Walking Sticks – One Example of Non-Timber Forest Products

My youngest son left this week for work in western Canada.  It reminded me of just how much the woodlot shaped his life and made him who he is today.  His story is worth telling and worth thinking about. The forest can influence young lives and give them some positive direction in life.  This story shows how the simplest of ideas can turn into a small business and show that the woodlot can generate wealth other than through the harvest of timber. It can even influence what we do in life and give us a basis for self-worth.

Graham cutting an aspen to make into a walking stick.  The aspen was growing in a pine plantation and needed to be removed anyway.  Making money and improving the woodlot at the same time!

Graham cutting an aspen to make into a walking stick. The aspen was growing in a pine plantation and needed to be removed anyway. Making money and improving the woodlot at the same time!

When Graham was eleven years old he asked me about something he could do in the woodlot to earn some money.  He reminded me that I had once mentioned something about making walking sticks.  It was early in the summer and although I didn’t know anything about making walking sticks I told him “Sure, lets see what we can do.”  Prince Edward Island is a popular place for tourists to visit and I thought perhaps this might be a possible target market for his new idea.  I never dreamed where this would go!

We headed out into the woodlot in search of trees and shrubs that would possibly make suitable walking sticks.  We focused on species that would not normally be considered as commercial tree species.  We found that mountain ash, which grows in the woodlot by the thousands was a good place to start.  We peeled some and found that some had interesting designs in the wood beneath the bark.   We tried pin cherry, striped maple and grey birch, three more non commercial species which were abundant in the woodlot.  They were all unique and we were having fun finding them and making them into what we thought were good walking sticks.

This deformed grey birch has value as a walking "cane" .  These are even harder to find than straight waling sticks.

This deformed grey birch has value as a walking “cane” . These are even harder to find than straight walking sticks.

He made a few dozen and then I drove him to local craft shops.  He started to sell a few.  He did the selling.  My job was to do the driving.  At one shop we met a lady who thought what he was doing was terrific but our first attempts were not quite ready for sale.  She gave him some ideas to make the walking sticks more saleable.  She critiqued the products and made some suggestions.  She suggested that he add a leather strap and put a tag on each one telling the story of where the sticks came from and about him.  This was advice that was well worth listening to.

That first year I think he sold a few dozen.  But that got him more interested in making more and being more prepared by the following summer.  He sold more the second year and he was becoming known around the “Island” as the boy with the walking sticks.  A few dozen turned into a  couple of hundred or more.  As each summer came his confidence grew as well.  He began to attend local craft trade shows and learned even more about business.   More and more people gave him advice and information.

Graham in his booth at a craft trade show.  Nature Trails was the name of his business.  Note that there were other natural products like pencils and a game he made.

Graham in his booth at a craft trade show.  Nature Trails was the name of his business. Note that there were other natural products like pencils and a game he made.

When Graham turned fourteen he was fortunate to get work on a local dairy farm.  But his passion for making and selling walking sticks did not go away.  He made some money working at the dairy farm and he made good money creating and selling his walking sticks.  As a young teenager he was learning a valuable lesson about making money by working with his hands.  Along with the lessons in working he also learned about saving money and investing it for the future.

Somewhere along this path, Graham decided that he wanted to take business at university.  When I think back, I realize that it all started back on that day when he asked about making walking sticks.  That day changed the course of his life.   He learned more and more about the forest.  He seemed to really like being out there.   We have three children, all grown now.  All of them learned life lessons by working in the woodlot at one thing or another.  They all still help out at harvest time with the Christmas trees or helping to get the winters wood ready.

A dozen walking sticks with a stand. A typical order from craft store would be 1 - 3 dozen at a time.

A dozen walking sticks with a stand. A typical order from craft store would be 1 – 3 dozen at a time.

