Farm, Forest, and Diesel Fuel

I live something of a double life: member of the Northern Woodlands team by day and owner/operator of an organic vegetable farm by night. (Time-wise, it’s actually the other way around.) 

Recently, as the price of oil has climbed steadily upward, the economic fortunes of my two worlds have started to diverge. Times are genuinely tough in the woods. Mills are closing, jobs are being lost, and equipment is being sold or repossessed. But over on the farm side of things, our business is doubling this year and slated to double again next year. It could grow significantly faster if I weren’t continuously turning away new business in an effort to find time to sleep.

The rising price of oil is a key component of our farm’s success. We’re a small operation, and though we run a diesel tractor (on a 50 percent bio blend) to do the heavy lifting, we plant and harvest by hand. As much as the doubling of diesel prices has hurt us, it’s hurt the big farms (with their inherent need for long-distance trucking) far more. Every new dime added at the pump is a cause for celebration on our farm, since it makes our competitive position better and better.

Our farm is also benefiting from the current enthusiasm for locally produced products that is showing up all across the economy, not just in agriculture. Throw in a few food scares (downer beef, E. Coli spinach) and the fact that even those who don’t love vegetables can taste the superiority of freshly picked produce, and we’re in the midst of a golden moment for local agriculture.

Which shines an interesting light back onto the difficulties out in the woods. Logging and wood processing is a very fuel-intensive business, and the increased cost of diesel has not bestowed any particular competitive edge on the smaller, local jobber. There’s no real way for the little guy to bring significant quantities of wood to market “by hand.” To the extent that larger equipment uses fuel more efficiently and that larger operators can purchase fuel in bulk, the rising cost of fuel may be putting the smaller jobbers at an increasing disadvantage.

Then there’s the fact that, for many consumers, a board is a board is a board, regardless of when or where it was harvested. Unlike a tomato, the difference in quality between products can be harder to perceive, and wood tends to move around the global economy in a way that makes even California lettuce look parochial. Throw in the fact that consumers don’t have to worry about the possible ill-health-effects from eating RoundUp-Ready trees, and the whole “buy local” movement has not penetrated far into the forest-products community in the Northeast.

Nevertheless, the downturn in the wood-based economy crept up on me unaware, thanks largely to the portable sawmills just down the road from our farm. The father and son working there sawing pine and hemlock, both for custom jobs and for their retail stacks along the highway, are so busy that I have to get my orders in weeks in advance to insure I’ll be able to put up a new greenhouse on schedule. They’re turning away work right now, too – they have enough sheds, pole barns, and timber frames on the docket to last them until the snow flies, at which point they’ll head back into the woods for more logs.

Which makes me think that all is not necessarily lost in the forest-products world. My neighbors are certainly benefiting from the “buy local” ethos, and since they’re largely detached from the global wood economy, they’re insulated from the vagaries of global finances and fortunes. They have less overhead and use less fossil fuel to bring their products to market than the big guys do, and their prices compare quite favorably with those at the big orange box-store down the road. I imagine that oil at $200 a barrel would improve their competitive position as much as it would mine.

I admit that, when oil punched through $100 a barrel the first time, I did a little jig on my way out to the fields. Nothing big, mind you – nothing to attract attention. Just a little skip and click of the heels. I’m looking forward to the day when that same click can be heard coming from the heels of logging boots; the sooner we figure out how to bring “buy local” out into the woods, the sooner we can turn the rising cost of diesel into a competitive advantage.


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