The Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative

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Landowner cooperatives have organized across the U.S. to facilitate 

profitable and sustainable management on private forestlands. In Virginia, the Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative is ready to take off.

 

Meet Harry Groot: Harry is a landowner, farmer, and sawmiller in southwest Virginia who’s been running his own wood products business for years. Next Generation Woods produces value-added wood products from timber Harry harvests from local forestlands using “worst-first” harvest planning and low-impact logging techniques. Harry has seen that integrating sustainable forestry and value-added processing makes good forestry pay for landowners.

 

Harry’s a strategist. He knew that more landowners in his region would embrace forest management that protected the ecological integrity of their forests while earning them income from timber and other products. And he knew how to make it work.

 

Sounds simple enough, but Harry and other landowners knew they needed a highly organized structure for providing forestry services for landowners, processing timber, and developing stable markets for their products. After exploring similar efforts across the U.S., they decided that forming a landowner cooperative was the best strategy for making that happen.

 

Their strategy is based on two of the primary doctrines of community forestry: ORGANIZING and VALUE-ADDED PROCESSING.

 

Harry at work

Forest-roots Organizing

Any landowner, forester, logger, or sawmill operator will tell you that today’s timber market is designed to benefit large companies. In the South, this has created a market concentrated in the hands of externally-owned corporations that rely on directing the profits from forest products away from landowners and workers. The level of market concentration that has been achieved in the South has left landowners with limited options for forest management and timber sales, and communities without local processing capacity as small mills have died out.

 

“There are a lot of landowners who are dissatisfied with the options available to them. They’ve had bad experiences with timber harvests, or simply hold negative assumptions about logging. They want to conserve forestlands, but they want to be able to earn some income to help cover their costs, and they want to keep the profits from timber harvests in the local community” explains Harry.

 

By organizing in co-ops, landowners are able to achieve an “economy of scale” that gives them better access to forest management services, markets for timber, and information and support. Enter the Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative. Harry started discussing the co-op idea with several landowners in 2001, and word quickly spread. 36 landowners have inquired so far- all of them heard about the co-op by word-of-mouth.  Their forestlands range in size from 40 to 2,500 acres, and their combined holdings total around 10,000 acres.

 

“We expect a handful of the landowners to join as full members from the start, and others to wait and see how it works.” says Harry. The co-op is also considering offering stock options from non-landowners who want to support the co-op.

 

These days, Harry and the landowners are hard at work. Last summer the landowners attended a course with forestry experts from Virginia Tech to learn how to inventory their timber. Now, several of the landowners are working on their own forest management plans with a lot of support and encouragement from the folks at the Community Forestry Resource Center in Minnesota. The co-op was recently incorporated, and will be gearing up production this year.

 

Value-Added Processing

Here’s where the financial payoff comes. The landowners could stop at developing good management plans and simply sell their timber to mills or loggers, but their income from these sales would be minimized and would likely fall short of making good management, especially forest restoration in degraded stands, profitable or cost-effective.

 

In today’s market, the real profits from wood products don’t go to landowners or even forest workers. Jim Birkemeier, a forester, landowner, and co-op organizer in Wisconsin, is fairly obsessed with helping landowners and forest workers secure a greater share of the “wood products pie”. After years of experience with co-ops, he has shown that landowners dramatically increase their profit share when they organize co-ops for forest management and timber processing. He estimates that landowners only receive 18% of the value of a finished wood product in the larger retail market, while landowners in co-ops can receive as much as 31%- that’s a 72% increase.

 

So, to make a good profit, the co-op won’t be selling timber, but will be selling finished products instead. Harry will be leasing his processing facilities, which include a Woodmizer portable mill, solar kiln, and a Woodmizer molder, to the co-op and doing the processing. He has already developed a market in the local region, but the co-op will be working hard to expand this market.

 

One of the co-op’s marketing strategies is getting Group Certification under the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) Family Forests Program. “The Family Forest Program has really made certification practical for small producers.” Harry explained. The group will pay one fee, and the co-op will be responsible for ensuring that each member’s forestry operations and the processing activities meet FSC standards. This will allow them to sell all of their products as FSC-certified, creating a real market advantage as consumer awareness of forestry issues continues to increase.

 

Why isn’t everyone doing this?

Co-ops are an uncommon phenomenon in the forest products industry but their popularity is growing. Some forestry co-ops have not succeeded, while others are thriving. For those who are determined to develop an alternative to the dominant systems for forest management and wood processing, it’s impossible to go it alone.

 

For many people, organizing a co-op or association is the only way they can begin to establish an infrastructure for profitable sustainable forestry in their region. In the mountains of North Carolina, a co-op is forming to provide sustainable forestry services to landowners and produce finished wood products for the local “green building” community.

 

Should you consider forming a co-op in your area? Absolutely. Will it work everywhere? Probably not. But, if you have a small handful of like-minded folks who are willing to work together to make it happen, it’s worth pursuing. Start talking, start meeting, and contact the Southern Forests Network to learn more about resources and support for starting a co-op.

 

If you’d like to learn more about the Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative:

Harry Groot, CEO

Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative, Inc.

"Helping landowners practice profitable sustainable forestry."

PO Box 510, Christiansburg, VA  24068-0510

540 639 3077

 

For more information about forestry cooperatives:

Community Forestry Resource Center

The Community Forestry Resource Center is located in Minnesota. They’ve been working for years to support the development of forestry cooperatives and facilitate Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. The Center has developed an impressive collection of resources, such as organizing manuals for co-ops and templates for sustainable forest management plans.

 

For more information about Forest Stewardship Council certification:

Forest Stewardship Council

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a non-profit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC sets high standards that ensure forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable way. Landowners and companies that sell timber or forest products seek certification as a way to verify to consumers that they have practiced forestry consistent with FSC standards.

 

Smartwood

SmartWood was the world’s first independent forestry certifier. Established in 1989, we pioneered the concept of forest and forest-products certification, which has since taken hold around the world. Today, SmartWood is the world’s leading nonprofit forestry certifier. Through independent auditing, certification and the promotion of certified forest products, SmartWood's purpose is to improve forest management by providing economic incentives to businesses that practice responsible forestry. SmartWood is a program of the Rainforest Alliance, a global nonprofit conservation organization.