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by Barb Baylor Anderson, Contributing Editor

Jim Birkemeier no longer believes traditional forestry works for forests or forest owners. The 1976 University of Wisconsin-Madison forestry grad now fosters a sustainable philosophy that preserves water, soil and wildlife, brings value-added profits to landowners, and creates local jobs.

"I used to ‘high-grade’ and abuse the forest with traditional methods. But about 20 years ago I started thinking about how we could utilize poor-quality trees and wood that others left behind and provide new benefits to landowners," says Birkemeier, who owns Timbergreen Farm, Spring Green, Wis. "We’ve found uses for just about every underutilized species, other than poison ivy … and we are working on that one!"

Birkemeier asserts that low stumpage prices in the past led to shortsighted forestry management. He blames high-grade harvesting, grazing, burning and neglect for wasting what was once a vast timber resource in Wisconsin. As such, he says future supplies of good quality wood will fall fhort of demand, but also create more opportunities for those landowners who practice sustainability.

"Sustainable forestry makes a full commitment to the future, protects the environment and nurtures the natural ecosystem of the forest," says Birkemeier. "A sustainable forest is in balance with its community."

Sustainability requires about 75 percent of the annual growth from a fully stocked stand of high-quality timber be periodically, selectively and carefully harvested, he explains. A fully stocked stand has trees of all ages and sizes and a natural variety of tree species.

"The stand should fully occupy its site so that it can naturally regenerate and gradually change over time. A good stand will use the light, water and soil nutrients to produce maximum growth of valuable wood products," he says.

Those wood products are made even more valuable, says Birkemeier, when sustainable foresters operate a local value-added co-op or business. By foregoing contracts with traditional logging companies and cutting out the "middleman," landowners achieve more profitable returns.

"During a normal harvest, the logging company usually takes the best trees for short-term profit. That leaves the landowner with little income," Birkemeier explains. "Our approach is to log more carefully and then find ways to locally process wood for different markets that will add value. That creates profits and local jobs. The concept can work in any community."

In fact, Birkemeier works with other landowners and communities to set up sustainable forestry systems, as well as process and market wood locally. He is a certified resource manager with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an industry group that offers certification standards for growers and an "eco-label" that identifies that products are made from wood grown in a well-managed forest.

"Landowners have always wanted a better system of forestry, but there had never been a good alternative," he says. "Sustainable practices and FSC certification are good marketing tools. High-quality products and word-of-mouth are also good ways to produce return customers."

For example, Birkemeier uses a solar kiln to dry his wood, which reduces energy costs and improves lumber quality. "Careful drying eliminates stress and defects and allows us to market a better product," he says. "On a sunny day, we can collect for free as many as 100,000 BTUs per hour in each of our kilns."

Wood processed at Timbergreen Farms finds a home in any number of diverse applications. Once-ignored aspen has successfully found its way into flooring, log home building and furniture construction, while black cherry, butternut and more than 20 other species are also marketed as "SmartWood" in such applications as pens and key chains.

"We can gain 100 times the value of the tree when we grow, process and market the wood ourselves as flooring, and it is still a good deal for the customer when compared with traditional outlets," Birkemeier says. "We most often work with people who like to know where wood comes from. In today’s market, we find environmentally friendly products are preferred if the customer knows the story behind those products."

Birkemeier adds that many of the marketing strategies they find successful were borrowed from farmers. "We have seen farmers have success with local promotions and selling direct to customers," he says. "With so many ways to market products and disseminate information today, that makes reaching the consumer with our message much easier."

Birkemeier’s Web site is AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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