are also private suppliers who specialize in local lumber. One example, he notes, is Forest Products Associates in Greenfield, Mass., which sells wood from many locations around the world, but has also developed a special category for locally grown lumber as part of a buy local agricultural campaign in that area. "If the wood comes from western Massachusetts, it comes with a special sticker," he explains. Grima says he's noticed a number of furniture makers in the area, particularly those making higher-end creations, searching out native lumber. "I think it's part of the ethic of those craftsmen," he observes.
Vermont WildWoods specializes in "forest salvage" by purchasing diseased trees from landowners. Diseased butternut trees, for instance, offer unique character and markings in wood products that some buyers prefer. Healthy butternuts can be left to grow rather than harvested.
Photo by H. Zell, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
There are also some small niche markets where buyers are looking for just parts of trees. Long View Birch Bark, for example, travels throughout the northeastern U.S. and neighboring Canada to purchase bark from landowners. The bark is peeled in large sheets from white birch trees growing in the wild and is used in the production of rustic furniture ranging from tables to chairs to beds and baskets. For a landowner with large, healthy white birch trees who may already be planning a scheduled timber harvest, this can be an added opportunity.
Another example is Vermont WildWoods, which specializes in "forest salvage" by purchasing diseased trees from landowners. Diseased butternut trees, for instance, offer unique character and markings in wood products that some buyers prefer. The company pays a premium for this kind of wood, with the added benefit being that healthy butternuts can be left to grow rather than harvested.
There are always buyers looking to purchase unique logs with tiger striping or bird's-eye patterns, or other unusual characteristics that command a premium in the lumber and veneer markets. Again, these types of relationships typically happen when a landowner, forester or logger knows that a buyer who is looking for something very specific exists. The volumes involved may be small, but for the right woodlot owner with the right trees, the value of selling timber for a specific, niche or local use may make good sense financially and bring a sense of satisfaction.
Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.