Enterprise in the Woods
Creative Minnesotans are making and marketing special products from high-quality forest materials.
By Margaret A. Haapoja
Portrait photography by Bruce Kluckhohn
JOE JEWETT IS THE THIRD GENERATION TO OPERATE THE FAMILY logging business in Aitkin County. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in natural resources and environmental studies in 1994 and purchased the company in 1997. Since then, timber markets have changed. "I started out doing aspen pulpwood like my dad," says Jewett, "but Im moving more into hardwood. I have smaller equipment for hardwood thinnings, and theres less competition for hardwood stumpage."
What Jewett discovered was a growing demand for high-quality hardwood for, among other uses, woodcarving. His business has turned from quantity toward quality.
Hes not alone. Timber from old-growth forests built Minnesotas cities and its economy, but these days the state is struggling to compete with Canadian imports and cheap tropical wood. According to Minnesota Forest Industries estimates for 2000, the industrys total impact on Minnesotas economy was $7 billion, of which pulp, paper, and board were $2 billion. As forestry markets change, more and more emphasis is being placed on diversity and special forest products.
"With the expansion of a very intensive forestry in the equatorial parts of the world, were not going to be as competitive in providing the worlds bulk fiber needs as much as we are going to be competing to provide quality fiber and quality products combined with improved processing efficiencies and innovations," says Mike Carroll, director of the Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. "There will be a lot of niche marketing." Like Jewett, many individuals are recognizing these new opportunities and discovering unique ways to market specialty forest products, which command premium prices.
Jewetts conversion came a year ago in a conversation with John Krantz, former DNR marketing and utilization specialist. Krantz mentioned the growing demand for woodcarving stock. "Minnesota has the best basswood in the U.S. in terms of texture and carve-ability," says Krantz, "and once customers are aware of sources and the wood is harvested, sawn, and dried properly, they will be customers for life."
Jewett cuts basswood in the winter, saws it in early spring, and dries it in a low-temperature kiln to retain its white color and keep the surface from hardening.
Jewett sorts basswood three times. The clearest material he saws from 5/8-inch to 5 inches thick for carvers, the second is paneling grade, and the third he sells as pulpwood. Marketing a value-added product like carving stock is difficult and time-consuming, but Jewett likes being diversified. He attends carving shows during the summer, and he expects his products reputation to spread by word of mouth. His basswood for carvers has already found its way to Idaho and Texas.
Carvers Elaine and Fred Stenman of St. Cloud purchase basswood from Jewett. "Basswood is probably 99.9 percent of the wood we use in the relief pieces we do, and it needs to be dealt with in a certain way by someone who really cares," says Elaine. "Its the softest of the hardwoods, and it doesnt have a lot of grain to interfere. A strong-grained wood like pine is more likely to chip out, and its harder to carve."
PEOPLE JOKE ABOUT US BEING SANTAS WORKSHOP," SAYS MINDY bowman, owner of Minnesota Woods Products in Bemidji, "and youd better like Christmas if youre going to do this." Bowman has been in the balsam wreath business for 22 years, and her mother ran the company for 20 years before that. During those 42 years, the work force grew from 25 to between 110 and 120 employees.
The firm is one of many wreath makers in a state that is the nations largest producer of holiday wreaths. DNR marketing and utilization specialist Keith Jacobson estimates the states balsam bough and wreath industry at more than $20 million in annual sales.
Bowman begins buying boughs from local residents after the first frost for an eight-week production season that begins in October. Her product line includes wreaths, swags, candy canes, crosses, centerpieces, and garlands. "The vast majority of our customers are kidsBoy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and school groups that are going door to door taking orders," she says. The company ships to seven Midwestern states, and a few orders go as far as Florida and Texas. Twelve years ago Bowman added an evening shift assembling wreaths to keep up with demand.
"We cant move the date of Christmas," she says, "so as December approaches the pressure builds." Its a juggling act to balance her bough purchases with orders, and Bowman tries to buy only what she thinks shell need. "Burning them is really a sin," she says. "Not only are you wasting money and resources, but you could have had those boughs for next year."
FROM KAYAKS TO COFFINS, MARK HANSEN CAN MAKE JUST ABOUT anything out of wood that he harvests from the forest near his North Shore home.
Im doing what I used to do in fourth grade," says the owner of Hansen Boat Works. "My work now is just an extension of my old treehouse days."
Son of a Lutheran pastor who taught him his craft, Hansen is a founder of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, where he teaches others to build skis, toboggans, snowshoes, birch-bark canoes, paddles, kayaks, and umiaks (wooden-framed boats covered with skins). "Its all stuff you need, that has a function," he says. "The casket-making course has been pretty popular. Were all going to die."
