David Boyt - Missouri Tree Farmer
Tree farming has been such a large part of my life for the last 30 years that sometimes I forget not everyone understands what it is and what is involved. If you tell someone you are a soybean or corn farmer, they nod respectfully. Tell them you are into beef cattle and you will likely find yourself in a lively discussion regarding the merits of one breed or another– or at least a debate as to whether Ford or Chevy builds better trucks. But when I tell someone I am a tree farmer, I usually get a blank look and a comment to the effect “THAT’s got to be the easiest job in the world.” I might as well tell them that I work for the highway department watching center stripe paint dry!
While it is true that you won’t find me out in a blizzard trying to deliver hay to a snowbound herd of cows or desperately working to get a field of hay baled and in the barn before a thunderstorm rolls through, I don’t spend much time with my feet propped up reading magazines, either. Tree farming can be as intensive or as hands-off as an individual chooses. With a full-time job, I am less involved than I would like, but I do manage to do some planting, pruning, thinning and even some salvage harvests. One of my more pleasant and productive tasks is running a small portable sawmill.
My first exposure to a sawmill was while working with a sawyer to cut lumber for our home. With more trees than money, it made sense to use the resource at hand. Every week I would haul a load of logs with a list of posts, beams and boards that I needed. That was over 30 years ago. The mill was an old circle mill, powered by an old truck engine with an exposed 56-inch diameter circular blade—the likes of which have been responsible for the dismemberment and deaths of many sawyers and mill hands. Fortunately, there were no incidents.
Though I was uneasy about the work, I liked the idea of using my own logs and watching the boards come off, each with its own unique quality. Years later, when portable bandsaw mills became available, I bought a small one to try out. Unlike the older circle mills, small bandsaw mills move a horizontal band saw blade through the log. The blade is well guarded, the engines range from 16 to 25 horsepower and one or two people can easily operate them. Over the past dozen years, I have owned three portable sawmills.
The idea of selling hardwood logs for $0.18 per board foot on the stump, then paying $0.70 per board foot for pine 2x4s at a store never did appeal to me. Likewise, I don’t like the idea of leaving usable logs in the woods or cutting them up for firewood because they may be an undesirable species, too widely scattered or otherwise of no value to timber harvesters.
With my current sawmill, any log that I can bring in from the woods goes for its best use, depending on size, species and defects. For example, our 16-foot flatbed trailer gets a lot of hard use. Pine boards from the lumber yard just don’t hold up, and they are a little thinner than I would like. With the sawmill, I was able to cull out some post oak trees, mill the logs to lumber exactly 1-7/8 in. thick and install trailer flooring that will probably outlast me.
Presently, I operate a Norwood Pro MX34 bandsaw mill. This is a manual sawmill. All the engine does is power the blade. Log handling (loading logs on the mill bed, turning the logs, clamping) and pushing the blade through the wood are all done with muscle power. With the help of a hand winch, a good cant hook and a little practice, it is much easier than you might think. The 23-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine automatically throttles down and the blade brake engages when not cutting wood. Besides the safety factor, this feature helps bring fuel consumption down to around five gallons for a good day’s work. For me working solo, that is about 1,200 board feet, if the logs are all arranged and ready to go. With the trailer package, I can tow the 1,800 pound mill to a customer’s site. The manufacturer also offers track extensions for cutting long timbers.
Let’s do a little math to see how running a small mill comes out. Assuming you already have the other equipment you need, I will base the figures on cost per thousand board feet:
In other words, the cost comes to less than fifty cents per board foot. Compared to that 2x4 from the lumber yard, sawing the lumber would generate a net profit of $0.20 per board foot or $240 per day.
What if the logs were free? What if you set your best lumber aside to sell for $1.40 per board foot? What if you’re selling cherry or walnut for $2.20 per board foot? What if you kiln dry and plane the lumber to double its value? What starts out as a practical way to cut lumber for my own projects has become a part-time business.
Local farmers have hired me to mill lumber for barn siding, chicken coops and fencing. Other jobs include cutting “salvaged urban logs” from yard trees that have died or blown down. Some of these trees had sentimental value to the owners and they just wanted to make some furniture from them.
To be realistic, this assumes that you can sell all the lumber you cut for the same price as the lumber yard. The potential will only be realized if hard work is combined with good business sense, including marketing.
Like a number of tree farmers who thought they would sell their mill when they finished their house or barn, I did sell my first mill... to get a bigger one! Once I got started, I just didn’t want to give it up. I call it “getting sawdust in your veins.”
While I believe that my mill was a very good investment for me, it is worthwhile to get other opinions. A couple of good web forums are woodweb.com and forestryforum.com. Foresters, sawyers, and woodworkers from around the world participate to ask questions and offer their opinions. If you see any posts from “Post Oakie,” you’ve found me!
Dave Boyt manages his family’s tree farm near Neosho, Missouri. Dave is Managing Editor of Sawmill & Woodlot Management Magazine and a certified logger. He operates his sawmill as a parttime business, as well as to produce lumber for projects around the tree farm. He is employed by Norwood Industries as a writer and holds a degree in Forest Management from the University of Missouri. Dave is a former vice president of the Missouri Walnut Council.
Dave was last seen in Ohio at the 2012 Paul Bunyan Show, presiding over the Great Firewood Shootout for Sawmill & Woodlot Management Magazine.
This article previously appeared in Green Horizons, Vol.16 No. 1 (winter 2011), University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry and was submitted by the author for adaption to The Ohio Woodland Journal.