I recently interviewed Jessica Simons the Natural Resources Specialist at the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation & Development Council. She gives some great advice for anyone looking to get into selling urban forest products.
Jessica, What is urban logging in a nutshell?
Urban forests provide their main benefits to communities when they are alive: giving shade, cleaning air and water, and bringing beauty and character to landscapes. Urban logging presents another opportunity to find value in these trees once they can no longer provide living benefits. Even when managed carefully, trees need to be removed from urban areas for reasons such as death, disease, storm or insect damage, or other hazards.
Communities and businesses are now coming together to recover wood from these necessary tree removals and to process it into lumber, flooring, and other valuable and useful products. Finding the highest and best uses for our trees at the end of their life cycle is an important way to improve our resource stewardship while also creating new sustainable economic development.
How much salvaged timber is available in a typical urban setting?
It is difficult to estimate the available salvaged timber for a “typical” urban setting since urban forests are so diverse. Cities vary wildly in their tree planting and maintenance activities. However, we do know that nationally, urban forests have a much greater and higher quality wood resource than most people would expect. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the salvaged timber generated annually from tree removals in the country’s urban areas, if processed, could produce up to 3.8 billion board feet of sustainable lumber.
There have been studies in some metropolitan areas that provide even more detailed estimates for a particular region. For example, according to research by Michigan State University, the dead trees removed from Southeast Michigan’s communities could produce 4.7 million board feet of lumber each year, even when accounting for log quality and relative ease of removal. That’s enough wood to build 362 average-sized homes.
Can business owners earn a full time income selling urban timber products?
Owning an urban forest products business is not for the faint of heart, but many entrepreneurs from across the country have built successful companies on this model. Most urban sawmills are part-time efforts, but many do operate full-time enterprises. Unfortunately, just like other small business start-ups, some urban mills go out of business quickly. It is not enough to simply enjoy working with wood or to enjoy the process of milling.
As with any business, the owner should have a strong business plan, thoroughly understand the local resource availability, and know the markets for the products. Any business that assumes that logs will be easy to come by or that lumber will be easy to sell will be doomed to fail. The urban forest products industry represents an exciting new opportunity, but a good business strategy is always essential for success.
What are the best ways to market wood products made from urban trees?
It is typically quite difficult to market urban forest products at a commodity scale alongside large-scale producers. As products that are usually manufactured one-at-a-time by skilled professionals in small shops, they should be marketed as such. This niche marketing concept places urban forest products businesses in a great position to take advantage of two growing marketing trends: green and local products.
For customers who are concerned about where their products are manufactured and how they affect the environment, urban wood products are an appealing alternative. As products reclaimed from disposal or lower-value uses (such as mulch), urban lumber has great credentials on sustainability. Since the products are typically also harvested, manufactured, and sold within a small local area, they often have a lower carbon footprint than other (even certified sustainable) wood products and contribute to supporting the local economy.
Green building and renovation in particular, with their emphasis on sustainable materials, represent a great market opportunity for urban forest products. Perhaps even more importantly to many customers, urban forest products can have a remarkable story that allows for a personal connection. Customers can have the chance to improve the beauty of their homes with wood that once shaded their favorite streets or even their own backyards. In doing so, they may gain an even stronger appreciation for the benefits that urban forests can provide at every stage of life.
Read part 2 of my interview with Jessica Simons and learn about Harvesting Urban Timber.