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Wednesday
Nov232011

Forest products: it's not all about logs

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine's Future Writer

As a young boy in the 1940s Richard Nadeau frequently spent time in the remote lumber camps of northwestern Maine with his dad, who worked as a crew boss.

While the men cut and limbed trees, Nadeau saw the deep woods, the towering spruce and fir, the mossy rocks, as a playground.

“I would sit motionless on a log for hours, watching animals. One of the most enjoyable moments was observing a deer killed by a bobcat, which fed on the carcass for as long as I could stay still,” he remembered. He watched squirrels, grouse, and marten. “I think that as a boy I observed every species in Maine.”

 

A few years later his dad moved the family from Stratton to Auburn, where his parents could more easily find employment, and Nadeau became a city kid. He went on to college and became a rehabilitation counselor and vocational expert working with developmentally disabled people. But he never lost his sense of wonder at the woods.

 

When Nadeau retired he moved back to Stratton in 1995. He bought an old building with the vague idea of starting a business. “I knew that starting a business in Stratton would not succeed unless I had an outside market. When the Internet took hold, I knew what business I was to go into,” he said.

 

Today he operates naturallist.com, aptly subtitled “Forest foragers for your natural and wild foods, herbs and arts and crafts materials.” Nadeau sells everything from spruce gum to beaver teeth, moss to moose “nuggets.” He sells birch bark; black bear “oil;” spruce, fir and pine cones' fiddleheads; mushrooms.

 

Forest economists would call Nadeau's inventory “non-timber forest products,” generally shortened to NTFPs.

It's a catchall term that includes pretty much everything that isn't logs felled for timber and pulp.

Dave Fuller shows off an exquisitely crafted folded birch bark basket made by former Penobscot Governor Barry Dana. (Photo: The Rankin File)That includes such prominent products as maple syrup, fiddleheads, and conifer wreaths. Though some people include blueberries in that mix, others argue blueberries don't grow in forests and, since they're managed as an agricultural product would be, should be considered a field crop.

 NTFPs include a huge variety of natural objects ­- seeds, cones, boughs, berries, fungi, plants, bark, saplings -- with utilitarian, decorative, or medicinal uses. They're made into hiking staffs and canes, baskets, decorative wreaths, carvings or turnings, balsam fir pillows, dyes, jams and jellies, tinctures and salves. The list goes on and on.

 And, as your geographic perspective shifts, so does what's on the list. In the south, kudzu, the vine that smothers utility poles, is considered a non-timber forest product. Elsewhere in the world, from Nepal to Brazil to central Africa, people are trying to capitalize on the non-timber forest products in their forest as a way of retaining control of their lands and keeping it as forest.

 Dave Fuller is the University of Maine Cooperative Extension expert on non-timber forest products. He admits that no one has a good handle on what such non-timber products are worth to the Maine economy.

 

Maple syrup alone is a $13 million business in Maine. Holiday wreaths are huge too, with big and well known players such as downeast Maine's Worcester Wreath Co., which touts itself as the only wreath company to manage its own forest -- 4,000 acres of balsam. But Worcester and Maine's other big wreath producers have competitors in small family wreath operations across the state. No one can say how much Maine wreaths are worth, as a sector of the forest products economy. Fuller guesses it's $10 million, but quickly adds “that's probably low.”

 In a 2010 study of non-timber forest products use by residents of the St. John Valley in northern Maine, a trio of researchers from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Forest Service concluded that non-timber forest products “make substantial contributions to the economic viability and cultural vitality of northern forest communities.” In that study, titled Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine, they estimated that northern Mainers used some 120 items from the woods and “established NTFP commodities including maple syrup and conifer wreaths contribute more than $50 million to the northern forest economy annually.”

Getting a handle on the numbers statewide, much less across northern New England region or the northern forest region, is so hard because most non-timber forest products aren't collected on anything even approaching an industrial scale. In fact, most are part of what could be considered an underground economy, but one that provides part-time or seasonal employment for thousands and a supplementary income for rural Mainers who often desperately need it.

“It's often a cash economy. It's appealing to folks because there are low start-up costs associated with it. Which is a great thing. We frequently champion the cause of small business people. But this is even smaller than that,” Fuller said.

Mainers are out there harvesting wreath tips or cones or saplings for hiking staffs; while others are creating, carving and crafting on their kitchen tables. No telling how many people are involved in this below-the-radar part of the economy, but Fuller guesses it's a lot. And he says it does have the potential to grow, especially with the internet as a marketing tool.

 Fiddleheads, the forest fruit of spring. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)The researchers who studied non-timber forest product use in the St. John Valley said most of the people they interviewed sold non-timber forest products to supplement other income, but some rely on it for a living. In addition, many, including many native Americans, trade what they collect or make for other goods, they found.

Native Americans deserve credit for developing uses for many items from the forests around them. They were the first to make maple syrup, of course. They crafted, and still craft, exquisite canoes of birch bark and are famous for brown ash baskets. And they traded their crafts to whites for items such as pots and other metal goods.

In Maine, Fuller said, the Shakers were among the first to try to turn forest arts and crafts into a real moneymaker. Because there were so few tourists coming to Maine in the 1850s, Shakers from the religious sect's communities in southern Maine would take their wares, such as poplar baskets and balsam pillows, to Massachusetts to sell, Fuller said.

Later, spruce gum became a big business, with 300,000 pounds being produced in Maine around the turn of the last century. Fragrant balsam fir pillows came to be one of the most common tourist novelties and helped create dozens of small factories around Maine.

