By Jack Petree
Two small Washington State firms, Greenleaf Forest Products in Whatcom County and Harts Lake Pioneer Lumber in Pierce County, stand out as examples of the new directions innovative young business owners are exploring as they shape their part of the future forest products industry.
In Whatcom County, Simon Petree, the owner of Greenleaf Forest Products, mills specialty lumber, millwork, slabs, and other products from “waste” logs recovered from sources as diverse as city parks, construction sites, farmlands, and the “stump forests” left behind when the original forests of Western Washington were logged more than 100 years ago.
In Pierce County, Katie Wilcox works with her dad, J. T. Wilcox, to further the family-owned Wilcox Family Farms’ commitment to sustainability in their own forest. Wilcox takes blow downs, diseased trees, and trees removed to accommodate farm buildings and mills them into slabs and lumber for use on the farm, for sale, and to support Katie’s steadily growing business designing and building unique furniture, flooring, and specialty products.
A New Direction
One commonality of Greenleaf Forest Products and Harts Lake Pioneer Lumber is the focus each places on the recovery, use, and reuse, of wood that, in generations past, would have been left in the forest to rot, be turned into firewood, or even shipped off to the landfill to be buried.
A second commonality is that both businesses are made possible by the development in recent decades of portable sawmills, mills designed to allow one or two people to manufacture significant quantities of quality lumber in a variety of specialty sizes each day. These portable mills often cost less than the pickups used to tow the mills from site to site.
The relatively low cost of ownership has allowed thousands of entry-level entrepreneurs easy entrée into a rapidly expanding marketplace for locally produced specialty wood products manufactured with a minimal environmental footprint. Industry sources indicate as many as 100,000 portable sawmill businesses have been established in the United States in the last 20+ years. Even if operated at just 10 to 20 percent capacity, those mills would account for about four to eight billion board feet of specialty lumber each year.
Back in the early 90s, J. T. Wilcox was a young twenty-something beginning a career that would see him ultimately manage in excess of $200 million in annual revenues as CFO of the 100-year-old Wilcox Family Farms. Today J. T. is both the Republican Floor Leader in the Washington State House of Representatives and the owner/operator of Harts Lake Pioneer Lumber located on the farm near Roy, Washington.
The shift in J. T.’s career track came about as the Wilcox operation responded to some of the same societal changes the forest products industry has seen in recent years. “Wilcox Farms decided about a decade ago to move towards value-added products and away from commodity products,” J. T. explains. “We sold a business and closed down several processing plants to redeploy capital towards organic and other value-added egg products. We wanted to do the same thing with our forest lands. Katie’s furniture business is as far up the value chain as we could go. It takes a relatively small amount of wood, but that wood sells for around $15/bf or about 20 times what it sells for even as export timber.”
Katie came into the business as a way to pay her way through school. “My dad bought his first sawmill when I was a freshman at Whitworth,” Katie says. “I would come home, and he would want some help. It wasn’t love at first sight!”
It wasn’t long before the equipment was upgraded to a Wood-Mizer LT 35 Hydraulic mill.
“After my dad upgraded, things got a bit more exciting because we could handle bigger logs,” says Katie. “At first, I was helping because I was getting paid, but it didn’t take long for me to discover I enjoyed the work. I love using equipment and making a product from start to finish. I enjoy hard work; it is so different than the type of work I do at school—it is refreshing.”
As to the furniture Katie creates, “Our product mix is determined by the trees we have available, which limits us to Douglas Fir, Maple, and a little bit of Cedar,” she says. “We want to stick with using timber from the farm because that’s our niche — local timber from a farm that has been in my family for over 100 years.”
Simon Finds His Niche
In Whatcom County, Simon has made his living with a portable sawmill for more than 15 years.
“Shortly after high school, I bought a truck and began hauling silage for local farmers,” he says. “Eventually I established a relationship hauling for a wood waste grinding company. Watching the grinder work I was astonished at how much usable wood was going into the grinder. I found an old semi-portable circle sawmill an acquaintance had sitting out in the woods, traded some cutting time for the mill and, suddenly, I was in the lumber manufacturing industry.”
A move up to portable thin kerf sawmilling followed soon after and today he uses an LT – 70 Wood-Mizer as well as a Lucas chainsaw mill to create the slabs. Since the move up, Simon estimates he has produced more than six million board feet of lumber, sometimes milling next to a farmer’s log deck, sometimes cutting logs delivered directly to the mill itself.
“What I really like about this business is the constant variety,” he says. “When you start your day you never know what new and interesting challenge you’ll face. I’ve had artists bring in a whole tree to be sawn, limbs and all, and I’ve milled some of the highest quality, tight grain, old-growth lumber you can imagine; wood recovered from the stumps of trees cut down more than 100 years ago. I’ve also sawn thousands of urban trees over the years, trees that would have been wasted or seriously underused without a sawmill like mine. Turning an ugly old log no one wants into a piece of beautiful wood is just about my favorite part of being a sawmill owner.”
Simon’s ability to use logs that might otherwise end up on the firewood pile fits perfectly with an ever increasing desire on the part of consumers to be environmentally conscious and to participate in a vigorous ‘buy local’ movement that’s grown up in recent years.
“Customers really like knowing where their wood came from,” he says. “I track where the logs I mill come from because I know it means a lot to people to say, for example, ‘The trim around these windows was recycled from a tree that fell down in a storm just three blocks from here.’ Architects, designers, and contractors love the ability my sawmill gives them to create special and unique design features using local woods. Farmers like the fact that I can mill lumber from their own farms and forests for personal use on the farm. I get calls for cedar siding on a regular basis, and since I can mill specialty dimensions effortlessly, I’m often called on to put together a lumber package for a unique construction project.”
The ability to make a living while having a positive environmental impact, the creativity of the work, the opportunity for independence from the “rat race,” and the outdoor-based lifestyle are all things men and women like Katie, Simon, and J. T. point to as valued reasons to participate in one of the forest products industry’s fastest growing, yet least known, business sectors. In today’s industry “small” really has become big again.
On the Cover
Photo of this Link-Belt was taken by Lindsay R. Mohlere at the Henderson logging operation, based in Wallowa, Oregon.
Multi-Tasking Makes the Difference
Henderson Logging, continually adapting to an ever-changing industry
Small is Big Again
Two small mills that specialize in sustainability and provide opportunities for the next generation
Steep Slope Logging Conference
Show guide of the 2017 Steep Slope Logging Conference held in Kelso, Washington, April 19-21
Rocky Britt takes on the many challenges of building a successful logging operation
Keeping it in the Family
R&R King Logging looks ahead to a bright future with a great succession plan
Gearing up for the season
2017 OLC Pictorial Review
Highlights of the 79th Annual Oregon Logging Conference