Cutting-edge: Timbergreen Farm’s focus on maintaining healthy forests helps the company attract prized bucks

The Lorax would have loved Jim Birkemeier. Of course, Dr. Seuss’ famous, fuzzy-headed noodge is likely not the business community’s favorite personality, but his message of sustainability is one that Birkemeier, a successful businessman by any measure, has taken to heart.

Birkemeier’s company, Timbergreen Farm of Spring Green, Wis., recently won a Grand Award in the Small Company category of the 2012 Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Awards. The way he tells it, it was the culmination of a long career spent going against the (wood) grain.

Timbergreen Farm began in 1973 when Jim’s parents, Bill and Helen Birkemeier, bought some farmland and began growing corn and hay and raising cattle. In the late ’70s, Birkemeier, who had trained as a forester, attempted two commercial timber harvests, which “totally convinced us that we’re never going to do that again.”

The results, he says, were disappointing – not to mention destructive.

“I went through college and worked for several years as a consulting forester, and it became very clear very soon that the traditional timber market was just a horrible place for any landowner who cared about their land and who wanted to make money,” said Birkemeier. “So after a couple of years, I had to actually quit, get out of it, because it was so disappointing.”

That initial disappointment encouraged Birkemeier to refocus, and when he decided to get back into harvesting wood in 1988, he began to embrace a cutting-edge, yet ancient, forest-management philosophy known as full-vigor forestry.

“Our best teacher is the Menominee Tribal Forest up in northeast Wisconsin, and they’ve been managing that land for thousands of years,” said Birkemeier. “They originally taught me a lot of this, but it took a few years to actually learn how to do what they said. What they teach you up there is you can never allow the industry demand to dictate what trees you’re going to cut down, and that’s what we’ve really screwed up in the past. We’ve just harvested the trees that the big corporations wanted at the expense of the landowner and the land.

“The Native Americans teach you to let your forest grow naturally, and take whatever it gives you by the trees that die or tip over or just get so crowded that you need to thin them. But whatever that is, process it, and then your marketing people have to sell it.”

It sounds like a fairly backwards business model – focusing on supply first and foremost while giving only passing consideration to demand – but it’s worked for Timbergreen Farm now for more than two decades.

Even after the 2008 recession, when the cratering of the housing market devastated the wood flooring business that Timbergreen had come to rely on, the company maintained an upward trajectory by stressing not just ecological diversity but economic diversity as well. The company simply shrugged off the slow evaporation of one revenue stream and began to focus more on Internet sales of laser-cut specialty products – including everything from cheese boards to jewelry to laser-engraved cribbage boards.

“We were more focused on flooring, and as it slowed down – it’s not that we had to – but we hired some really smart young artists who flourished with the lasers and exporting,” said Birkemeier, who noted that the flooring business is down 80% from 2008. “But it’s worked out well for us to be able to double our sales despite the recession. Each year, we’re doubling our sales and doubling our staff, and we’re on track this year to be able to do that again.”

A lucrative harvest

According to Birkemeier, by focusing on high-quality, specialty wood products, his company is able to earn 100 times what his neighbors do for each tree harvested. That’s because wood, he says, is generally a low-value commodity – one that in many parts of the world is “almost free.”

To a large degree, he says, people are not valuing our local, natural resources the way they should, and if they did, it would be a boon to the local economy.

“There’s millions of acres of timber here in southern Wisconsin, and it’s beautiful wood,” said Birkemeier. “Trees are harvested every day, and none of it’s valued and none of it’s used efficiently anymore. And we think if people in Madison would really buy local, we could have a huge change in the economy.

“If you go to the stores across southern Wisconsin, the vast majority of wood products are imported, and we live in the midst of this. I’m sitting under this big oak tree right now, and nobody would consider using them today, but we should. And it would be an incredible change in the economy if we would stop buying cheap manufactured stuff that’s from the other side of the world and put people to work right here.”

Planting seeds

If it’s not clear by now that Birkemeier has some strong opinions about land management, his blog at removes all doubt. Under the headline “I Challenge All Foresters … Full Vigor Forestry vs Phoney Phorestry,” Birkemeier takes on what he sees as the misguided practices of government agencies and corporations. While some might dismiss him as a lone wolf crying in the, well, forest, the practices he preaches have earned him enough renown to make some big players take notice.

He has been a featured speaker at two United Nations International Conferences on Forestry, in India and Vietnam, and a video on his sustainable practices, Timbergreen Farm Story of Sustainability, was shown at the RIO+20 UN International Conference on Sustainable Development this month.
And while Birkemeier is unlikely to get a lot of love from the corporate world or his foils in government, he is only too happy to take his message abroad.

“People are very much the same around the world, and trees are very much the same, and the uses for wood are very much the same, so we can travel to South America or New Zealand or India and everything works,” said Birkemeier. “The United Nations pays us to go to these conferences. … We’re they’re best example of how to make money from wood. … And I just got an invitation to write a big feature for the Wood-Mizer sawmill company, to teach 35,000 sawmill owners how to make money from the forest and from their sawmills.

“But people are really good at making boards, we know how to cut down trees and make boards, but to be able to sell them for a good price has baffled almost everybody, and so that’s where we’re really unique and are able to make 100 times what our neighbors get from a logger – and we’re taking the bad trees and they’re taking the good trees, and we still make 100 times more money – and we’re able to hire local people and put people to work.”

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.