Today there are still a couple of balsam fir pillow factories, including Paine Products and Incense Co.in Auburn and Maine Balsam Fir Products in West Paris. But Nadeau is apparently the only purveyor of spruce gum, which Fuller, a big fan since he was a boy, admits is an acquired taste, kind of like Moxie.

Nadeau said that, even at 71 and with some health conditions, he still gets out in the woods to collect. But he also buys things from other foragers. He buys his birch bark from local loggers and other items from people around the world. Most of the items offered on his website are raw materials, but he also sells other forest-related crafts and products produced by local people.

 

“A business such as mine is motivated by love of nature. It may have the potential to develop further but it becomes a totally different animal as it morphs. By having a global internet market and a very diverse product base, much of which is obtained at very low cost, it remains feasible as a cottage industry. It cannot support a family,” he said.

 

Part of Dave Fuller's collection of balsam fir pillows. (Photo: The Rankin File)Nadeau said he finds the business interesting “because of the customers that I deal with.” They include craftspeople, exotic cooks, herbalists, and pet owners. He's sold pine pitch to grinders of telescopic lenses, for instance. And, he's the “only purveyor of the spruce gum experience in the world, to my knowledge.”

He said he sells black bear “oil” (basically, rendered bear fat) all over the world. It's especially popular in Arab countries. While he says on his website it's used to help grow hair, he acknowledges it probably doesn't. Birch bark is mainly used as a laminate or covering for crafting or furniture making, said Nadeau, though he believes it has potential as medicine.

 

While the use of non-timber forest products has a long history, Fuller thinks it could have a better future.

“Quite often it's seasonal and it lends itself well to seasonal craft fairs. You look at Christmas tree ornaments. A lot them are made in China. I emphasize the tourist industry. We get 35 million people visiting the state of Maine a year and they drop $1.2 billion dollars. That's retail dollars, not motel and everything else. I maintain they come to Maine to buy Maine stuff. When I travel to Italy I'm not looking to buy things from China,” Fuller said.

 

Fuller said he's gone into gift shops and found hiking sticks from China. “And this state is covered with trees.”

Now there's a product with potential, he said. Tens of millions of baby boomers are now heading into their sixties. As you get older the joints are the first to go. What do you need to help propel you along? Right . . . a hiking stick. Maine could supply hiking sticks to a good portion of that aging population just by judicious pre-commercial thinning of hardwood stands.

 

Fuller says non-timber forest products fit right into the local food and fair trade products movements. He said there needs to be a study of tourist preferences. Do they really prefer locally produced items?

 

While useful and decorative items from the forest have to be competitively priced, what Fuller has found out in his research is that craftspeople from Maine to Minnesota and beyond almost invariably under price their products. He routinely sees carefully crafted things, whether it's a birch bark photo frame or delicate basket or an beautifully designed twig wreath with dried flowers and seed pods from indigenous Maine plants, priced for only a few bucks when it should be selling for many times that.

 

To a certain extent it's marketing. And that's where Fuller says some Mainers need help, learning how to read markets and price their goods so they get a fair return for their labor. The internet, however, has made marketing easier. On the internet you can tell your story, and the story of your personal product, in a way you can't in other media, and thus differentiate yourself from the herd, said Fuller. People want to relate to the person they're buying from these days.

 

Birch bark decorations in Dave Fuller's collection. (Photo: The Rankin File)One of the things producers need to emphasize is locally made . . . locally made . . . locally made. Also, that it's a sustainable use of the forest. On its website, Worcester Wreath notes the fact that no balsam firs are felled for their wreaths, that only the tips, which regenerate, are taken.

 

Of course, when you harvest things from the wild, there's always the danger of over harvesting, particularly if a use becomes quite popular.

 

Nadeau said he doesn't harvest rare or protected plants and never harvests anything in large quantities. “I refuse to deal with anyone who depletes the ecosystem or does not respect the environment. I always ask landowners permission to harvest on their land,” he said.

 

The researchers who studied use of non-timber forest products in the St. John Valley found that most of the gatherers they interviewed felt the same way. They cautioned that it's important to understand the plant you're collecting, for instance. Consider whether it's abundant or rate, and take that into account when deciding how much you really need. And also consider that it isn't only humans who use many plants, so do wildlife. Leave enough for them.

 

Fuller holds a creative sculpture of natural materials. (Photo: The Rankin File)Fiddleheads get harvested pretty hard. Fuller did a multi-year study on a patch and found that the plants that were over harvested – where all the fronds were taken, even if only once a year, declined or died within four years, while the plants that underwent a single partial harvest in a year continued to be as healthy as ones that weren't harvested at all. It's a cautionary note.

 

That being said, non-forest products do have economic potential.

 

“I think we need to capitalize on the fact that we're the most forested state in the United States,” Fuller said. “I think there's some potential for unexplored medicinal uses of forest plants and trees. We need to look more closely at it. The University of Maine has recently started doing this.”

 

Most non-timber products from the forest are unlikely to spawn huge industries.

 

But, as a whole, it does “have the potential to put food on the table, to help people pay their taxes,” to provide a supplementary income said Fuller. And, beyond that, it could help the forest itself. If people in these troubled times can see a possibility that their woods could generate a little income, they may be less inclined to sell. And forest fragmentation would be reduced.

 

Joe Rankin lives in New Sharon. The non-timber forest products he harvests from his 75-acre woodlot include copious photographs, quietude, and a feeling of oneness with the earth.