By Jack Petree, Wood-Mizer Contributing Author
Wilcox Family Farms, well-known as one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest and most successful producers of egg products, is operated today by the fourth generation of the Wilcox family. The operation located in Roy, Washington manages 1,500 acres of extensively timbered farm, a network of food processing plants throughout the Northwest United States, an 800 cow dairy herd, and feed mills. Recently, the annual $200 million dollar company celebrated its first century in business with a complete restructuring of its business model by moving away from commodity products and towards organic, cage free, and other value added egg products.
The move ultimately led to an entire life change for J.T. Wilcox who’d been appointed Chief Financial Officer of Wilcox Farms in 2006. The one-time CFO stepped down, bought a Wood-Mizer sawmill and turned his attention to add value to sustainably harvested timber from the Wilcox family’s own forest.
J.T. began his new career with the purchase of a Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmill. “We do quite a bit of building on the farm,” said J.T. “The use of lumber from our own trees provides a considerable amount of added value to the logs we harvest.” J.T. generally harvests and mills douglas fir, maple, and cedar from the farm that is only cut if the tree is unhealthy. Today, J.T. is a self-described employee of his daughter Katie, an undergraduate at Whitworth University who has developed a substantial business working with her dad milling lumber and slabs to create beautifully finished furniture. “The first mill was very useful, supplying dimensional lumber to be used on farm projects for when we remodel chicken houses, converting them into cage-free houses,” said Katie. “My dad bought the first sawmill when I was a freshman at Whitworth. I would come home to visit and he would want me to help him saw. It was not love at first sight.” All that changed when Katie discovered woodworking.
Seeing potential for the mill to play a bigger part in their goals for the farm’s timber resource, J.T. purchased a Wood- Mizer LT35 sawmill with hydraulic log handling. The upgrade not only allowed for more efficient lumber production, it allowed for the ability to efficiently handle bigger logs for slab production.
Katie and J.T. began to grow their new business, Hart's Lake Pioneer Lumber Company, focusing on building slab furniture including tables, benches, conference tables and other products. “We want to stick with using timber from the farm because that’s our niche – local timber from a farm that has been in my family for over 100 years and is widely known around the Pacific Northwest,” shared Katie. “We have a planned forest rotation and when we are logging, we divert a few loads that fit our sawing needs to our log yard,” explained J.T. “Salvage of wind-blown and diseased trees are also a factor. We actually like the logs that have been on the ground for a year or two because the onset of decay gives the wood more character.”
As a small rural business using nothing but a portable sawmill, forklift, small tractor, sanders, and a planer, Hart's Lake Pioneer Lumber has a smaller budget than Wilcox Farms so they market primarily through Facebook and word-of-mouth. “So far this has been effective – I think because the people who live around us value the type of product we are making,” said Katie. “A local, father-daughter business, with unique, handmade products is something people want to support.” When asked how J.T. enjoys running a furniture business, he answers with a laugh, “I’m not running it. I’m working for Katie. After a lifetime of being in charge, working for my daughter is one of the best things I do.”
In addition to running a small business with his daughter, J.T. also serves as the floor leader for the Washington State House of Representatives, a role providing him with significant influence as he advocates for both his district and for all of rural Washington. “I represent small towns and a rural district,” shared J.T. “People from my generation grew up in a place where they could work near where they live. No more. The rural economy has almost died in Western Washington and most people here are commuters. I’ve always told people that I would always consider a bill’s impact on the rural economy first. Being involved in a very small business has strengthened that commitment. Being able to work directly with my kids and see them as decision-makers at a young age has been tremendous. Whether they stay with it or not, it is still an experience that will enrich their entire lives.”
J.T. has experienced the business world from both sides, as CFO of a multi-million dollar company and as a small business operator, sawmilling and offloading slabs and boards with his daughter and business partner. He sees a bright future for the small business end of the lumber industry because of the tremendous environmental benefits mill owners provide the community, the economic benefits available to an often stressed rural economy, and the increasing awareness of local products as the preferred choice for many.
WM: Describe your life growing up on the farm as a 5th generation Wilcox.
KW: Growing up, me, my siblings and cousins, we all worked on the farm. The idea was to put us in different positions so we would know all the different aspects of the farm and how they were interrelated. One of my first jobs when I was little was working in the lab where you have to see when the milk goes bad - so you have to taste the overdue milk. My dad grew up on the farm too, there’s a lot you just learn about hard work, giving things your all, trying to get things done right the first time. If you’re going to do something, give it your all – don’t put half your heart into it.
WM: How did you get interested in woodworking and sawmilling?
KW: I tend to pick up a lot of my dad’s hobbies. At first it was like, “come help me at the sawmill,” and then I started coming back on my own. I work in the summer and that was one way for me to earn money was to work with him at the sawmill. At first we were just selling lumber for the farm because they do a lot of construction and so that was a good way to learn how to use the mill.
WM: What led to the start of Hart’s Lake Pioneer Lumber Co.?
KW: Hart’s Lake is just me and my dad. We work together on a lot of the marketing, but I put together our website and talk with customers most of the time. I operate the mill, we have to use our tractor and sometimes a forklift to move the logs around – I really like working the tractor. Definitely the woodworking, my dad is the brains of the operation. He has read all the books and knows the process and teaches it to me so I do a lot of the sanding and finishing.
WM: What’s the secret to turning something you enjoy into a business?
KW: It’s all about having people to support you and being willing to learn from them. Going into this, me and my dad didn’t really know much about woodworking. He read a few books and he has a few friends that he’ll call up and be like “hey is this possible, can you explain this to me?” So I think having people there to support you and who are excited for you and want to be part of what you’re doing has really been a key to our success.
WM: As a current student, how does balancing school and Hart’s Lake work?
KW: It can be really hard. Me and my dad, we have an understanding that school comes first. I love my school and I love to learn, so that takes priority.
WM: What do you enjoy the most about Hart’s Lake?
KW: I love the farm, there’s this feeling of belonging and I also enjoy working with my dad. As I’m getting older I’m cherishing the amount of time I get to spend with my dad and we have really similar interests so getting the share that experience with him is really special. I also really like woodworking because it’s art but I never really saw myself as super creative. It’s fun to be able to create something or just showing people the beauty of the wood.
WM: Can you talk about your dog Lancelot and his contribution to Hart’s Lake?
KW: He’s our spokesmodel, so he is very popular. He has his own Facebook and is very outspoken about it too. I think he has more friends on Facebook than I do! We take him when we are at the sawmill and he likes to carry things around – but usually only after it has already been stacked neatly.
WM: Why is Hart’s Lake lumber significant or special as compared to lumber or wood products someone may find elsewhere?
KW: It all comes down to who the farm is and who our customers are. We all value history. When you go to Home Depot you’re just buying lumber for a project and the lumber itself doesn’t really mean anything. But when you’re buying lumber from Hart’s Lake, you can say this wood came from down the road at Wilcox Farms. We could show you the tree where the whole product came from and can say this tree has been here since this year, it has seen all these different landmark events in history.
WM: What is the plan for yourself and Hart’s Lake after you are finished with school?
KW: I’ve been thinking about doing grad school and if I did that I’d take a year off in between and I’d be working for Hart’s Lake. We understand that this is a business right now, but it’s not something that we’re locked into. There’s no pressure, this isn’t what I have to do so it’s really up in the air right now and we’ll see what the future holds.
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