The Lorax Loves Jim Birkemeier -
the message of saving living trees and global sustainability
is one that Birkemeier has taken to heart.
Birkemeier’s company, Timbergreen Farm of Spring Green, Wis., recently won the Grand Award as the 2012 Wisconsin Small Family Business of the Year Award, after a long career spent going against the (wood) grain was finally recognized.
Timbergreen Farm began business in 1973 when Jim’s parents, Bill and Helen Birkemeier, bought some farmland and began growing corn and hay and raising cattle. In the 1970s the Birkemeiers completed two commercial timber harvests, but concluded the small income was not worth the damage to the forest.
“I earned a forestry degree and worked for several years as a consulting forester, and it became clear very soon that the traditional timber market was just a horrible place for any landowner who cared about their land and who wanted to make money,” said Birkemeier. “So after a couple of years, I actually quit working as a forester.” Salvaging some of the dozens of oak trees dying each year on the family farm, Birkemeier relearned forest management from the forest owner’s point of view, “doing just the opposite of industrial forestry.”
“Our best teacher was the Menominee Tribal Forest up in northeast Wisconsin. They have been managing that land for thousands of years,” said Birkemeier. “My first visit was in 1997 - Marshall Pecore taught me a lot of this, but it took a few years to actually learn how to do what he said. What they teach is you can never allow the industry demand to dictate what trees you’re going to cut down. Over the past centuries, industrial foresters and loggers have just harvested the good trees that the big corporations wanted at the expense of the landowner and the land.”
“The Native Americans teach to let your forest grow naturally, and just take what it gives you - the trees that die or tip over or just get so crowded that they lose their vigor. Whatever that is, process that wood, and then your marketing people have to sell it.”
After the 2008 recession, when the collapse of the housing market devastated the wood flooring business, Timbergreen maintained an upward trajectory by stressing not just ecological diversity but economic diversity as well. The company began to focus more on Internet sales of laser cut wood snowflakes, cheese boards, jewelry, and Christmas gifts.
“I hired some really smart young artists who have flourished with the lasers and exporting our wood products,” said Birkemeier. “It’s worked out well for us to be able to double our sales despite the recession. Each year, we’re doubling our sales and doubling our staff, and we’re on track this year to be able to do that again.”
Amie Fisher shows her original wood snowflakes at the Holiday Gift Show in Chicago
By making and selling high-quality, hand made specialty wood products, his company is able to earn 100 times what his neighbors do for each tree harvested in the traditional timber market. That’s because timber is generally a low-value commodity – one that in many parts of the world is “almost free.” Finished wood products have very high value.
“There are millions of acres of timber here in southern Wisconsin, and it’s beautiful wood,” said Birkemeier. “Some of the best trees are still harvested every day, and shipped to the Far East -exporting our jobs. Then the politicians just keep talking about creating jobs.”
“If you go to the big stores across southern Wisconsin, the vast majority of wood products are imported, yet we live in the midst of this huge forest. It would be an incredible change in the economy if we would stop buying cheap manufactured stuff that’s from the other side of the world and put people to work right here using our local trees.”
If it’s not clear by now that Birkemeier has some strong opinions about land management, his writings at timbergreenforestry.com removes all doubt. Under the headline “I Challenge All Foresters ... Full Vigor Forestry vs Phoney Phorestry,” Birkemeier takes on what he sees as the misguided practices of government agencies and corporations. While some might dismiss him as a lone wolf crying in the, well, forest, the practices he preaches have earned him enough renown to make some big players take notice.
He has been a featured speaker at two United Nations International Conferences on Forestry, in India and Vietnam, and a video on his sustainable practices, Timbergreen Farm - story of sustainability, was shown at the Rio+20 The United Nations International Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012.
“People are very much the same around the world, and trees are very much the same, and the uses for wood are very much the same, so we can travel to South America or New Zealand or Indonesia and everything works,” said Birkemeier. “The United Nations invites us to go to these conferences. ... Our business system is their best example of how to make money from wood.”
Roxanne Kat (right) and her siblings show off a slab cut from a stump left as waste after a commercial timber harvest on their family farm on the banks of the headwaters of the Amazon River in Ecuador.
“Around the world, people are really good at making lumber. It is easy to cut down trees and make boards, but to be able to sell wood products for a good price has baffled almost everybody, so that’s where we’re really unique. We have learned to earn 100 times what our neighbors get from a logger – and we’re taking the bad trees and they’re taking the good trees. And we’re able to hire local people and put them to work. Our forest to finished product system can support one good job for every 10-20 acres of timber.”