Valley Bounty: Lumber

Each winter, David Fisher sets out to harvest trees. “I just love being in the woods,” he explained during a recent conversation. “It’s a lot of spiritual nourishment for me. And I really like that I can do productive work in that context.”

Fisher runs Natural Roots in Conway with his wife Anna Maclay. The farm’s main business is a vegetable CSA and farm store. But ten years ago, Fisher was looking for a new source of income and he turned his attention to the unmanaged hundred-acre woodlot on the farm. He applied for, and received, a federal grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for timber stand improvement on the land. The NRCS grant provided financial support for actively managing the woods. “Rather than looking around for the biggest, most beautiful high-value trees and taking those out … it’s kind of the opposite,” Fisher said. For his timber stand management, he focuses on “taking out the damaged trees, the diseased trees, the misshapen trees, and the overcrowded trees that don’t really have a ton of value if you’re trying to send them to the sawmill. But by taking them out, it’s like weeding and thinning a row of vegetables. You’re left with some really robust, high-quality timber with good growth potential.”

There is a science to felling trees. Once Fisher has decided which tree to harvest, he uses a sighting tool to figure out how tall it is and a plumb bob to measure its lean. “If there’s a way it’s leaning and it wants to go, then I’ll look and see if there’s an opening in the forest to put that tree down into. I don’t want to drop that tree into another tree, and have it get hung up,” he explained. Once he’s identified a gap in the forest to aim for, he begins cutting. Using a chainsaw, he cuts partway down into the tree at a 70° angle, then makes a horizontal cut to meet it. This face cut takes a notch out of the tree. When Fisher makes a back cut behind the face cut, the momentum of the tree—sometimes assisted by wedges—folds  it over the notch and sends the tree in the direction Fisher aimed it.

Natural Roots is a horse-powered farm. And even in the densest sections of his woodlot, Fisher can use his horses to haul the logs. “The horse, as much as it might seem like a big, solid animal, really moves like a snake in the woods … He can wiggle in and around all kinds of trees and crash over brush and fallen logs,” he said. But even a 1,600lb draft horse has limited power compared to mechanized logging equipment. “I can’t really overpower any challenges, I have to really feel and read the physics at work,” Fisher explained. “And it can be as subtle as if the horse is trying to pull a couple of steps this way but it’s a slight incline or there’s the stump of an old tree that was felled a while back, then he won’t be able to do it. But if I can shift him a couple of steps, or shift the chain around and put a twist on the log to get it rolling, to start the load, it can make all the difference … It can be very precise and very subtle and delicate communication with the animal.”

Fisher uses many of the trees he harvests for firewood. The fuel keeps the farm buildings, including his family’s home and their greenhouse, heated throughout the cold season. He sells surplus firewood to his neighbors and when he has the time, he harvests additional higher-value logs to be milled for lumber. Natural Roots has a small mill, which they’ve used in the past to make boards for building new barns. For bigger jobs, Fisher sends his logs off to Cersosimo Lumber in Brattleboro.

Fisher isn’t the only farmer in the region who spends his winter logging. So when you start your next building project, keep local lumber in mind. You can find a list of farms that produce timber and lumber in your town at buylocalfood.org/farmguide.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)

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