Reviving the Wood Economy

As summer melts into fall I'm compelled to begin posting to the blog again. It's not that I didn't have anything to post during the summer, but its simply the result of so many hours spent outside, and so little time on the computer. This past growing season proved to be the busiest yet; as my partner Liz and I purchased land, moved and built a yurt we bought from some folks over the hill, and managed 50 ducks and 1,000 mushroom logs. All of this on top of part-time employment for Cornell Cooperative Extension and Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, teaching gardening and permaculture to the public. It's nice to have some time to write again.

In fact, I've been prepping myself for the next blog post for some time, but there wasn't a topic that seemed to grab me at first. This website and blog was originally created to discuss and promote agroforestry strategies and concepts in a time where we need to rapidly step away from the consumption of fossil fuels and our dependance on unsustainable agriculture processes. It has long been my notion that the agriculture I want to participate in is one the leaves in its wake a forest; that someday when I walked away trees would be left in my footprints. This notion is what has led to my interest in forestry, in mushrooms, and in grazing animals underneath a canopy. And recently reading and article about vehicles powered by wood, I began looking thinking about this in a bigger picture sense;

Our area is threatened with a push from industry to drill deep into the ground and extract natural gas in order to feed our addiction to dense, ancient, and non-renewable forms of energy. While arguments from both sides highlight this possible benefit or that possible risk; the reality is that we simply don't know what hydrofracking is capable of, except that it is likely to have adverse effects. Inevitably a truck will spill (or dump) fracking waste; inevitably a well casing (or many) will fail and leach chemicals into the water table, inevitably many incidents will happen. As one example among piles of them, Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University established that Marcellus Shale well casings have failed at a rate of 6.2% in Pennsylvania in 2010 and 2011, and this was based on data from the the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. At a lecture I saw him present he asked, "would you get on a plane whose engine failed 6.2% of the time?"
Brainstorm of the potential wood economy

The reality with fossil fuel extraction is that it is extremely resource intensive. It does not give back to the communities it takes so much from. It is not a technology that is within local means of control and access; you and I cannot personally gain access to natural gas, and so are forced to purchase it from a multi-national corporation. The only possible benefit is money for a few; and yet even this potential boom is a short term gain. I personally am tired of seeing proposed "solutions" such at these which have at best a small benefit and at worst destroy our homes and communities. If we do not believe and seek to find win-win-win situations, we are certainly destined for ultimate failure, that is, the collapse of society. There are plenty of examples of systems that benefit communities, individuals, economies, and the environment. And the good news is that by nature these systems have to be decentralized, localized, with the tools and means of production in the hands of the people.

I'm really not spouting some utopian fantasy, but a simple truth. When we engage with biological systems (versus industrial) as the basis of a local economy, we very quickly see the possibility of these win-win-win situations. And in the end, the goals we set for our communities determine the outcomes we seek. As I stated, my goal is to leave in my footprints a healthy and diverse forest. But I have to eat, and I have to make a living. Enter the Wood Economy; a necessary and appropriate system where wealth is not in dollars but in our local resources; it is not far away in holes buried deep in the ground, it is all around us in the cultivation and maintenance of a healthy local environment. It is not dependent on far away decision making and policy of the 1% in some government office, but in the backyards, farms, and community centers of out local neighborhoods, towns, and counties.

The wood economy starts in a typical northeastern forest; a small patch of woods that was likely left at some time in recent history by a farmer, who either couldn't farm the site because it was too steep or rocky or wet, or left the woods so he/she could harvest some firewood or maybe some timber. If we view the forest as a library of genetics, then the reality is that most of the good books are long gone; harvested and sent to the saw mill. The exception are a few large trees still in the hedgerows, their genetics the story of thousands of years of adaption to disease, pests, and climate change.

We also have perhaps the only benefit of a rapid decline in the percentage of our population as farmers; the abandonment of farm fields and the regrowth of another generation of forests; most less than 100 years old. The forests most of us walk through today are young, vulnerable, and immature. I often call these "teenage forests," as they are trying to find their way in the world. And they are. We can leave these forests to sort themselves out over the next several hundred years, and they might do just fine. But today's forests have an unprecedented amount of stress due to pests, disease, and a changing climate. We also inevitably need wood products. So, if we are to usher in a healthy forest economy, if we want to give our forests the best chance in the face of everything coming their way, we need to participate in steering their growth and succession.

The good news is that there is plenty of positive intervention we humans can enact on our forest ecosystems. This is how I began farming mushrooms. As noted in a previous post, often a young forest benefits from a thinning around 20 - 25 years in age; and it just so happens that the size of the logs (4 - 8" in diameter) are perfect for mushroom cultivation. A win-win-win! Sold at $16 - $20/lb, mushrooms give me an economic incentive to spend time in the woods, a job in other words. The forest benefits from the thinning. And my community benefits from a highly nutritious and medicinal food.

As I thin the woods for mushroom logs, I also inevitably end up with firewood. So, two yields for my efforts - and now incentive for harvesting not only sugar maple, oak, and beech (preferred for mushrooms), but also red maple, ash, hickory, and other hardwoods. My friend and co-forester Lance Ebel of New Leaf Environmental also found a market for "camp-wood" - i.e. the $5 bundles campers pick up when they come to our area state parks for a camping trip. Outdoor fires are not like woodstove fires - you don't want the hardwoods but softwoods that burn hot and bright. And so, we now have an incentive to pull spruce, pine, and basswood from the forest. Finally, a recent surge in interest for gardens has grown the demand for black locust for fence posts, as it is highly rot resistant. As we harvest these products, the key though is that we leave the healthy trees and take the damaged, diseased, or undesired species - thereby leaving the forest better than we found it. This is the beginning of the forest economy.

There are so many possible ways to branch out from here. (pun intended!) Over the next multiple blog posts I'll zero in on some of these concepts, all of which together offer opportunities for jobs, improved environmental health, and increased community control over it's resources. As a farmer and educator of permaculture and ecological management, I'm compelled to find others interested in this topic because as I have found, I cannot make a livelihood if it is not connected to the livelihoods of others. Alone, or with only a few others, there is no economy. It takes a community with foresters, loggers, landowners, basket weavers, wood artists, farmers, and consumers to make this work. I know of very few who currently make their living from the forest; and yet there is ample room for people.