Jim Birkemeier went to college for forestry. Decades later he makes his living by harvesting trees, but that, he says, is nearly all he has in common with the profession he studied, at least as it’s widely practiced today. “What we do is totally the opposite and totally separate from the commercial forestry business,” Birkemeier said.
On a 200-acre family farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a short drive from the former summer home of Frank Lloyd Wright in the southern lap of the state, Birkemeier runs Spring Green Timber Growers. It’s a beautiful piece of land with a stand of trees encircling the valley where his operation sits. His Timbergreen Farm includes Timber Growers, which comprises the majority of the business. Taking in the view of the land from a hillside, it’s easy to grasp the reasons why he would want to protect it from the large-scale timber operations that have deforested similar properties.
His question is, would you want someone to remove your beautiful trees, decreasing the value of your property, and then pay you a microscopic percentage of what the timber will eventually sell for? Birkemeier explained that, if you sold them, the trees would be shipped to China for processing. The chances of the trees ever winding up close to where they were grown are virtually nil. “I see 12 semitruck loads of timber go through Spring Green a day. To see it leave and know it’s going to China, it just makes me sick,” Birkemeier said. “We have only five acres of original forest in Wisconsin left.”
Against The Grain
Birkemeier graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forest science in 1976 and worked in the traditional forestry industry for three years. He hated it, particularly the next-to-nothing that growers earned in exchange for the devaluation of their land. Birkemeier said the timber industry would pay only for trees deemed profitable, which led to forests either managed into homogeneity or stripped bare.
Birkemeier’s operation is a small one. The benefit of being small, however, is control.
“We cut out all the middlemen,” he said, harvesting, on average, one tree an acre at a time. He and his eight employees harvest only the trees that are dead or dying. They mill the tree, dry it, and turn it into wood floors and other products that they sell directly to the consumer, either online or at Birkemeier’s store in downtown Spring Green. This fully integrated do-it-yourself approach to logging is the central tenet of Birkemeier’s operation. “As a timber grower, I learned to do just the opposite of what the big corporations and government programs want you to do,” Birkemeier wrote in his book Full Value Forestry. “By selling my wood products directly to customers, I create my own market where I’m in control.”
While Timber Growers may be a relatively unusual business for now, Birkemeier wants people to know it isn’t special. “Anybody can do this who wants to,” he said. He has flown all over the world to talk about his business and taught seminars at his farm about how Timber Growers works. Meanwhile, the business has been expanding. In the last year, he salvaged 100 small dead trees and sold $300,000 of finished products. He estimated that the price he received is 100 times more than what he’d get if he sold his timber on the traditional timber market. An independent panel of judges selected Birkemeier’s Timbergreen Farms as the 2012 Wisconsin Family Business of the Year, during an annual award ceremony sponsored by Wisconsin’s InBusiness magazine.
Forest To Floor
Whether you want a business or just to be more self-sufficient, Birkemeier said his methods are easy to adopt. His first rule is to use “the smallest equipment available for each log.” He uses every piece of the tree, finding value in even the “flawed” wood, which he says adds character to a finished product. And he always selects unhealthy trees, allowing the more valuable trees additional room and time to grow.
Once Birkemeier cuts down a tree—using the bore-cut method and an open-faced notch to direct its fall— he’ll remove it using a 300-cubic-centimenter Honda ATV and logging arch if the tree is small. For larger jobs, he’ll use a loader trailer, such as a Majaco, pulled by the farm’s tractor. The goal is to stay on a trail, near the site where the tree is felled, and use a winch to pull the tree close enough to load.
For milling, Birkemeier previously used a portable WoodMizer band sawmill, but recently converted it to a stationary, outdoor electric mill with a roof overhead. His mill is rarely farther than a mile from where the tree is cut. He flitch-cuts, also known as sawing through-and-through, most of the wood. Flitch-cutting requires making repeated cuts all the way through the log. It is fast and results in an at- tractive package of matching lumber.
Birkemeier said that even the curved pieces that the traditional industry would toss can, with careful planning, be used. He will quartersaw large straight logs, a method requiring multiple patterned cuts resulting in beautiful, wide boards that resemble the lumber used in stately buildings constructed during a time when huge, old-growth trees were more common.
The most important step, and what makes Birkemeier’s operation attractive to do-it-yourselfers all over the world, are his solar kilns. In the commercial forestry industry, the lumber is put in a kiln fresh and wet then superheated until it’s so dry that the last step is to flood the room with steam to reintroduce moisture into the wood. Birkemeier says this is inefficient and a huge waste of energy. Because he is less concerned about a quick turn- around, he can afford to take a little bit more time. “I go for the cheapest and simplest route because I’m lazy,” he says with a grin. The primary com- ponents are indeed simple: a thermal poly-film tarp, black sheet-metal roofing, circulating fans and insulation to trap heat. The clear tarps go over the black metal roofing. The fans force hot air down into the stacks of wood. “A small hole covered by a Styrofoam door—in the lower back of the wall of the kiln—lets out moist air when the fans pressurize the wood room as they circulate air,” Birkemeier wrote in his book. “Fresh air is drawn into the upstairs solar collector room by the vacuum created by the operating fans to replace the vented moist air.”
He allows the wood to cool at night so the moisture levels equalize. The thermostat monitors the temperature and shuts off the fans. In a pinch, Birkemeier said his solar kilns are capable of drying a small batch of fresh- sawn lumber in three weeks. He has videos showing how his kilns work, along with design blueprints. “The solar kiln has been a blessing,” he said. “No kiln has as low-energy costs as I do.”
The final step is to turn the wood into finished products. When he installed a molder and woodworking shop a short walk from his mill, Birkemeier was able to control every step of his hardwood flooring business, from the forest to installing flooring in the customer’s home. Birkemeier specializes in mixed-wood floors that are becoming increasingly popular for the eclectic character that commercial wood floors lack. He doesn’t even need to advertise. People will see the wood floors he installed in their friend’s home or local businesses and ask who did it. Birkemeier said people also like buying hardwood floors that are not only beautiful but originated in a forest just a short drive from their home.
When Birkemeier tells other forest owners about his business, they say it’s not something they could do themselves. His answer: “Nonsense. It’s not that hard to do, and it’s fun.”
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