Kendall Derby is passionate about his work but realistic about the challenges he faces to achieve his business and personal goals. The owner of a Wood-Mizer LT40 hydraulic sawmill as well as a Wood-Mizer kiln, Kendall is simultaneously trying to build a viable sawmill business and help create a market for juniper, or what some call a “weed tree”. Throughout central Oregon and the American West, the juniper tree has negatively impacted rangeland. Kendall’s approach to milling and marketing juniper is instructive in terms of the challenges to overcome and the opportunities to be realized by other owners of portable band sawmills, especially those distant from major markets.
Juniper – A Western Weed Tree
Western Juniper, a species native to the interior West, has expanded its range exponentially in recent decades. This expansion threatens native flora and fauna throughout the Intermountain west, and is the reason why juniper is called a “weed tree”.
Kendall’s interest in juniper comes in part from research performed while working towards his degree in Rangeland Resources at Oregon State University. “Oregon State is a leader in the effort to quantify and learn more about juniper,” he comments. “As a student participating in extensive research work on range sites where the juniper invasion is being studied, I witnessed firsthand the effects of the increases in the area and density of juniper in Eastern Oregon. I saw the degrading of the grasslands and shrub steppe ecosystem caused by the juniper invasion and, I saw the recovery response when juniper was removed. Wildlife and watershed values can recover quickly from the damage caused by the juniper invasion.”
The issue with juniper, Kendall continues, is the tree’s appetite for water. “When a spring dries up or a creek flows less, all the wildlife in the area is affected,” he comments. “Water is a limiting factor in this arid region. Juniper limits the water available. Our efforts to protect salmon trout and steelhead are costing our society billions of dollars. Still, we ignore the fact that the water lost to interception and transpiration due to juniper encroachment is water lost to the watershed and all its inhabitants. Juniper invasion has been shown to increase soil erosion eight fold. If we consider cost to benefit, the juniper invasion is costing us soil, water and wildlife. Where is the benefit?”
A Passion for The Environment
In The Sticks Sawmill, Kiln, and Lumber warehouse is where Kendall’s passion and his need to make a living come together. Dedicated to sawmilling, drying, and marketing wood products from juniper removed in range recovery efforts, In The Sticks has seen mixed success. “I hope I am a pioneer that can survive,” he comments, pointing out that a number of other enterprises based on juniper have not made the grade in recent years. “Even with the mountain of juniper lumber I have created, juniper is still a challenge, and perhaps an opportunity. In The Sticks is still a work in progress.”
No matter how Kendall’s quest eventually turns out, his experience building markets for his products can be looked at by other sawmill owners in less challenging marketplaces as an example of what it takes to succeed and thrive as a sawmill owner.
The challenge when it comes to building a market for juniper comes from the fact the wood is not well known either as a building material or as a crafts wood. Juniper also generally grows in areas remote from larger marketplaces and is not a priority species for loggers. It can take a lot of trees to make up enough logs for a truckload deliverable to a mill.
The opportunity, Kendall says, is that the wood finishes up beautifully and often features unique properties allowing for one of a kind finished pieces, is rot resistant in ground contact applications (50 years or more in an untreated state), and is looked at as a sustainable product by the environmental movement.
While juniper can be difficult to work, Kendall puts forward, a craftsman or woodworker with patience and skill can create high value masterpieces of the art. In addition to furniture materials, juniper slabs and fireplace mantles are in high demand.
Regarding more mundane products, juniper is an exceptional material for outside applications. With 50+ years of rot resistance in ground contact situations, juniper lasts longer outdoors than any other Pacific Northwest native wood including cedar and redwood. According to Kendall, the durability of the wood has made landscaping timbers one of his biggest selling products, a product much desired by landscape and garden centers catering to a clientele interested in sustainability.
Growth in the desirability of certified organic crops has opened up what could be a huge opportunity for portable band sawmills like In the Sticks.
Environmentalism Can Make Good Business Sense
At Parkdale, Oregon, near the base of Mt. Hood, the 104 year old Kiokawa Family Orchards, a U-Pick, Farmer’s Market, and fruit stand operation with a national reputation for quality has switched to juniper to construct its tree trellis system.
Because juniper will last as long, or longer, than treated wood without any chemicals required at all, certified organic markets like Kiokawa Family Orchards see the lumber as a significant opportunity to achieve sustainability in a cost effective way.
In Newburg, Oregon, A to Z Wineworks was founded in 2002 by four friends sitting around a kitchen table. The original blend they hatched up has been honored by Food & Wine magazine as the Best American Pinot Noir under $20.
A to Z’s website points out, the winery has worked with more than 100 vineyards across the state always offering assistance for sustainability certification that the group expects to be achieved within three years of partnering. Today, A to Z has two viticulturists on staff and uses biodynamic principles to farm all owned or long-leased vineyards.
A to Z has put its money where its mouth is, cooperating on a project to uproot posts in its vineyards and replace them with organically sound, untreated, and long lasting juniper posts in a demonstration project involving Oregon’s three major juniper mills, including In The Sticks.
Sustainable Northwest Wood, Inc., a for-profit subsidiary of an environmental activist organization, Sustainable Northwest worked with A to Z and Oregon’s juniper mills to demonstrate the benefits of juniper. “Sustainable Northwest Wood has provided my mill access to the Portland metropolitan area marketplace,” Kendall says. “Fossil really is ‘in the sticks’ when it comes to a marketplace of any size. Without access to the Portland population we could never grow our business to the point we would like to grow it. Sustainable Northwest Wood is dedicated to providing that market access to small mill owners like myself because of their environmental ethic.”
Working with local environmental groups is something more thin kerf portable sawmill owners ought to look into, Kendall comments. “These little mills are so important to recovering usable lumber from stuff other people throw away or burn that they are beyond sustainability,” he says. “Combined we are huge in reducing the carbon footprint when it comes to construction and many other economic sectors. I think the more people concerned with the environment know about us the better off we, and they, will be.”
The Value Of A Kiln
Drying lumber and other products is a vital part of marketing lumber from small mills Kendall contends. “For me, my kiln is a defining factor,” he says. I couldn’t be marketing most of the wood I sell without drying the lumber properly.”
Potential kiln owners, according to Kendall, should not be concerned about the mystique that sometimes seems to surround the drying of lumber. “It’s not that mysterious,” he puts forward. “It’s just wood and people have been drying it forever.”
Kendall uses a cedar schedule to dry juniper and, because Fossil is in a semi-arid region with low humidity for most of the year, “I use my kiln to top off the drying process.”
Two things are critical when drying wood of any kind, Kendall points out. “You’ve got to get the stickering right,” he says. “Stickers carry the weight of the unit so you’ve got to make sure that weight is evenly distributed.”
Second, Kendall comments, “Every single board should get a uniform amount of heat and air. Good air circulation is vital to the quality of the finished product.”
Kendall Derby is faced with challenges every day but, in the fraternity of sawmill owners, that’s not all that unusual and like many of his fellow sawyers, Kendall’s passion and his work are intertwined. In that, Kendall considers himself fortunate. “I’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he puts forward pointing to the juniper covered hills around his workplace. “I love what I’m doing and I plan to be here for a long time.”
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