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Wooded landscape inspires sawmill business

“It would be nice to see a younger generation take this up.”

– BEAT CHRISTEN

When Beat Christen bought 68 acres of land along the Boyne River 20 years ago, most of it was heavily treed with mature oak and ash and basswood.

It remains so today, even after he’s removed plenty of lumber from it.

Christen knew he’d acquired a valuable tract of land, and not just for its esthetics, or because agro-Manitoba has few remnants of undisturbed river bottom forest left.

“I saw that the trees had value, they weren’t a nuisance or weeds,” says Christen, who planned to farm at the site initially, but never to push trees out of the way to do it.

He and his partner Donna did farm on a small scale for a while, raising pigs, sheep and cattle. But they quickly concluded they needed to do more.

That’s when Beat began thinking about running a business as a sawmill operator. He’d had experience from working summer jobs in sawmills before emigrating from Switzerland to Manitoba in 1980. In Manitoba, he saw potential in agro-forestry, even though it was in its infancy in the early 1990s. He wondered whether there was an opportunity here for operating a portable sawmill that custom sawed lumber. And was there any demand for the hardwood lumber he could selectively harvest off his own land?

“I wanted to be selfemployed,” he says, adding that this seemed a good fit with his and Donna’s other objectives, including diversifying farm income and making a living using the resources of their land.

He began to acquire basic skills in both woodlot management and tree harvesting. These came through attending agro-forestry workshops of fered by Mani toba Agro Woodlot Program. He also talked to foresters about the techniques of selective harvesting, or choosing the best tree to cut, saw, mill and kiln. He prepared a business plan, secured a loan. Finally, he bought the mill.

Brisk business

It marked the beginning of a brisk business that generated enough work and income to keep him busy and working full time for the next 13 years.

Word of mouth spread quickly and he’d see one job lead to another in quick succession. He took his sawmill on the road anywhere within a 150-mile radius, with customers as far north as Ste. Rose, east to Hadashville and, frequently, in the Spruce Woods area. Most landowners were those who were harvesting trees on their land for wood to use themselves building fences, sheds or barns. “There were not that many mills around.”

And there still aren’t – even as demand remains as strong as ever, says Christen.

He now keeps his portable mill on-site. Customers bring logs to him. He has acquired a kiln, and now provides both services. He continues to selectively harvest hardwood trees from his own property, turning them into timber sought after by woodworkers and furniture makers. The Christens have planted literally thousands of trees, including green and black ash on their land, “for the next generation,” says Beat.

This past winter he and several others also salvaged oak trees being cleared on a quarter section of farmland near Carman. Christen custom sawed those logs into timbers for a post and beam home under construction. He also milled the oak into hardwood flooring.

Share the work

In all, he estimates he’s sawn over a million board feet of lumber since he got started.

He could keep right at it, too, except for one thing; he’d rather share the work around. “We’re trying to downsize a little bit now. We can only do so much and I have to turn some away.”

That’s why Christen says others should think seriously about a similar business. In fact, this is an opportunity others are missing, given the demand. It’s an excellent way to earn extra income on a farm, and could fit well with a farmer’s seasonal schedule. “It would be nice to see a younger generation take this up,” says Christen.

“I think people under-es timate the potential in this business,” says Shane Tornblom, program manager of the Manitoba Agro Woodlot Program, an initiative offered through MAFRI under the federal-provincial Agricultural Policy Framework (APF).

Christen’s approach is successful because he produces high-quality product and has added value to his production, offering both the milling and kilning, he said.

Moving up the value chain is where the money is to be made, said Tornblom. Take a log of plain, wood, worth maybe a buck. “If you took it right through, milled it, kiln dried it, turned it into tongue and groove flooring and then installed and finished it, you can multiply the value of that by 25 times at least.

“We’re working hard to develop the markets and really trying to encourage people to go right from the log through to the finished product,” Tornblom said.

The Manitoba Agro Woodlot Program (MAWP) is putting new emphasis on value-added production, and the tie-in with key trends such as buying local and reducing reliance on imports, woodlot renewal and associated positive environmental impacts, he added.

Want more info? Log on to: www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/woodlot/.

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About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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