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The Time is Right—Finding and Growing Niches for Woods Work

Posted: May 25, 2018

The time is ripe for entrepreneurship and cultivating woodland enterprises in Pennsylvania.

In the context of both forest research and forest stewardship, it’s become more common to hear the words resilient and adaptable. Generally speaking, to be resilient is to have ability to bounce back from setbacks, and to be adaptable is to have ability adjust to new conditions. As we see changes in forest conditions—new pest insects and diseases, weather extremes, shifting species composition—foresters are adapting management to promote forests that are resilient as change occurs. The concepts of adaptability and resilience also fit well in the context of forest-related businesses; the more attentive and adaptable forest businesses are to changing conditions, the more resilient those businesses will be.

The continued success of Pennsylvania’s forest products industry can be partly credited to the adjustments it has made in the face of hard-to-predict markets—demonstrating the adaptability and resilience of the industry. One example is the focus on meeting the demand for Pennsylvania’s hardwoods in other countries. As Wayne Bender, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council, told foresters at a January meeting, exports of both lumber and logs have risen in the last few years. Seventy-five percent of Pennsylvania’s lumber exports are being sold to China, Canada, and Mexico. Just as the forest products industry is demonstrating adaptability to changing markets by focusing on overseas markets, they are seeking opportunities to use materials that are less traditional. Therein lies an opportunity for small business development, too.

That opportunity was highlighted well in the October 2016 Pennsylvania Green Ribbon Task Force Report, Woods that Work: what’s good for the woods is also good for job creation and small business development. In particular, “what’s good for the woods” are the suite of practices that control the spread of invasive plants, improve the chances for successful regeneration, and improve the overall health of the woods by promoting diverse ages and species of trees across the state. Among the recommendations of the Green Ribbon Task Force, an all-encompassing collaborative assembled at the request of Governor Tom Wolfe, were two other initiatives that relate to the potential for job and business creation based on woodland improvement: 1) supporting loggers in their recruitment and apprenticeship of a new generation of woods workers, and 2) incubating new opportunities for “makers” and manufacturers.

Initiatives like these recommended by the Green Ribbon Task Force have significant potential to also help meet the needs of woodland owners. The staff of the Center for Private Forests at Penn State have the opportunity to regularly interact with woodland owners all over Pennsylvania, through its landowner network called Pennsylvania Forest Stewards volunteers, as well as at events like its biennial forest landowners conference, and regional and county meetings. What many landowners have expressed in these interactions is that they cannot find time or are otherwise unable to do woods work like invasive plant removal themselves. In addition, many landowners cannot find people to hire to do this work—there is more work to be done than there are woods workers available to be hired for the work.

There are clear needs and opportunities for adapting our perspective of what forest-related businesses look like and can be. Some of the opportunities relate to creating and nurturing a new model for woods work—woods practitioners providing woodland improvement services, especially for smaller acreages and woodland improvement activities that may generate mostly low-value and small diameter wood. Other jobs and businesses may be created around the idea of making value-added products from the woods, such as lump charcoal for cooking, biochar, decorative crafts, and food and drinks that use nuts and fruits from the woods.

The time is ripe for entrepreneurship and cultivating woodland enterprises in Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development has developed resources to help people grow an idea into a business, including a website called PA Business One-Stop Shop where you can find people and resources to help guide the way. The Entrepreneur’s Guide—Starting and Growing a Business in Pennsylvania, found on the One-Stop Shop website, is a great resource to start with. USDA Rural Development—Business and Cooperative Programs offers a wealth of helpful publications about cooperative business models—from how cooperatives can help businesses address the challenge of scale, access, and branding, to the nuts and bolts of how to start a cooperative. The Green Ribbon Task Force Report is an interesting read, and includes an inspiring list of suggested readings about startups, the maker movement, and locally-focused businesses. For a list of additional resources relating to developing a woodland enterprise, cooperatives, and agroforestry, contact us.

Contact Information

Leslie Horner
  • Forest Stewardship Program Associate
Phone: 814-867-5982