GOSHEN — The largest agriculture sector in Indiana, the hardwoods industry, wants to expand, and a new study may help it do so.
The “Indiana Hardwood Assessment” is a study undertaken by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and Purdue Center for Regional Development. The study was completed in December and presented to the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen's Association in February.
Ray Moistner, executive director of the association, said a lot of Hoosiers, including state legislators, are surprised when they hear that hardwood lumber is the top agriculture segment in the state.
Moistner said the industry has a $10 billion footprint in Indiana.
“The reason hardwoods is the largest ag industry by far is because of the vertical integration of our industry here,” Moistner said. “We grow the trees here, we process and have sawmills and veneer mills.”
The ISDA reported the harvesting of hardwoods supports 70,000 jobs, 44,000 of which are in primary and secondary manufacturing and 26,000 in ancillary sectors.
The study lists almost 3,200 hardwood-related Hoosier businesses in an interactive on-line database. Those businesses range from one- and two-person woodworking shops up to corporations manufacturing plywood and pallets.
Those segment numbers can become much larger if more wood growing on private and state lands is harvested, according to the report.
The report said that increasing harvest from public lands, which accounts for 15 percent of the state’s hardwoods, should be undertaken.
“Most of the state-owned public acres are in parks, preserves, or otherwise off limits to harvest, leaving about 150,000 acres available for multiple-use management, including healthy and sustainable harvesting,” the report states. “The total acreage of timberland in Indiana has steadily increased since the 1960s, and forests are growing in volume more than 3.3 times the amount being harvested each year.”
The report’s authors acknowledge there are conflicting viewpoints on if trees should be harvested from public lands.
“Balancing the disparate needs and desires of diverse stakeholders is always a challenge for natural resources managers, but higher levels of harvest (conducted using best practices for sustainable forestry) could be conducted on state forests without negatively impacting forest health or sustainability,” the report states.
Private land is where most the state’s hardwoods are growing, the report indicates.
“Very little, probably less than 1 percent of all the timber that feeds this $10 billion industry, comes off of public lands,” Moistner estimated.
But much of the private land is not producing hardwoods.
“Seventy to 80 percent of those people (private landowners) do not manage their timber for production,” he said.
The reasons for not harvesting trees are many, Moistner said, including the landowner wanting to maintain a woodlot in a natural state, or as a place of solitude.
“But there is also a lot of them out there that are unaware of the value of their timber,” Moistner said. “You could equate it with sitting on an oil field and never drilling.”
Rhonda Derleth, is vice president of Indiana Hardwood Specialists Inc. in Spencer. She is an advocate for smart use of the state’s hardwoods.
“You can’t just go in an wipe them all out,” Derleth said of how to manage trees in a woodlot. “People who are not tree people say it is not a crop. But we look at it like it is a 50-year crop. You take out the trees, but you need to be environmentally friendly and make sure they come up for the next generation.”
Derleth said her company is part of the hardwoods vertical integration that Moistner referenced. Red and white oak, cherry and ash and other hardwoods arrive from kiln drying companies. Those companies source wood from Michigan, Illinois and Missouri. Then the 45 Indiana Hardwoods Specialists employees size the lumber and mill it for finishing. The company’s final product is tongue-and-groove flooring.
Asked what her impressions were of the report, Derleth said, ““I hope it does make more of the public out there aware of how important it (the hardwood industry) is.”
Moistner said the Indiana region that utilizes the most hardwoods for manufacturing is the south central area. He described that region as stretching from north of Louisville, Kentucky, to Jasper.
He cited the 2015 $12 million Brown-Forman purchase and refurbishment of an old mill in Spencer to manufacture barrel staves and head pieces, as an example of how the state’s hardwoods are coveted for manufacturing. Brown-Forman owns the whisky brands Jack Daniels, Old Forester and Southern Comfort as well as others.
The second largest use of hardwoods occurs in the north central part of Indiana. That’s where the recreational vehicle industry is based in Elkhart and LaGrange counties. The RVs are filled with cabinets, trim and tables, resulting in a demand for durable hardwoods.
Wible Lumber in the small town of South Milford in LaGrange County, provides kiln-dried hardwood boards to local shops that make furniture and wood products for the RV industry.
“Our shipments, 80 percent or more, stay within LaGrange County, Elkhart County and down into Allen County,” said Andrew Carunchia, purchasing agent for Wible and a Lumbermens Association board member. “It is pretty local. It doesn’t get much more local than what we are doing.”
But the sources for those hardwoods are in Ohio, which shares a state line with Indiana about 35 miles to the east of Wible’s facility.
“We do a lot of small distributions,” he added. “We have a 24-foot box truck and stop at a dozen different Amish shops. They produce a good product and it will last. That is one of the things about the Hardwoods Strategy, it is to get people to buy hardwoods. You buy a hardwood table and it will last a lifetime.”
The authors of “Indiana Hardwood Assessment” included a list of “key findings.”
One of their suggestions for growing the industry is to have direct engagement with private forest landowners to inform them about forest management and the benefits/importance of periodic harvest of hardwoods.
Another suggestion is to develop a strategy for identifying and contacting private landowners and then encouraging them to work with professional foresters to grow healthy forests and harvest at appropriate times.
One finding will require a financial investment by the General Assembly and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The report suggests the DNR fill all open forester positions and to add more positions so the DNR is able to better talk to landowners about forest management.
“It is a challenge to educate folks,” Moistner said. “You have to get the word out through the DNR foresters.”
He estimated that five or six of the state’s 21 forester positions are vacant.
In the coming years, Moistner believes the study can be used as a guide to grow the state’s hardwood industry through action and eduction.
He said, “We don’t want this report and all this data to go into a binder and go up on a shelf.”