From Forests to Furniture: VT Woodworking Businesses Tie into the Local Landscape (part 1 of 2)
The buy local movement has significantly increased both the availability and consumption of locally grown food in Vermont. Another major local resource – wood – looms in the background of the state’s numerous farms. Vermont’s landscape is 75 percent forested, and the abundant lumber supports an important value-added wood products industry.
Woodworking has been a legacy industry in Vermont for over 200 years. Woodworkers have passed down skills from generation to generation and developed an international reputation for craftsmanship, attention to detail and exquisite design.
In 2006 the forest products industry in Vermont supported 13,807 direct and indirect jobs, produced $1.83 billion in output, and generated $486 million in personal income for a net fiscal benefit to the state of $12.92 million, according to the report “The Economic Impact of the Value-Added Portion of the Wood Products Industry in Vermont,” prepared by Economic & Policy Resources, Inc.
But even though their industry is large, Vermont woodworkers still face challenges.
“There are fewer of us out there doing what we do – making domestic U.S. wood products,” said Malcolm Cooper, president of J.K. Adams, a manufacturer of wooden kitchenware and furniture located in Dorset.
The recent economic downturn and competition from China have put some less financially well-off companies out of business.Because the wood furniture market typically tracks the housing market, wood products manufacturers have had difficulty maintaining sales volume the past few years.
Manufacturers in China can copy products within six to eight weeks. Even when prospective buyers recognize the large carbon footprint required to ship materials from overseas, it can be tough to turn down imports from China. They are very cheap – so cheap that the prices cannot always be explained by low-labor costs.
Some Chinese manufacturers appear to benefit from significant government subsidy. U.S. trade groups representing wood manufacturers have had some success getting the Commerce Department’s International Trade Commission to increase import duties on Chinese bedroom furniture illegally dumped on the U.S. market.
These duties were renewed in 2010, which is good news for Vermont woodworkers.
But duties are not always foolproof; individual Chinese manufacturers have been able to secure exemptions from some of them.
Cost-cutting measures sometimes backfire on Chinese competitors. A recall of Chinese toys in 2007 due to concerns about lead paint content meant much higher sales volume that year for many domestic toy manufacturers, including Maple Landmark Woodcraft of Middlebury.
Owner Mike Rainville believes that this event made people think about the safety of their toys and where they were made.
“Christmas season was chaos for us because everybody was looking for alternatives,” he remembers enthusiastically.
There have been success stories despite the rough economy.
Kevin Hastings, owner of Amoskeag Woodworking in Colchester, was able to buy Morse Hardwoods and Millwork when they went out of business and keep those jobs in Vermont.
After that acquisition, Hastings moved the business into a larger facility and hired even more employees.
J.K. Adams hosts a weekly Sunday farmers’ market in Dorset that runs year round except for a small break in February. Beyond boosting the company’s Sunday business, the farmers’ market has raised public awareness of local farmers and artisans.
Local wood products manufacturers represent a boon to the state’s economy in many other ways.
They support local wood mills and loggers practicing sustainable forestry.
As a major renewable natural resource, Vermont’s forests require careful management to ensure their future and maintain Vermont’s working landscape.
The local wood industry has traditionally worked with foresters and landowners for years to sustainably manage this natural resource from forest to finished product.
“One of the neat things about Vermont is that you have a long-term pattern of small landholdings passed down from generation to generation. You have people that live in and among and on the land that they own, and there is a built-in ethic of conservationism,” says Tim Copeland, owner of Copeland furniture in Bradford.
In their schoolhouse naturals product line, Maple Landmark Woodcraft focuses on using local maple lumber bought only 9 miles down the road from a Bristol mill run by Tom Lathrup, who represents the fifth generation of his family in the business.
J.K. Adams buys its raw lumber primarily from brokers in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, although Cooper points out with some disappointment that with the decline in the working landscape in Vermont fewer local sawmills are operating.
Occasionally he must procure lumber from Canada that originated in Vermont and was exported for processing.
J.K Adams also buys reject ash wood shovel handle blanks from a local manufacturer and uses them to make their wine racks, recycling what would otherwise be waste.
Copeland Furniture uses sustainably harvested hardwoods from the Northeast.
Most of their maple comes from Vermont; however, not all species are abundant in-state. Some wood, such as cherry, must be purchased from New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
But the ease and environmental benefits of getting local materials does factor into their design process.
“We have a predisposition to making things out of maple because we can get maple from local sawmills,” Copeland said.
Amoskeag Woodworking also uses sustainable, local materials. They recently worked with the University of Vermont on a project using timber from UVM property that had been harvested by a Vermont logger and finished by Amoskeag – a local endeavor from start to finish.
Wood products made in Vermont from local, sustainably harvested materials support the state’s working landscape and the local economy. The next article in this series will look at the environmental problems associated with importing wood furniture from overseas and the issues related to sustainability certification standards for wood products.
Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer and locavore who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
January 16, 2011