By Whitney Bauck, Fast Company
Timberdoodle Farm in New Hampshire provides locally logged and processed lumber for its clients, a stark contrast to larger timber companies which source wood all over the world. For example, the small sawmill produces about 100,000 board feet of wood per year compared with other companies that produce that much each day. The difference is that these smaller operations can better utilize lumber that would otherwise go to waste.
You probably don’t think 'this used to be a tree' every time you look at the cardboard sleeve on your to-go coffee cup or even the door to your bedroom. Wood products are such a pervasive part of modern life that they’re invisible to most people.
But they’re not invisible to Katrina Amaral. As cofounder of a New Hampshire-based custom sawmilling business called Timberdoodle Farm, she and her cofounder and husband, Miles, are focused on providing locally logged and processed lumber for everything from custom woodworking to kitchen renovations. Katrina is constantly thinking about where and how wood is sourced, and what that means for the well-being of people and the planet. She wants other people to start doing the same.
“You’re probably within 5 to 10 feet of a wood product right now,” she says, “and your ability to figure out where it came from is almost nonexistent. That, to me, is kind of crazy.”
Katrina and Miles started Timberdoodle somewhat improbably out of the apartment they shared while studying at the University of New Hampshire. Miles, a mechanical engineering major, built a chainsaw mill in their tiny rented backyard “because he was bored.” Katrina, who was studying endangered birds as part of her master’s in conservation biology, would help mill local wood after classes. Eventually, word got out about what they were doing, allowing the Amarals to transition their sawmilling business into a full-time gig.
About 10 million hectares of forest are cut down each year—that’s about 15 billion trees annually—and the U.S. consumes more forest productsthan any other country. And while wood might seem like an inherently sustainable material since it can be regrown, recent research points to the fact that successfully regrowing healthy, carbon-sequestering forests is much more difficult than you might think.
That’s part of why Katrina wants the public to start interrogating where the wood that serves as the backdrop to their lives comes from. She and Miles are trying to address that by supplying their customers, who mostly live within a 50-mile radius, with wood that grows hyperlocally. Sometimes the wood comes from mere yards away, as when they supply a home-building client with trees cut from the client’s own property.
“A lot of the same questions that people are thinking about when it comes to food are relevant here, like, What’s going into this product? Who’s interacting with it? Where is it coming from? And is it honoring the landscape?” Katrina says, adding that a sense of connection to the end product and quality concerns also parallel those in food: “You know the difference between the tomato you get at a farmers market versus the tomato you get in a supermarket? There’s a very similar difference with lumber quality.”
Much like in agriculture, the biggest players in the wood products industry often replace complex forest ecosystems with monocrops that rely on herbicides to keep out unwanted species, reducing biodiversity. And wood is so difficult to harvest ethically in certain parts of the world that it parallels fashion materials like Xinjiang cotton, which has been banned in the U.S. because it’s inextricably linked to forced Uyghur labor in China.
Katrina recalls a conservation professional focused on the Amazon telling her that if you buy wood from Brazil, “that’s ecocide and genocide you’re contributing to, because realistically, there is currently no humane or ecologically sustainable way to get wood out of that country.”
Globalized wood supply chains can mean unsustainable or illegal logging, which threatens delicate ecosystems as well as the rights of Indigenous people. But it also means a lot more carbon pollution from shipping products all over the world: Wood that’s logged in the U.S. is sometimes sent to China to be processed, then sent back to North America to be sold, Katrina says.
Wood demand that’s driven by current trends can create a different kind of environmental problem. After a home renovation TV show popularized shiplap, Timberdoodle was inundated with requests for shiplap “for years,” Katrina says. When trends shift to specific species of trees—i.e., tastemakers decide that white oak is the chicest flooring material in a given year—it can lead to overharvesting of whatever species is “in” at the moment.
“We treat wood almost like fast fashion in the amount that we’re using it, and we don’t treat rare woods as rare anymore,” she says of consumption patterns in North America. “Everyone wants walnut right now—and I get why; it’s beautiful—but we’re overharvesting it. We’re making flooring out of walnut, which is insane, because it should be considered a luxury wood.”
Where bigger suppliers might prioritize meeting demand for what’s trending, regardless of whether it’s sustainable, Timberdoodle is focused on harvesting whatever wood is local and plentiful.
Sourcing locally and getting to know the people logging and processing the wood you use in your home isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a start. Part of the benefit is that it means supporting small producers like Timberdoodle, which produces about 100,000 board feet of wood per year (by contrast, the next-largest mill in the area produces that much each day, Katrina says). Smaller operations like Timberdoodle can better utilize lumber that would go to waste in a system where only large-scale operations are economically viable.
The best example of this comes from urban trees: Approximately 14.5 million tons of wood from urban areas goes to landfill in the U.S. annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory. This happens for a number of reasons. Arborists, who manage city tree removals, may cut trees to sizes that aren’t suitable for milling, and they may not be connected to mills that have the kind of equipment and workflow needed to take one or two trees of varied species at a time. In short, their job is to take trees down safely when need be, not find a place for the wood to go.
Plus, city trees are much more likely than rural trees to be full of nails and other obstacles that can complicate the milling process. That’s where operations the size of Timberdoodle can make a difference, because they’re able to sell lumber at a slightly higher price point that justifies the extra time and care it takes to mill city trees.
Ultimately, Timberdoodle’s business model and intention—providing wood products on an as-needed basis in a hyperlocal context—requires that it stay small, meaning it will never single-handedly represent a solution to all the environmental problems of the wood industry. But that’s part of the point: Katrina doesn’t want to see her own operation lifted up so much as she wants to see a movement grow that will support small sawmill and logging businesses all over the country, which together might create the necessary tapestry of alternatives to the status quo.
“We want to stay at a size where we can maintain our community connections as well as our connection to the trees and land,” she says. “That’s how I hold that tension between sustainable building materials and the destructive power of most timber harvests. Whatever the solution is for sustainable forestry, it exists in a space where people are connected to each other and the trees.”