Portable Sawmills: A Farm Implement That Pays Its Way

Portable sawmills are potential profit centers for modern family farms.

In days past, most family farms in the United States depended heavily on the woodlot as a source for fuel, lumber, food and shelter. While the importance of the farm-centered woodlot to the operation of many farms declined in the later decades of the 20th century, the invention of the modern, portable band sawmill some 30 years ago allowed the family farmer of today to reintroduce the woodlot as an important profit center for many farming operations.

In Pine City, New York, for example, Mark and Jim Watts were able to rebuild after a tragic fire nearly leveled their 150-year-old dairy barn. Using lumber from their land and a portable sawmill to save nearly $75,000 over the cost the brothers would have faced without the woodlot, the new barn along with a new and modern milking parlor rose from the ashes of the old structure. According to Mark, the project could never have become a reality without the sawmill and the trees growing on his own land and on the land of his neighbors who donated logs to the effort. The Watts’ experience highlights the importance a portable sawmill can have in acting as a profit center for farm owners looking to reduce costs, supplement other farm or job income or simply enhance the health of their farm forest.

The Watts farm is, like most family farms in the 21st century, a multifaceted enterprise. According to Mark, “We own 275 acres and work probably another 100 acres of our neighbor’s land. About 40 acres of our land is forested. We currently milk 20 cows and keep about 30 young animals. We also keep about 16 beef animals and sell between 4,000 and 5,000 square bales of hay per year to horse owners. We use our woodlot to source wood to mill lumber for personal use on the farm and to provide about 50 to 60 cords of wood we offer for sale each year.”

Mark said he and his brother also mill lumber and cut firewood on lands owned by friends and neighbors in the area.

Beyond their farm work, like many family farmers today, Mark and Jim have full-time jobs off the farm; Mark works for the local soil and water conservation district and Jim for the local town highway department.

Private landowners manage national resource

Woodlots like those owned by the Watts brothers represent a huge potential resource for farm families throughout the Northeast. Those woodlots are also a national resource of great importance; they provide safe and clean filters for much of the nation’s water supply, trap climate-related gasses in their fiber, offer habitat for birds and animals and are used to provide wood, recreation, and homes by the people who own them.

Portable sawmills represent one of the most viable ways to realize the value of that resource. Lumber for on-farm use replaces the need to purchase lumber with almost no cost involved; lumber can be sold and sawmilling services can be profitably offered to neighbors and friends. Portable mills are also widely used to provide for the health of the forests and woodlots managed by private landowners; a wind-damaged tree milled up into lumber not only sequesters (traps) a good deal of carbon in that lumber, it replaces the need to mill a healthy tree from a forest elsewhere.

Portable sawmills can also provide social and economic enhancements at the individual community level. Crystal V. Lupo of Rutgers University has done groundbreaking work in recent years researching the place portable sawmill-based “microenterprises” can have in enhancing both the lives and communities of individuals offering milling services.

“Microenterprises can add valuable resources to the larger society, in filling important markets often outside the scope of mainstream industry and by enhancing a society’s well-being through reduction of poverty, creating opportunities available to people who are marginalized by the labor force for one reason or another,” she wrote in “The Case of Portable Sawmill-Based Microenterprises.” “Forest microenterprises, in particular, can be beneficial to enhancing community development efforts as well as forest conservation goals, empowering local people to enhance their own income as well as manage their resources.”

Privately owned acres require management

According to the USDA Forest Service, more than half of the nation’s forests are in private hands. Over 10 million family forest owners own more than 264 million of those forest lands with most of that ownership and acreage located east of the Mississippi. More than 100 million acres of that forest land is associated with farms and ranches; about 2.4 million family forest owners like the Watts brothers farm that land.

Even more families own woodlands not associated with farms but, according to the Forest Service, studies show those families also desire to manage their lands for various uses including recreational homes, wildlife habitat and a connection with the land. Each land holder represents a potential customer for the farm owner with a sawmill.

As summed up by Lupo, “Portable sawmills can be part of small-scale timber harvesting activities that make a positive environmental contribution while optimizing resource utilization, maximizing options and increasing revenue streams for portable sawmill owners and landowners.”

Portable sawmill – a farm implement that pays its way

The Watts brothers have owned and operated The Watts Family Farm since 2002 when they took over operation of the farm upon the passing of their father. The farm had been in the family since 1960 so the boys had a strong attachment to the place, having grown up on the dairy.

According to Mark, he’d been sawmilling for years when disaster struck the farm in the form of a 2012 fire that turned the old dairy barn into a pile of smoldering ash. “I owned a Wood-Mizer LT-15 and just liked to see a log be able to be turned into lumber,” he said. “We used it mainly for personal use; we really did not use the machine for income.”

What followed would form the basis for an old Jimmy Stewart movie about the fabled New England community penchant for pitching in to help others in troubling times. Almost immediately, Mark said, “We had dozens of folks show up to help clean up after the fire. Actually the entire site was cleaned up in two days.”

The decision to rebuild the family farmstead was made almost as quickly as was the decision to purchase a larger sawmill fitted out with the hydraulics necessary to a production operation, a mill with adequate capacity to produce the lumber needed to rebuild the barn in a timely manner.

“We went with Wood-Mizer’s LT 35 Hydraulic sawmill and got to work,” Mark said. “We then spent the next few months cutting and milling trees. We had friends help to cut and drag trees to the mill and then nights and weekends we would mill the lumber. We also had many friends and neighbors offer us the use of their woodlots to get additional trees. We also have a friend in the tree cutting business who, when they had good trees, would give them to us. I would estimate there were hundreds of hours where people came in to help provide meals and one farmer provided the room for our milk cows.”

An Amish family was hired to do most of the construction. With the brothers and other volunteer helpers working along side them, a new barn as well as a modern milking parlor rose from the ashes in just nine months. “We were able to milk cows again on the farm our parents started in 1960,” Mark and Jim said. “The feeling of that is something that just cannot be put into words. We have been back milking now for three years and we still get choked up when we think of everything that happened in 2012.”

The Watts brothers continue to operate the sawmill today. Due mostly to time constraints, Mark said, he and his brother generally don’t mill for others as a business. “But we do see the opportunities,” he said. “Just sawmilling for our own use and the use of friends and neighbors we have all we can do to keep up.”

“However,” Mark said, “I can see great potential in using a sawmill to generate additional income and have been asked on several occasions to saw for payment.”

On the farm, Mark said his portable sawmill is an invaluable piece of equipment. “This past year,” he said, “we milled out enough lumber for my cousin to build a 30-foot by 30-foot horse barn and we constructed a 36-foot by 80-foot pole barn ourselves; we sawed the poles, headers, roof and side boards for the project. The only cost was for the trusses and metal siding and roofing. My cousin saved thousands as we cut everything except the poles and metal for the roof.”

The Watts mill is also in the process of possibly becoming the basis for an on-farm cottage industry, according to Mark. “My wife is in the beginning stages of woodworking and making crafts from lumber sawn from our Wood-Mizer. We’re currently looking into what it would cost to construct a solar kiln. We also have a friend who builds cabinets and full kitchens who is interested in a possible partnership and we have seen interest in folks who would like to take wood from their own property, have it milled, kiln dried and then turned into stairs, cabinets or other wood furniture.”

As valuable as the portable sawmill has been as a farm tool, Mark still contends the gratification of being able to harvest a tree saw into lumber and see the hard work suddenly becomes a reality, as it did with the new Watts dairy barn, is the real benefit he and his brother realize from portable sawmilling.