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Article #91, January, 2005
By Bill Cook

     Forest industry has long been a key piece of Michigan's economic health and ecological recovery. Most of us probably think of paper mills, logging, and lumber. However, the forest industry is far more diverse than that, producing over 5,000 products nationwide. Many of these we use nearly every day without a second thought.

     One of the more interesting segments of this wide-ranging industry is the small sawmiller. Many of these businesses are part-time and seasonal. You usually don't have to go too far to find someone with a portable mill or a small custom mill, at least not in our rural forested regions.

     There is not a lot known about this industrial sector in the upper Lake States. We don't know how many businesses there are or how much wood they saw over a year's time. Operators tend to be fairly independent and most probably have other jobs. Marketing small quantities of high quality lumber can be difficult, unless done collectively.

     In 2003 and 2004, a study was done in the north central portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula through MSU Extension and the U.S. Forest Service. The focus of the study was to learn how feasible a collective marketing strategy might be for small sawmillers. Could enough quality lumber be sawn and pooled to gain access to higher dollar markets? If so, how might this be accomplished?

     The study identified over 50 portable or custom mills in a six county area. Most operations are run by hobbyists or part-time sawyers. There are more than 50 mills across this area, but a complete sawyer list was not an objective. Twenty of these sawyers might reasonably generate roughly 3.5 million board feet of lumber each year, much of which is custom-sawed. A board foot is equivalent to an inch-thick piece of wood 12 by 12 inches. That's about 20-25 truckloads each week. Most of the product is currently softwood (conifers), although most of the resource is hardwood (broadleaf trees). More high grade lumber might be produced if there was better market access and sawyers learned more about sawing for grade.

     The study suggests a huge potential for economic development for the region, more money to small sawmillers, and better utilization of the wood resource. Main points are sawyer education, shift to more high quality hardwood logs, establish some sort of concentration yard, and consider additional value-added capability such as kilns and moldings.

     There are lots of ways to skin this cat. A flexible business plan was provided that shows excellent potential. Already, Bell Forest Products of Ishpeming has agreed to work with sawyers and marketing small lots of lumber. And, a lumber grading course has been scheduled in February in Alberta. Call Jim Isleib at 906-387-2530 for more information.

     There is nearly an endless number of ways that people use trees and forests. Many of these ways generate supplemental income, but many more represent traditional and family uses. Marla Emery wrote a PhD dissertation on this often hidden set of forest uses and values among people of the Upper Peninsula. Our forests remain intrinsically linked to our northern lifestyles. Managing, monitoring, and maintaining them is important for more ways than most of us probably realize.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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