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Timber Co-op

Nova Scotia's Athol Forestry Cooperative acts as a resource to members, offering a variety of woodlot management services.

By Stephen Bornais

Nova Scotia woodlot operator Thornton Moore doesn't have to look hard or far to find some compelling reasons why belonging to a forestry coop has been good for him and his family. He just has to look nearby at a neighbour's woodlot.

"The man sold his wood for what amounted to enough money to buy a truck, barely," he says. "And his woodlot is now pretty well wrecked ." Moore has 100 acres of mixed-wood forest just outside Amherst, Nova Scotia, not far from the border with New Brunswick. And since 1993, he has entrusted the long-term health and wealth of his woodlot- and by extension that of his family-to Athol Forestry Cooperative Ltd.

It is one of 16 forestry coops in Nova Scotia, which gave birth to the forestry coop movement more than 60 years ago. This in a province that today has more than half of its forests owned by 30,000 landowners.

Athol is one of the largest forestry coops in the province and now has 209 members with more than 43,000 acres of woodlands under long-term management. It provides woodlot management and marketing services to its members throughout western Cumberland County, as well as providing fee-for-service marketing and consulting to nonmembers.

The coop manages lands with a view to maximizing long-term value for its owners. It is a view that is at odds with what has been happening in neighbouring counties where it is widely acknowledged woodlot owners are over-cutting their forests to take advantage of nearly unprecedented demand from within the province and nearby New Brunswick.

Coop manager Warren Murley says logging contractors have been through the Cumberland area as well, offering quick money for many landowners.

Woodlot owner and Athol Forestry Cooperative member Thornton Moore (left) with the coop's field supervisor Neil Hewitt reviewing data on the GPS system. The Athol coop is now one of the largest in Nova Scotia, with 209 members and 43,000 acres of woodlands under long-term management.

"They brought a reputation with themselves and they're not getting the reception we thought they might," he says. It is against this log-hungry background that Murley and his small staff work to convince landowners that a woodlot can provide income for many years if managed properly.

It's now easier than when the coop first started, he says. Today a prospective member can be shown the benefits of long-term management.

"People can drive around and say 'I remember when that was cut and look, there's trees back there again. I want my woodlot to look like that,'" he says. But surprisingly, convincing landowners to take a long-term view isn't the hardest part of the sales job. Murley said a sticking point is that landowners don't like to give up control of their holdings. He compares the services of the coop to those of a doctor: if you're feeling bad, you go to a doctor. If you're looking for help with a woodlot, "you come to us ." "Now if you decide to listen to the doctor, that's totally your choice. We can make recommendations on that woodlot but if you don't like them, then fine," he says.

Athol started in 1977 with just 10 members at a time when the operating costs of coops were paid through government funding. Gerald Read joined the coop within a year of its founding and has been chairman of Athol's board of directors for the past two years As much as he knew about his 150 acres, Read realized he needed help when it came to getting the most from his woodlot.

"As a dairy farmer, I know how to grow grass and milk cows, but when it came to my woodlot, I had no expertise at all," he says. "I felt the expertise of the Athol people was the way I should go ."

Like most coops in Nova Scotia, Athol grew slowly until the mid1990s, when government funding ended. Forced to find its own way, Athol has since thrived. It has done so by expanding its services and product lines. It covers its $279,000 operating budget through a five per cent fee taken off the wood it markets, for members and nonmembers. By combining small quantities of timber into larger quantities, Murley says the coop can negotiate a better price than if the landowners sold timber on their own.

The coop is also resourceful with its facilities. It rents space in its building to a local forestry contractor and time on the tower it built to operate its Global Positioning System equipment. Consulting services to nonmembers including timber cruises and valuation-even estimating blueberry lands-brings in another $24,000.

Without those extras, which are instrumental in funding the coop, Murley said the members would have to pay a lot more. "If I had to call each member up and get an extra cheque for twelve hundred dollars at the start of every year, I bet I wouldn't have 209 members," he says.

