The logging business in Arkansas has been down so long, says Jan Cottingham, that people are skeptical of any predictions of an upturn. And yet some observers are that confident. What they wonder is whether or not the workers will be there to meet the demand.
Labor concerns in Arkansas reflect what’s going on nationwide: the lumber industry workforce is reaching retirement age and employers don’t know if they’ll see new recruitment coming in. Even with some modest increases in the labor force, challenges remain in drawing young people to the industry.
Much like farming, the logging industry is often multi-generational and family-run, says Matt Jensen. He is the vice president of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and a third-generation logger. He says:
This is a business that is really hard to learn and it’s really a lifestyle. If you don’t teach your children the work ethic, they’re not going to continue.
One of the biggest challenges facing the forestry industry is the negative perception about wood usage, according to Scott Bowe of the University of Wisconsin. He thinks it’s hypocritical, because people use wood everyday. “We need fresh, young people to carry the business forward,” he says. “We consume more wood every year. The wood’s got to come from somewhere.”
The question is, who will replace the current generation of loggers?
Logging is capital-intensive, requiring an initial investment of roughly $1 million for heavy equipment like fellers, which cut the trees; skidders, which move the felled trees; processors, which de-limb the trees; and loaders, which lift the logs from piles to trucks. Lenders are reluctant to provide money for new logging businesses.
Whether the businesses are new or established, the amount of work you do depends on the weather. In Arkansas, logging time can be about 40 weeks out of the year. So you’re not going to make a lot of money working in this business. The appeal just isn’t there for a lot of young people.
Steve Richardson owns a logging business in Arkansas and says that every logger has either gotten more productive with fewer people or has gone out of business. Some timber companies are considering forming their own logging crews, a practice that largely disappeared when workers’ compensation insurance rates soared. Vertical integration, in which a company owns the supply chain for its products, used to be typical in the industry, but Richardson is skeptical of its reinstation, saying that those companies don’t know how to work this labor.
These folks that work for me are fiercely independent. They’re not college graduates. They want to make a living, they want to go hunting and fishing on the weekend, and some of them want to start getting drunk on Friday afternoon.
And that mindset doesn’t fit with most business plans, Cottingham says.
Marvin Larrabee of Elk Mound, Wisconsin, says that logging almost has to be passed down in the family. He has four sons assisting him in the business but knows how hard it would be for them to strike out on their own. The expensive equipment is just the start of it. Loggers also have high fuel costs and extremely high insurance premiums. The occupation is consistently ranked one of the most hazardous in the country.
Larry Altman of Vermont was a logger for 20 years. He has pins in his ankle from the time a tree fell on him. On another occasion, his arm was crushed between two logs, but luckily he was working that day with a friend who freed him 45 minutes later.
“You’ll get hurt bad at least one time logging,” he says.
Altman says he’d still do it if you could make money at it, but you can’t.
In this whole picture, there’s a ceiling, and that ceiling is the price paid at the mill. There’s very little wiggle room for the individual logger.
The roots of logging run deep in Vermont. Its first sawmill opened in 1739, and by the middle of the 19th century logging had become Vermont’s largest and most lucrative industry. But today, says Larry Altman, many people, especially in Burlington, have no idea that logging still goes on in Vermont.
Those that become aware of it lump the local timber industry in with large-scale, ecologically devastating logging operations in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, South America, and Asia. The fact is, the vast majority of local loggers are sole proprietors, working alone in the woods, usually equipped with little more than a chainsaw, skidder, bulldozer, and truck.
Some young people are drawn, nevertheless, to the logging business. Will Coleman, 26, and his brother Wesley, 24, started Coleman Brothers Logging LLC, in December 2012. They operate out of Richburg, South Carolina, harvesting pulpwood and saw timber.
The Coleman brothers were able to buy a used Tigercat skidder and feller/buncher with a loan from Natural Capital Investment Fund’s Logging Initiative. NCIF is a business loan fund that provides debt financing to small businesses in West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, south Georgia, and the Appalachian regions of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.
The Coleman brothers say they doubled their loads in the first week after running the equipment they purchased with their loan.
Out on the West Coast, Billy Zimmerman, 25, has launched his own company, Zimmerman Logging LLC, in Rainier, Oregon. Zimmerman was raised on a tree farm his great-grandfather bought in the 1920s, and discovered his love of tree farming at age 10, when his father let him set chokers – setting cables around logs so they can be hauled away – for the first time. He helped his father with farming before and after school and after football practice.
In December of last year he decided to go into business for himself. His father gave him a bulldozer, saving him the $160,000 he might have needed for a new one, and his parents gave him $3,000 in seed money. He was in business by March, with a company consisting of Zimmerman, his best friend, and his father Ron.
Zimmerman works 11-hour days and is willing to underbid others so he can build a client base and his reputation. And his specialty are small jobs. As he puts it:
There are a ton of little 5- and 10-acre jobs that the guys with big machines cannot justify bringing out there to work that job. But we can. We found our niche in smaller jobs, at least for now, and for what we have it’s been working well.