Small Mills, Big Profits

By Jack Petree

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of farmers in the Northeast and elsewhere make, in an average year, significant profit from their portable sawmills. Many earn more from their sawmill than they do from their tractor.

Farmers and other landowners holding nonindustrial forested lands throughout the Northeast are perfectly poised to benefit economically from the advantages the portable sawmill offers. Timber resources (the forests, especially small forests) require attention to remain healthy. A portable sawmill can be purchased cheaply enough to allow one and two-person businesses the opportunity to realize the potential provided by a resource requiring attention, and a rapidly growing awareness of the environmental and economic advantages of utilizing local wood provides an expanding market.

The portable sawmill as a tool

The term "portable sawmill" has come to denote a mill capable of operation by one or two persons that can be loaded in or towed behind a pickup to the site of a milling opportunity. The units can usually be set up to operate in 15 minutes to half an hour, and can start producing quality lumber within seconds after set up.

The mills are generally powered by gas or diesel engines, and most utilize blades with much thinner kerf than sawmills used to require (kerf is the thickness of the cut made when a blade slices into a piece of raw material). The thinness of the blades allows for, some studies show, as much as 30 percent more lumber from a log than conventional technologies provide, as well as corresponding increases in value. Thin-kerf mills also save energy, as it takes less power to pull a thin blade through a log than is required to pull a thicker blade.

The resource - use it or lose it

According to the U.S. Forest Service, "More than half the forestland in the U.S. (423 million acres), mostly located in the East, is owned and managed by some 11 million forest owners." Sixty-two percent of that privately owned land is in the hands of families and individuals or, as the service labels them, "family forests."

Photos by Bob M. Montgomery Images, www.bmmimages.com.

About one-quarter of those family forest owners (with about 100 million acres of land) report that their land is associated with a farm or ranch. In total, about 43 million of the nation's family forest lands grow in the Northeast. Nationally, about seven out of 10 family forest owners live either on or within a mile of their forested lands.

Those family forestlands require maintenance to remain healthy, and that leads to significant opportunity for portable sawmill owners. Large-scale, industrial harvest techniques are inappropriate for smaller parcels of land or for larger forests a landowner may want to maintain through selective harvest. The portable sawmill offers landowners the opportunity to "use it before they lose it."

"Losing it," is a real risk in a family forest. As reported by an academic team from Auburn University (Lupo et al) to the recent Small Scale Forestry in a Changing World conference in Bled, Slovenia, "Small-scale landowners often state that they do not actively manage their timber because they lack confidence in forest management practices, or they perceive low returns from timber markets. This lack of management may inadvertently jeopardize the health of their forest."

Many landowners have discovered the benefits of small-scale harvest in conjunction with portable sawmilling. Additional work recently published by Lupo demonstrates that for the most part, portable sawmills do not compete with traditional mills for logs. Much of the material portable mills process comes as the result of thinning to remove trees damaged in storms, by insects, clearing of land (a homesite, for example) or other uses producing smaller amounts of timber than commercial harvesters are interested in.

A significant part of the material recovered and milled is wood that would have been wasted or underutilized absent the availability of a portable mill. "Portable sawmill utilization can be used in conjunction with many small-scale forest management strategies with minimal site disturbance to generate income or a value-added product, especially in situations where timber would have otherwise been wasted," Lupo found.

Processing logs that would otherwise be wasted into useful products provides environmental and social enhancements in addition to economic benefits. The lumber replaces harvesting of healthy trees, leaving them to continue scrubbing carbon from the air and releasing oxygen.

Portables turn "waste" into dollars

The lumber produced on a portable sawmill represents a real opportunity for the farmer or woodlot owner, in that lumber sawn from the farm woodlot replaces the need to buy lumber at retail. Lumber from a diseased or damaged tree harvested from the farm, milled into lumber with a portable mill and used for fencing, repairing a barn or any one of 100 other needs is lumber produced for pennies on the dollar compared to purchase at retail.

The work at Auburn also demonstrates that a ready market exists for fiber milled with a portable sawmill. Many mills are originally purchased to mill lumber for a home or barn, to build furniture with or for some other reason. Ultimately, Lupo and her fellow researchers found only about 20 percent of the portable sawmills in service were originally purchased with the goal of using it to make a living. Over time, however, nearly 60 percent of the mills end up providing either full or part-time income for the owners.

Near Peach Bottom, Pa., Ben Stoltzfus purchased a manual band sawmill so he could cut wood in his spare time. Within six months his hobby turned into a full-time business, requiring Stoltzfus to upgrade to a faster mill with hydraulic log controls. Although some of the wood is used on the 138-acre dairy farm his mill is located on, most of the wood he processes is sold retail.

Farmers can benefit because milling can take place when other farm chores are at an ebb. Is it too muddy to plow? It's seldom too muddy to mill. Is the ground frozen? The portable sawmill doesn't care.

The markets have only just begun to grow

Portable sawmills are not designed to compete with commodity lumber producers. A kiln-dried fir 2x4 is almost always going to be cheaper at the local lumberyard.

However, portables can provide lumber no lumberyard carries, including common boards for everyday use (fencing, repairs, etc.), full dimension materials for use in restoration projects, local species not obtainable on the open market without extraordinary expense and specialty dimensions.

The huge driver in the future market? The environment.

Locally produced lumber qualifies for green points in most green building protocols, so architects, contractors and others are increasingly interested in the products a portable sawmill firm might produce.

Equally, environmentally conscious consumers are interested in lumber milled from dead trees; insect, wind or frost-damaged trees; and other lumber routinely milled by portable sawmilling firms. Especially if that lumber can be had at a competitive price.

Portable sawmills = enhanced profitability

Today, thousands of entrepreneurs utilize portable mills as the base of viable, growing businesses either in conjunction with a farm or other enterprise or as the sole source of income. Freeman Bender recently expanded his milling business on a 200-acre dairy farm that also contains a 50-acre woodlot. He either mills wood on the farm or for others at their own timber source, primarily making fence material, with the profit from milling helping to keep the farm in the black.

Freeman says, "There is enough local demand for my products that I was able to make the decision in 2010 to upgrade my old mill by purchasing a Wood-Mizer LT40 with hydraulics to handle my expanding needs. My old mill just couldn't handle the bigger logs I needed to cut, and I had to cut more wood to keep up with demand from local horse farms for the fence materials I make."

Freeman's experience is typical of many farm and forest owners.

At Auburn, Lupo found that more than 45 percent of the new mills purchased are bought because the first mill turned out to be too small. It is clear the capacity of a sawmill should be an important consideration when a purchase is contemplated. A mill that's too small means reduced potential for profit.

Portable sawmilling has become an important profit center for farms and other resource-based industries in recent years. Indications are that market opportunities and the resulting benefits to farm and forest owners are so striking even greater growth is on the near horizon.

The author has been a longtime contributor to Forest Products Equipment and is a freelance contributor based in Washington state.