A Day with a Forester
Every few years I get a Forester in and we walk the woodlot. I didn't have time to walk a lot of it yesterday with one, but we covered about 300 acres and overall he gave it a clean bill of health. This was surprising because a forest pathologist had written off some of my Hackmatack Tree plantations as being over run by a bark beetle infestation. It seems this was contained to only 3 acres of a 12 acre plantation. Another acre will have to be removed but of 12 acres, 2/3 of it seems very healthy and growing vigorously.
I actually got him on-farm because I need to expand for my sheep and I was leery at putting the saw to some very big Spruce in this one area of the woodlot. The trees are massive, 100 years old or so, but the overstory has shaded out the soil and very little regeneration has started. In other words its nice wood,. but old and not growing or reseeding. After reviewing everything he felt it was better to harvest that acreage and use for pasture then to cut the tree plantations. From a logistics point of view such as access and fencing, this was great news.
But the majority of what we talked about was marketing and this a lot of woodworkers will relate to even if you don't have a few acres of your own. The market here on forest land has tanked, and in a 20 mile ride from my house I know 10 farmers that are clear-cutting and putting in bigger fields. The problem is the papermills have closed up, and the few that remain are taking hardwood pulp. My woodlot is mostly softwood.
Softwood made for really good newsprint...but with online newspapers, paper newspapers are a thing of the past. Last year I harvested 12 cords of softwood pulp and got 880 bucks for the load. This Spring I got 400 dollars for 12 cords of softwood pulp. My last two loads of wood (12 cord a piece) got me 210 bucks and 213 bucks for 12 cords of wood...and I was darn lucky to get rid of it. Spruce logs tumbled from 400 per thousand to 200 per thousand and I have TONS of that. Hemlock is not much better, but it is holding its value only because it was so low to start with it did not have far to fall.
But Hardwood is downright scary. Both the forester and I see a very dire outlook for Hardwood Logs destined to make lumber. Here the papermills have figured out how to make paper with hardwood and they are buying it up at higher rates then firewood or the sawlogs. At the same time the wood coming from abroad is bigger, cheaper to harvest and transport, and is flooding the market.
The wife just bought 2 end tables that were made of solid wood, well made, no funny fasteners and look darn good...for $30 bucks. It is made of monkey wood, but closely resembles cherry...I could not buy the finish for that much less domestic hardwood. Where are the domestic hardwoods going to go in a few years. In Maine we have already lost the turning industry that turned White Birch, Yellow Birch and Beech into spools and whatnot. They are all used to make paper now. With the demand for that so high...landowners will start low grading which is harvesting their wood on shorter cycles and not letting their trees get big. Why should they if the hardwood market is lost and hardwood pulp is paying so much. The days of 30-40 year harvesting cycles are over and I am seeing lots harvested as short as every 15 years now.
But there is an even bigger threat looming on the horizon. Maine is 90% forested and oil is expensive. Biomass is growing and more and more trees are being chipped and burned. With wood chippers able to take 3 foot trees at once, more and more logging outfits are simply chipping the wood. The price is low but it is faster and easier to blow a tree into a chipper then it is to sort it out into logs and get marginally better prices for it. As that price erodes more and hardwood logs lose their value...more hardwood lumber is going to be blown into the back of a chip van and burned to make electricity for the grid. Quite sad indeed.
Overall despite the gloomy outlook on Maine's forests, the day was encouraging. He liked the way I have harvested wood over the last 20 years and overall the forest is very healthy and productive. More importantly it has a nice mix of big, small and medium diamters with good diversity between the species of trees. That means for the moment it is better to maintain the woodlot as a woodlot and limit the conversion back to farmland to a few small areas. The key word there is "for the moment". Him and I both agreed that there needs to be a new market for the long fibered softwood trees that blanket my farm and most of Maine. Newsprint had a 100 year run, but that is over.
I have no intention of traveling from birth to the grave in a manicured and well preserved body; but rather I will skid in sideways, totally beat up, completely worn out, utterly exhausted and jump off my tractor and loudly yell, "Wow, this is what it took to feed a nation!"