Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Buy Local - Lumber edition

I am currently working with the College of St Joseph to start a farm on campus. Before I became a farmer, I had no idea what it meant to be one. There is a quote that hangs on my refrigerator, “… to be a good farmer, you have to be a scientist, a mechanic, a businessman…” I have, over the years, added to that list: an architect, a plumber, an electrician, a counselor, a nutritionist, a chef. Forestry is the farming of building materials and other useful byproducts - it’s like growing shelter rather than food. Last week, I took some students on a field trip to Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford to learn about the process of turning logs into lumber, specifically for a compost shed we are constructing this spring.    

Ken Gagnon runs his mill with the pride that comes with having your name on the sign, and the warmth and welcome that keeps that sign standing. He knows the importance of being fair to his suppliers, supporting his employees, and educating his customers. Before the modern industrial practice of shipping materials all over the world, folks relied on resources that were easily accessed. If a farmer needed to build a fence, she might cut down some trees from her land for the posts, then patiently plant another stand for ‘next time’. Nowadays, a few clicks of the keyboard take me to a website where I can find fencing to keep all sorts of critters out of my vegetables; I even have the option of expedited shipping. The compost shed we are planning for could also be ordered from afar, and wouldn’t even need to be constructed of wood. But living in a state that has the resources and knowledge of generations of farmers and lumberjacks, how could I choose another source but Gagnon, sited mere minutes from campus and sourcing materials from just a crow’s flight of less than 10 miles?
Ken walked us through the process from delivery in to delivery out; logs to posts and beams and boards and trims and chips and bark and dust. Log trucks  arrive, are weighed, and park. Then comes the first of many large machines: like a claw at an arcade, the log loader takes the logs one-by-one from trailer to ground, piling them as if they were toothpicks. Each log is accounted for, measured and marked. A scaling stick tells of how many board feet the log will yield, and – based on market value – Ken and the crew must fairly estimate the worth of a log before that log sees a blade, and long before that wood is sold. If a truck comes in on Wednesday, that logger gets his pay on Friday. That’s one way Ken stays supplied, keeping a logger happy will keep him coming back.
Once the logs are unloaded, they are stacked according to species: maple, white birch, yellow birch, pine, hemlock, and locust all stacked up like a winter’s wood pile for giants. The process from here is fairly quick. Our little group was lead over to the de-barker, where logs are spun and shaved, peeling off the exterior layers of bark and dirt. From here, logs are cut according to species and lumber orders. The end result is multi-fold; a pile of bark, a square timber, some thin boards from the outer edges, and scraps that are collected and chipped. From stacks of round logs to stacks of squared wood and pyramids of chips, bark and sawdust, one is quick to realize just how much material the forest yields.
Small wood products are created here as well. The bark-free scraps from lumber cutting are collected and shipped to paper mills. The shaved bark is collected and sold as mulch to gardeners and landscapers. Some trees that arrive at the mill are destined for the chipper from the start. Just as in a garden, a managed forest contains crops and weeds. When timber is harvested, some low grade “weed” trees need to be removed to favor the timber crops. Those weeds arrive at the mill, are piled, then chipped, bark and all. This material is then shipped to local schools and facilities that utilize biomass heat. Green Mountain College, Middlebury College, and Mt. Anthony Schools in Bennington, are three places that Ken has shipped chips for heat. Sawdust is also piled high for use in composters, pellet stoves, and animal stalls. In the spirit of optimization of energy and utilization of local materials, building a shed that will house the compost made from our food scraps and used in our school garden out of lumber grown and sawn nearby sounds like a dream.

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