This simple story about using under valued products from the woodlot to create income.  I hope it will be taken to heart by readers.  Many opportunities exist in the woodlot for non-timber forest products.  For young and old, small business opportunities exist utilizing renewable products from a woodlot.   In a future blog I would like to expand on this topic.  I believe that for many people there is more economic value to be found in a forest other than timber harvesting.  I like to hear back from readers about the things you read in this blog.  My hope is that it will be a place where readers around the world find useful bits of information.  I would be especially happy if readers find it to be a bit of an inspiration to do some work in their own woodlot or backyard.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photograph to get a larger image***

Extra Income from Bundles of Brush

At Watts Tree Farm we are constantly looking for ways to generate income from the woodlot. Most people think that timber is the only thing to come from a woodlot to generate income. However, this would be a misconception. There are many other potential sources of income from a small woodlot.  We call these additional products Non Timber Forest Products or NTFP’s as they are commonly referred to. I will write about NTFP’s in a broader context in a future blog.  It is a fascinating subject that presents so many potential opportunities for small woodlots to generate income. For this blog I will talk about one Non Timber Forest Products that we produce and it is quite simply “brush”.

home made stand for making bundled brush.  Note the two strings that are laid across the stand before brush is put on.

home made stand for making bundled brush. Note the two strings that are laid across the stand before brush is put on.

November and December is the time of year when people are busily decorating their homes for the Christmas season. Not everyone has access to brush that is commonly used for decorating. Brush is nothing more than branches from softwood trees. It can be pine, spruce, fir, cedar or any other species that is available in your region. In our woodlot we have access to four species; balsam fir, Korean fir, white pine and red pine. We could add white spruce to this list but it is not as desirable to handle so we do not bother using it. Customers much prefer the softness of fir and pine.

Branches are placed across the strings with the tips outward.   The brush is placed loosely at this point.

Branches are placed across the strings with the tips outward. The brush is placed loosely at this point.

We have been growing Christmas trees for many years. In our choose and cut lot we noticed that people would ask us for some of the branches from the bottoms of the trees that we were harvesting. At first we simply gave it away but we realized that there is demand for brush, as a seasonal product.  The question was “How do we package it to make it convenient for customers to handle?”  The answer was to put it in tied up bundles.  We devised a simple but small stand to hold the brush while we tied it into compact bundles that can be easily handled. This began to generate a small bit of income from what was previously a waste product. As more and more people became aware that they could conveniently buy bundled brush our sales continued to grow. It is not a large part of our income for the woodlot but it is a little extra that goes hand-in-hand with our Christmas tree sales. I think it could be much large if we promoted it more but there is a limit to the time available to make up these bundles and we are already busy with the Christmas trees. There is even potential to wholesale this product but again it is the time constraint for us. However, for readers of this blog it might just be the ideal product for you, depending on where you are and your personal interests.

Look closely at the yellow rope in the center of the stand.  It is used to pull the brush down tightly while the two strings are brought up over the top of the brush and tied tightly.

Look closely at the yellow rope in the center of the stand. It is used to pull the brush down tightly while the two strings are brought up over the top of the brush and tied tightly.

Putting the brush into relatively consistent bundles is a necessity to bringing a product like this to market. This is where the brush stand comes into play. I am happy to show just how we do it as it is a pretty simple device. I am sure there are people out there who could improve on this and make it even easier to create compact bundles. But for the small amount that we do this works just fine. I hope the photographs show the process clearly.

As our sales grow we need to think about where we will get the brush on a sustainable basis to supply customers each year. One of our prime sources are low-grade or “cull” Christmas trees. These are trees that simply will never make a good Christmas tree and are taking up space in our Christmas tree lot. There is always a percentage of trees that, for one reason or another, have poor shape or are damaged and must be cut out of the lot. These “cull” trees have become our primary source of fir brush. For pine we either go to our pine plantations and cut lower branches or remove trees as part of our thinning process. We have planted quite a few white pine in the woodlot so there will always be a source of pine branches for brush. These lower branches need to be removed anyway, so by waiting until late fall we have a source of pine branches for the brush bundles. We can earn a little extra income simply by timing our pruning to the time of year when we need the brush.

A finished bundle of fir brush ready for sale.

A finished bundle of fir brush ready for sale.

Income from the woodlot is important to us at Watts Tree Farm but so are many other aspects of the woodlot. Balancing the need for income with maintaining and improving wildlife habitat, while enjoying the recreation aspects of the woodlot are all a function of good planning. Perhaps over the winter months I can tackle the topic of forest management. Creating a management plan will force you, as a woodlot owner, to look at the things that are most important to you. As always, I enjoy writing these blogs and hope that readers find them to be interesting, entertaining and useful. I encourage readers to follow my blog by pressing the follow button on the side of the page. You will also see a link there to our Christmas Tree lot website.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photograph to get a larger image***