Forester Glynn Speight reviews aerial shots of some of the woodlands now under the coop's management. The coop also recently invested in a computerized forestry management system that allows for tighter land management control.

The coop is also able to access funds under the new stewardship regulations the province proclaimed this year. Companies who buy wood, as listed in the Registry of Buyers, have to put part of the purchase price back into a silviculture fund. Athol can access that funding to do work on members' lands, in effect returning the money to them.

To encourage maximum value, Athol has been slowly increasing the amount of wood sold to sawmills-rather than for pulp-until today 60 per cent of the 15,500 cords harvested in 1999 from its members' lands went for sawlogs.

The more they get for wood, the better off the landowners are and the more money the coop has to cover its costs, Murley says.

Members' land is mostly mixed woods, with spruce and fir dominating among the softwoods. The coop mostly replants softwood, but Murley said he has had discussions on whether it should begin planting poplar to take advantage of demand in New Brunswick.

Eight years ago, they used to cut poplar and store it by the side of the road, hoping that somebody would take it, Murley says. "Now it's usually the first product gone off the woodlot ."

When a member calls into the Amherst office, the first person they usually talk with is office administrator Carlene Whidden. For the past 15 years, she's handled member inquiries and financial transactions, managed the store, sold firewood and prepared legal documents.

"That way they don't have to go to a lawyer's office and deal with unfamiliar faces. Everything's right here," she says. Like all Athol staff and members, every customer contact represents an opportunity to sell the virtues of the coop. If they are interested in managing their land, it doesn't take long at all to convince them of the advantages, she says.

For the members in the field, Athol is represented by forester Glynn Speight and field supervisor Neil Hewitt. They are ones who prepare the work plans and ensure they are carried out.

Speight says that, after cruising a new member's land, he will prepare a forest plan of yearly action based on the objectives of the owner. Again, it is all recommendations, he says. "I ask them what their objectives are and how they would like their woodlot worked.

"If they don't want any spraying on their land, we will manage that land in such a way that we don't use herbicide. Basically we're dealing with personal woodlot owners with their own ideas ."

Athol keeps as many as five harvesting operations on the go year-round including one that does its work manually to better access smaller properties. It also contracts out site preparation and replanting services. Coop member companies have first crack at the work and only if they can't do it does the work go to outsiders.

Speight says he uses a simple technique to maximize landowner value. "The landowners have asked me to treat the woodlots like my own and it is only human nature to try to get the most from what you have," he says.

The consulting services available for nonmembers are also a great recruiting tool, Speight said. "It makes the initial contact and through that we see if they want to learn more about Athol and what we can do to help them," he says. "And it's worked numerous times ."

Previously, workplans were prepared after a laborious process drawing on the coop's huge library of aerial photographs and maps. But with a rapidly growing membership, the job was chewing up more and more of Speight's time. Technology came to the rescue.

Earlier this year, Athol bought ArcView, a computerized forestry management system produced by Esri Canada Ltd. The total package, including software, cost $25,000. With the coop's years of data entered into the system, what used to take weeks is now ready much more quickly when the foresters head into the woods, Murley says.

"Now they can sit down at a computer which spits out a work list and off they go to the field," he says. Besides the speed, Murley says ArcView allows for tighter land management control and gives the coop the ability to add more members without overloading resources or adding to its staff.

Together with the coop's GPS equipment bought several years ago-which drastically reduced measuring time in the field- ArcView seemed "the next logical step ." None of this is lost on woodlot owner Thornton Moore, who along with his wife Kim and sons Danny and Michael, now annually net three or four times the original purchase price of his woodlot. The coop has also helped carve out a 1.2 kilometre road to better access the land. And it markets the entire harvest, even low-value firewood.

"One of the problems today is getting rid of your trash wood and they can move it," he says. This 1995 Central Region Woodlot owner of the year does most of the work himself, working under the coop's rules and guidelines. But the final decisions rest with him. "We started with a paint can- as in paint this tree and that's the one you should cut," he says. "This thinning never would have been done if I hadn't been pushed in the right direction ."

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004