Family operation finds diverse demand for often-ignored hardwood lumber
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Ben Deumling cringes when he sees beautiful oak logs being sold for firewood.
As the owner of Zena Forest Products, a custom sawmill near Rickreall, Ore., he sees a much higher potential for the hardwood.
"It's still completely undervalued," Deumling said.
Softwood trees, particularly the Douglas fir, have long reigned over the Northwest timber industry, marginalizing lumber from oaks and maples, he said.
The dearth of sawmills devoted to such species has left forestland owners with few options other than the firewood market.
Deumling's Zena Forest Products hopes to change that.
Hardwood species growing on the Deumling family's 1,300-acre property are processed into floorboards and lumber for value-added uses like furniture.
The company also harvests and sells Douglas fir logs, with the goal of smoothing out fluctuating revenues from softwoods and hardwoods over the long term.
"We're hedging our bets. We're diversifying our resource base," Deumling said.
The property can generate enough hardwood to supply 40 percent of the on-site sawmill's capacity in perpetuity. The remaining logs are bought from nearby forestland owners.
"I'm constantly running around the neighborhood trying to find other hardwood logs," Deumling said.
By helping to make hardwoods commercially viable, the company hopes to preserve the region's endangered oak habitat, said Deumling's mother, Sarah, who manages the family forest.
"They might be more willing to keep their oak stand rather than wipe it out and plant something else," she said.
Demand for locally produced construction materials is growing by leaps and bounds in metropolitan markets, said KC Eisenberg, director of sales for Sustainable Northwest Wood in Portland.
"It's a growing movement. It's at the forefront in green building," she said. "Consumers are taking control of things and seeking information."
Sustainable Northwest Wood supplies builders with lumber that it buys from Zena Forest Products and other local producers.
The company has also discovered a niche for Deumling's white oak among boat builders, who buy the lumber before it's dried to ease bending.
"We use his stuff for a surprising number of applications," Eisenberg said.
The prospect of locally produced floorboards is the major draw for customers, since such materials are otherwise imported from the East Coast or even China, Deumling said.
"Hands down, that's what best helps sell lumber for me," he said.
Apart from the local angle, Deumling said he benefits from being certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit group that recognizes low-impact forestry.
"The FSC label is a huge market advantage for me," Deumling said.
After harvest, logs are milled and dried at the property. Zena Forest Products contracts with another company to turn the raw lumber into floorboards.
Since the mill was launched in 2008, Deumling has been refining his process for sawing and drying the logs. He's currently accumulating the machinery and expertise to fully process the lumber into end products.
"This is all a work in progress," he said. "I hope to eventually be completely vertically integrated."
Simultaneously managing softwood and hardwood species on the property can be challenging in some cases.
For example, oak trees grow slower than Douglas firs and can't survive in their shade.
As the two tree types grow larger and begin to compete, Sarah Deumling must decide whether to harvest the Douglas first to allow the oaks to thrive, or vice versa.
Maples, on the other hand, can tolerate growing beneath taller Douglas fir trees and their cast-off leaves help enrich the soil for the softwood species, she said.
"It's the way the ecosystem has evolved," she said.
The family's focus on environmentally beneficial forestry has played a crucial role in their ownership of the property.
Deumling's father, Dieter, managed the property until his death in 1996 for an investor who lived in Germany.
That landowner eventually wanted to sell the property while protecting it from development.
Sarah and Ben arranged for him to sell a conservation easement on the land to ensure it would be used exclusively for environmentally sound forestry in the future.
With development no longer an option, the value of the property was greatly reduced, allowing the Deumlings to buy it.
"We're forever smiling in the morning when we realize we actually own this forest," Sarah Deumling said.
Occupation: Sawmill owner
Family: Wife, Emily
Education: Graduated in 2005 from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies and politics.