Local products of all kinds can enhance the economic well-being of our communities, fostering connection to land and cultivating a sense of place. Here at Maine Farmland Trust, we focus primarily on agricultural products, often edible, cultivated by farmers. Yet there is another local product that is also vital to the long-term health of the land: wood.
We were pleased to help sponsor the first ever Local Wood Works conference, hosted by Kennebec Land Trust on November 14. The goal of the conference was to engage, discuss, and learn about Maine’s wood economy, including presentations from innovative local wood businesses, academics, the Maine Forest Service, professional loggers, and land trusts. And although woodlot management is not a core component of our work, we recognize the forest’s important place on the farm, and in food production.
We have been pretty excited about A New England Food Vision (NEFV) that launched this year, a report that plays out a series of scenarios to look at the future of food in New England. NEFV highlights Maine in particularas a potential food basket (if we act now), which provides significant impetus for our work. However, NEFV is only one piece of a larger puzzle: that report, along with New England Forestry Foundation’s New England Forests: The Path to Sustainability, evolved out of the Wildlands and Woodlands Vision for the New England Landscape released in 2010. Together, they provide a regional framework for land use in New England for years to come.
Brian Donahue, one of the authors of both Wildlands and Woodlands and NEFV, came to the conference to speak about future land use in New England, which should include woodlots, wild reserves, and farmland. Wildlands and Woodlands suggests keeping 70% of New England forested in the next 50 years, with roughly 90% of that as sustainably managed woodlots and 10% wild reserves. Donahue emphasized that this number leaves room for agricultural expansion, and the increased development of a local and regional food system. Land in New England could go from 5% farmland to 15%. That would provide enough land to grow at least half of all the food consumed in New England (although acreage is not the only concern here: the seasonal availability of certain products that have become an integral part of our diets is another).
The central interplay between food and wood systems was echoed throughout the conference. Many presenters noted that the successes of the local food movement bade well for possibilities for a local wood economy. Yet they both face similar challenges.
One of those challenges is infrastructure. Maine is actually a net importer of wood, because we have some important infrastructure (like a pulp mill) to process it; yet we export much of our own wood instead of processing and using it in-state, and the large mills can’t be used by small-scale wood producers. We could grow higher-quality trees for use in Maine, but we need more of infrastructure to support a local industry. Such issues echo obstacles in the local food industry, which is hindered by a lack of appropriate scale infrastructure.
Another barrier to more local wood, and food, is finding creative ways to market local products. Consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from, and members of the conference advocated applying that approach to wood as well. Many of the presenters throughout the day shared their logging stories, and emphasized the importance of building relationships within a community (there was even talk of a “Know Thy Logger” bumper sticker). Already, local businesses are finding innovative ways to create a niche for Maine wood products. Collin Miller, former Director of Wood Products Initiatives and now of Northern Forest Center, shared a number of success stories from Maine companies like Cedarworks and Duratherm or regional New England Forest Products. Like local food producers, they have discovered that local products are more profitable as value-added, differentiated products: New England wood cannot compete with huge enterprises that produce building supplies for the world, but we can create our own specialized brand.
Not only would these kinds of resources provide an excellent outlet for Maine and New England products, but they would bring consumers that much closer to the woodlot, much like the local food movement has introduced more people to working farms. These interactions bridge the disconnect between people and the land, creating a sense of community as well as personal stewardship. Both farming and woodlot management “stop removing people from nature, and involve ordinary people in taking care of the land,” as Brian Donahue put it, an important goal.
Forests are an integral part of Maine communities and woodlots provide an important resource for farmers, and all Maine residents. Integrating woodlot management and farming and tying the local wood economy into the local food movement are both vital steps towards a more sustainable Maine.
Watch the short Wabi TV segment on the conference here.