This is often a question that I ask myself and wonder if others do the same. Traditionally the merchant bought the firewood from a local woodcutter and took it to market on their back or on a cart, this still happens in many parts of the world.
The relatively low margin combined with high volume and mass, meant that it was not worth taking it far, as the transport costs ate away at the margin. But it was a way of deriving an income, however small, with no large outlay in machinery, training or vehicles. All you need is a saw and an axe and some means of transporting it to market. Your return was directly related to the work that you did and your proximity to woodland and your market.
And so it was when I started out on my firewood journey five years ago. After ten years of trying to find a firewood merchant that could tell me what the moisture is, why it was firewood, what species it was, when they were coming and could I pay by bank transfer? No, I couldn’t find one, so we started buying waste and windfall trees from neighboring farmers. Using appropriate technology (ancient tractor left to me by a neighbour), we converted the fallen trees to firewood and put it in our store to dry before it was used to heat our home, our hot water and dry our clothes, reducing our reliance on oil to heat our large rural homestead.
Thinking that if we could do it, why couldn’t others move away from burning fossil fuels to heat their homes and use waste and windfall firewood, with a much lower carbon footprint? I quit my day job on the Tuesday and spent the Wednesday splitting firewood and the Thursday going round door to door selling seasoned firewood from our existing store in my old Land Rover.
Five years on, we eke out a sustainable, sometimes subsistence, living from our smallholding and are very glad to have moved away from the world of corporate logistics and the associated impact on the environment the food supply chain inflicts. It also gives me the freedom to set my own moral and ethical code, whilst supporting local farmers and helping local folk heat their homes as carbon neutrally as possible. It’s a simple model that works well, as long as you have enough dry stock to meet the fluctuating demand and are able to keep the customer satisfied and the Woodcutter’s Wife happy!
The industry has changed, if in fact you can call it an industry. It was more a collection of independent individuals doing their own thing. Like in all trades, some firewood merchants are better than others; some more reliable, honest and cheaper. The good ones build up a customer base, have good working processes and source of timber. They feed their families with a small surplus to reinvest when their old van turns its last mile or when the chain saw dies.
Government intervention to promote the use of biomass has changed the market fundamentally by offering a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) subsidy for those moving over to commercial heating using biomass. Chicken farmers were some of the early adaptors, using woodchip to heat large sheds containing tens of thousands of birds, as well as a domestic heating circuit, when it was too hot, they opened a window. Whilst you may argue that this human nature, greed and the abuse of the system lead to empty warehouses being heated purely for the subsidy, which in turn brought down the Northern Ireland government with the Cash for Ash Scandal, which has still not reconvened at the time of writing.
One unforeseen implication of this was the dramatic increase in the price of softwood, as many embraced the technology and the subsidy. This in turn pushed the price hardwood up which also had a knock on impact on the availability, particularly in certain parts of the country where the merchants are talking up the availability issues, describing their product as ‘rocket fuel’, rarer than Rocking Horse Poop and referring to themselves as The Log Father.
Some saw this as an opportunity to force dry firewood in a kiln, claiming a subsidy by burning logs to dry other logs, putting further pressure on the availability. The end product is great, but the means do not justify the end. A number of other firewood merchants have confided or blatantly gloated, that they make more money from their RHI payments than they do from selling their firewood. At a time when there is such pressure on the environment as well as public funds, this seems complete madness to me.
So much money has been invested in kilns to secure the RHI, there is significant lobbying going on to regulate the sale of firewood to ensure that it is less than 20% moisture to get the cleanest burn. Whilst I am totally in favor of firewood being 20% moisture as a maximum when it goes on the fire, it really does not have to be kiln dried. We achieve sub 20% with the help of the sun and the wind and a little patience. We don’t need a logo that says ready to burn firewood; our 325 customers know that already. To be honest, I don’t want to share that same logo with kiln dried wood, especially that which has been brought in from Lithuania or Latvia with all the associated environmental costs.
For them their income comes from the RHI, the firewood is almost a byproduct. If I was inefficient, if my costs were too high, then I completely understand that I will not be able to compete, but when the playing field is not level and you are fighting an uphill battle to help people economically and sustainably heat their homes, but are hindered by government policy, I wonder what hope we have to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement.
Does it matter where your firewood comes from? I think it does and if you do too, then use your financial power to buy firewood from local and sustainable sources, increasingly we need to think globally whilst acting locally.