Hansen built about 100 toboggans last winter and six pairs of skis for sale. Each year he turns out a half-dozen boats, from kayaks to fishing boats.
"Most of the boats I build come right out of the forest," he says, "so Ive got a small portable mill that I take out into the woods on a toboggan. Ill buy a tree, go out and fell it, and saw up just the kind of boards I want. Ive got a couple of sled dogs to pull the load out. Theres a pretty small footprint on the land logging with dogs, almost a leave-no-trace kind of situation."
Hansen also buys wood, mostly from local loggers who are aware of his needs. "Im willing to beat whatever veneer buyers are paying," he says. "I often spend $40 to $50 on a tree. Its a resource thats dwindling, and weve got to wake up to that. Weve got to start planting more than just pine trees."
Hansens skis and toboggans are made of birch, but he also works with pine, tamarack, basswood, ash, and cedar. His business card reads "Builder of Collector-Quality Indigenous Crafts of the North." He studied kayak building in Greenland and swapped tips with Scandinavian shipwrights.
"I think the indigenous designs have very sensible lines for cruising in cold water," he says. "Theres a lot to be learned from them."
VACATIONERS TRAVELING NORTH ON U.S. 53 ARE LIKELY TO NOTICE A sturdy log bed, gazebo, and yard swing on display just south of Orr. In fact, road traffic brings many customers, says Ryan Holman, the young owner of Ryans Rustic Railings & Furniture. As a teenager, Holman began building stairways and railings for Voyageur Log Homes, his fathers business on the other side of Orr. His 8-year-old company has eight to 15 employees working in the shop, making deliveries, and installing railings. His customers come from all over Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Ontario.
Most of Holmans products are constructed of northern white cedar, a fragrant wood known for low shrinkage, long life, durability, and resistance to rot, insects, and fungi. "The cedar is harder and harder to get, but I know most of the loggers in this area," says Holman, "and I buy a lot of the smaller wood from loggers because theres no market for it." Last year he purchased 650 cords. None of it goes to waste. From cedar that isnt suitable for railings or furniture, Holman makes fence posts. He even sells shavings from the shop floor for landscape mulch.
Railings make up the largest percentage of sales, and Holman works with several log-home companies. To market his products, he advertises in magazines such as Log Home Living, and he attended 13 log home shows around the Midwest this past year. More and more orders come from the companys web site. Log beds, ranging in price from $650 to $1,350, are big sellers, and futon sofas, dining-room tables and chairs, fireplace mantels, and coffee and end tables are popular too. All are available either machine-peeled for a smooth, uniform appearance or hand-peeled with a drawknife for a rustic look.
NORTHRUP BIRCH-BARK FANNING BASKETS ARE MORE THAN functional tools used to separate the hulls from grains of wild rice; theyre prized art objects. Musician and actor Kris Kristofferson owns one, and so do the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Minnesota History Center, and Science Museum of Minnesota. Working in the tradition of his Ojibwe ancestors, Jim and Pat Northrup make about 50 of the broad, shallow baskets each summer at their home on the Fond du Lac Reservation near Sawyer. They call the baskets nooshkaachinaagan, meaning winnowing basket in Ojibwe, and each one is unique.
"I call it going to the mall," Jim says of his trips to the woods to gather the raw materialsbirch bark, basswood bark, and green willow. Birch bark peels easily for only six weeks in early summer; Jim says he knows its ready when he gets his first deerfly bite.
"First I make an offering of tobacco to thank the Creator for the tree." The tree, he says, will continue to live if he doesnt cut through the cambium layer beneath the bark.
The Northrups use green willow branches as a frame for the top of the basket, and they sew layers of birch bark to that frame with thin strips of a basswoods inner bark. A scalloped skirt decorates and strengthens the upper edge. "This is fragile material," says Jim, "but it makes a very sturdy basket. Birch bark likes to curl into itself so as it gets older, it gets stronger."
Each basket takes about 12 hours to make, not counting the harvesting, and they sell for $200 to $500 each. Jim has demonstrated his techniques to students from all over the world, but he and Pat are among only a few residents of their reservation that make fanning baskets.
My grandfather used to make them," Jim says, "and I must have paid more attention than I thought because in putting them together I can feel something, a connection."
Margaret A. Haapoja is a free-lance writer who lives on Little Sand Lake south of Calumet. Shes a garden columnist for the Duluth News Tribune and a frequent contributor to the Volunteer. Bruce Kluckhohn, Minneapolis, is a free-lance photographer.