The office of Tom Cushman’s company, Maine Custom Woodlands, LLC, in New Gloucester, Maine, is surrounded on the Pineland Campus by large companies such as Apple Computer and Energy East. With a degree in forest engineering from the University of Maine, Cushman’s credentials surely match those of the neighboring professionals with their dress shirts, ties, and laptops; you may not guess this, though, from his T-shirts, logging boots, and pickup truck.
“My office is really in my truck,” says Cushman. He says it seems like he lives in it, as he spends long days traveling from job to job, checking on things, solving problems, and delivering parts. As the owner of a logging company, he is a parts runner, negotiator, problem solver, customer-service representative, and mentor. The smell of diesel emanates from his truck and, most days, from him.
Cushman has been a strong voice in the logging industry since the year 2000, when, at age 31, he was appointed vice president of The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. He was elected president in May 2005, and he’s still serving in that capacity today.
During his tenure, Cushman has worked on the development and creation of the Northeast Master Logger Certification Program (NEMLC). The program, which is administered through the nonprofit group, The Trust to Conserve the Northeast Forest, collaborates with master logger programs in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island). In 2001, Cushman’s company was one of the first to be certified in Maine.
Sandy Brawders, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said about Cushman: “I always tease Tom that he is the poster boy for what this generation of logger is all about: working hard to build a company, seeing the value of education, working to be accountable rather than just being licensed, and encouraging loggers to bring to the table their own professional standards.”
Cushman says that logger certification is not yet adequately recognized by the general public, but he believes that, in the future, it will serve to level the playing field. Right now, many loggers who have been certified are struggling financially to uphold the standards. For example, one of the master logger standards is the preservation of soil productivity, so Cushman purchased ECO-Wheel Tracks for his grapple skidder. These tracks take the place of skidder chains, are easier to adjust, provide better flotation so they create less soil compaction and disturbance than traditional chains. The price tag? More than $25,000 for the set.
Cushman’s efforts to strengthen the industry might seem like a full-time job, but he still wakes up before the birds and heads into the woods to get the wood out. He faces the same daily hurdles that most loggers do: long hours, unpredictable weather conditions, fluctuating markets, changing regulations, and soaring fuel costs. When asked what keeps him in the game, he answers with a string of sarcasms meant to be sarcasms: “The debt; no, all joking aside, the debt,” followed by, “I guess I’m addicted to the adrenaline that’s brought on by the stress of the struggle.”
He also mentions the faces of the guys on his crew, who look to him each day. He thinks about the families behind all those faces and feels a sense of responsibility for them, and so he continues to log, not just for his family, but for the families of his crew.
Cushman speaks of the difficulty in managing a business, balancing the needs of his employees with a tread-lightly logging philosophy. For example, during a stretch of rainy weather, he had to lay the guys off. “It kills me to do that,” said Cushman, “but at some point, I have to stop working in order to uphold my certification.” The challenge is deciding when to stop. “I have landowners who expect the highest value for their wood, I have guys looking for a paycheck to feed their families, and I have wood that, if left on the ground, could lose serious value. Then I have to make the decision to shut down the job. Not a popular decision all the way around,” he says.
Cushman has diversified over the past couple of years. He jokes that he needs to generate other income to support his “logging habit.” And so, with a partner, he created Maine Custom Firewood.
Cushman’s logging jobs supply tree-length hardwood that is then split, dried, and delivered as certified (NEMLC) firewood to local businesses and homeowners. When thinking about a way to diversify, Cushman wanted to take advantage of the rising awareness of energy independence and to capitalize on the fact that his company has been “Green since 2001.”He wanted to create a business that would target consumers looking for renewable forest products that were harvested in an environmentally friendly way.
Another way he has diversified is to use his otherwise idle equipment to do small excavation jobs. “I figured that, after the landings and roads were installed, why not put my equipment to another use?” So he created a small excavation team that handles small jobs, such as septic tank installation, foundations, driveways, and the like. “Even though the economy is not great, we seem to be really busy,” he said.
There are times, as president of PLC, when he is called away to the state capital in Augusta to testify or participate in a roundtable discussion. Even though there are a thousand other things he could be doing, he feels that it is time well spent. “Someone has to look out for how loggers will be able to conduct business in the future,” he says.
When asked about the one thing that has truly surprised him after 15 years of logging, he answered, “I thought that working in the industry would be all about silviculture and forest health, when in reality it’s more about people and economics.”
At his core, Cushman remains an optimist. He still loves hydraulics, the smell of diesel, and the opportunity to work in and around large equipment, building roads, installing culverts – the whole logging craft. When asked what he’d do if he won the lottery, Cushman said he would pay off his debt, then go out and buy bigger and better logging equipment.
Wendy Bowden Farrand, of Harvest Consulting of Maine, works with logging crews to improve productivity.