The Country Today June 13, 2007

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Spring Green man adds value to his land's timber

SPRING GREEN
— Jim Birkemeier says it's time Wisconsin forest owners do things differently to make more money on the timber grown on their land.
Mr. Birkemeier, who with his partner, Shawn Olmstead, operates Timbergreen Farm near Spring Green, sells his annual timber harvest as hardwood flooring after it is cut, dried and processed on the farm. Mr. Birkemeier and Ms. Olmstead take the wood all the way from the forest to the customers' floors.
Mr. Birkemeier said thousands of Wisconsin jobs could be created if more forest owners found ways to add value to the timber grown on their land rather than selling it at pennies on the dollar to commercial loggers.
'One full-time good-paying job could be created for every 40 acres of timber,' Mr. Birkemeier said. 'Local manufacturing and direct marketing can multiply the market value of standing timber by 10 to 1,000 times. The market for this is unlimited — someone's going to manufacture and sell it. We decided we're going to make the money instead of someone else.'
Mr. Birkemeier worked as a forester before he became disillusioned with industrial forestry and decided there must be a better way to manage a woodlot.
'My forestry education was set on feeding the industry cheap timber,' he said. 'The forest owner is not respected by the timber industry. Their land is used and abused. My gut feeling after working in the industry for a couple years was that I had to do just the opposite of what the industry was doing.'
About 20 years ago, Mr. Birkemeier built a sawmill on his Sauk County farm and later added a home-designed solar kiln. He began transforming the oak, elm, cherry, ash, birch, walnut and other species of trees on his farm into hardwood flooring.
He harvests about 20 percent of the 100,000 board feet of timber grown on his 200-acre woodlot each year. About two-thirds of the harvested lumber is made into flooring, while the rest is sold as rough-sawn lumber.
'As a tree loses its vigor or gets shaded over by another tree, then we know that is a tree we can harvest and make some money on,' Mr. Birkemeier said. 'We let all of our good trees grow. Everything we cut this year was dead. The worst thing you can do is take your best trees out of the woods.'
Mr. Birkemeier said they selectively harvest some trees each year rather than gutting their forest with a major harvest every 15 years or so like many landowners.
'The farmers around here manage all their other crops and spend huge amounts of money and work so hard to make a fraction of what I can make on the trees,' Mr. Birkemeier said. 'But they don't have the confidence that they can do it. I'm here to say, ‘Hey, there's a better way. Here's how to do it.' '

Shared knowledge

Mr. Birkemeier, 53, has been passing along his forestry methods to others in a variety of ways. He is one of a half-dozen southwest Wisconsin woodland owners who are involved in an organization known as the Timber Growers Alliance. The organization, which includes members from across the country and world, promotes the use of locally grown and manufactured forest products.
He also has written a book, 'Full Vigor Forestry,' and is producing a DVD series that details his forest-management methods.

Mr. Birkemeier also offers hands-on training, known as 'Timber Techniques,' that allows people to spend one to five days on his farm learning everything from how to fell a tree to how to saw the logs into marketable wood or dry it in a homemade kiln.

He recently held a field day on his farm that attracted 30 people interested in his forest-management methods.

Mr. Birkemeier formerly was involved in the Sustainable Woods Cooperative, a co-op of landowners who were intent on joint direct-marketing efforts. The co-op failed about five years ago.
Kent Prather of Spring Green, a former co-op member, said the direct-marketing concepts made sense, but the 'realities of business' such as payroll, facilities and equipment made the project lose its steam.

Mr. Birkemeier said he is trying to continue individually what the co-op failed to do collectively.

Smaller trees productive

Mr. Birkemeier said commercial loggers often look for the largest and best trees in a forest, while he prefers to harvest the smaller trees.

'We recently harvested a birth tree that was 8 inches in diameter — if you sold that tree to the logger, it was probably worth 20 cents to the landowner,' Mr. Birkemeier said. 'If you get it to the paper mill 100 miles away, it's worth $2. I made it into flooring, and it was worth $220. You can make 1,000 times what the loggers will pay you for it and you're able to improve the forest while you're doing it.'

Kiln saves energy

His homemade kiln collects solar heat from a layer of black metal roofing. A two-thirds horsepower motor is used to blow the heat into the room where the wood is stacked to dry.

'This is the simplest, cheapest and most energy-efficient kiln in the world,' Mr. Birkemeier said. 'Plus, it does the best quality job of drying wood. The experts said it would never work, but we've been doing it for 18 years.'

Mr. Birkemeier used to haul his wood to Stevens Point to be tongue-and-grooved before it could be installed as flooring, but he recently bought a machine so he could finish the wood himself.

Customers can choose from single-species flooring to floors that are blended with different types of wood in a variety of widths.
'One of the floors in our house includes 20 species of wood,' he said. 'We custom blend the floor for every customer.'
Mr. Birkemeier and Ms. Olmstead install about one floor per month at an average cost of about $10 per square foot.

'We're a perfect substitute for the wood you can buy at Menard's or Home Depot,' Mr. Birkemeier said. 'Every time we install another floor, that becomes another showroom for us. What we do is very different. We let the forest grow naturally and harvest what the forest naturally produces.'

Direct marketing works

Bill Carlson, a forestry team leader at the Department of Natural Resources' Dodgeville office, said a lot of landowners find ways to cut out the middleman and take their wood products directly to consumers.
'There are a lot of small sawmills, but not a lot do their own kiln drying,' he said. '(Mr. Birkemeier) has a specialty there. He's harvesting, cutting, drying wood and sawing it as flooring. The bottom line is we encourage people to have a forest management plan to take care of the resource. And (Mr. Birkemeier) certainly espouses land management.'
Mr. Birkemeier generally is critical of how loggers take advantage of landowners, but Mr. Carlson was hesitant to share that opinion.
'Our approach is we encourage proper sales techniques,' Mr. Carlson said. 'We encourage landowners to have contracts when they sell timber. We encourage competitive bidding, and we encourage landowners to work with professional consultants who can provide them with expertise on timber sales and a management plan. We can provide cost-sharing to assist with some of that work.'

Mr. Birkemeier says he is concerned that as foreign companies become a bigger player in the wood-production industry, U.S. sawmills will look for more ways to cut costs.

'The first place they're going to cut is what they pay the landowner,' he said. 'It's easy because the landowners are not organized and they don't think they have any alternative. Of all the things threatening forestry, that's the scariest.'

'My intent is to help others get more confidence that they can do this too,' Mr. Birkemeier said.

Jim Massey may be reached at jimmassey@mhtc.net.

 

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