‘Where’s your phone?’ my friend asked matter-of-factly as he looked down at me lying on the concrete floor of the Cow Shed. ‘It’s in the van,’ I replied, just as calmly. I could see the hole in the roof that I had fallen through. Curling my toes and wriggling my fingers told me that nothing major was broken – I was conscious, coherent and very lucky. An MRI scan confirmed it, although it felt like everything was broken when I got out of bed in the mornings for several weeks after my fall.
The month I was out of action gave me time to reflect on new ideas for the direction of travel for my business, Tanat Valley Firewood. I realised that my being behind the tractor converting waste wood and windfall into firewood was not the best use of my time. I had established myself as someone who buys waste and windfall for wood fuel, but why not have others do the actual processing? What other sourcing opportunities were there in the Tanat Valley? Part of the answer came from a sawmill I had visited. The owner offered to sell me a large quantity of logs from their slab wood, the waste first cuts when converting tree trunks into sawn timber. After the initial deliveries, the mill owner asked if I had any work for his son, and I now have help that is younger and stronger than me, who brings waste firewood when he comes to work three days a week.
As the business enjoys early growth, we sold more firewood last summer than we did in the winter. Sales, marketing and logistics have become the mainstay of what I do, arranging inbound deliveries just in time to meet demand for the coming year. Trees come down when the strong winds blow, making it difficult to plan, and tree surgeons call when they have arisings, as their waste is referred to. Increasingly, though, homeowners keep their felled trees for their own fire. Local small woods owners ask us to do the first or second thinning in their woods in exchange for the timber. The tree fellas tell me that the cost of the extraction can be greater than the value of the firewood, so while this could be part of the bigger picture of assisting in management of local woodland, it could also be a drain on scarce resources.
When I started on this journey, I planned to sell £30k worth of firewood a year, work four days a week and spend the rest with the family on the holding. We have managed the first part, but have yet to see a sustainable living from the business year round. They say that it is difficult to make a living from selling firewood unless you are very small or very large – I have seen both ends of the spectrum and tend to agree. If you work out of a pickup truck with your chainsaw and don’t have too many mouths to feed, then perhaps you can manage it. Or if you are a big operator, processing large quantities of cordwood before force drying it, burning taxpayers’ pounds under the guise of the Renewable Heat Initiative, then that can work for you. Alternatively you might buy wood from eastern Europe where it is clear felled and kiln-dried before being trucked across Europe, and sell it at a profit. The customer sits in front of their log burner warm in the knowledge that they are helping the environment by burning firewood rather than oil or gas.
If scale is an option for business sustainability, scope should also be considered. £28,000 is what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tells us we, as a family of four, need to live in 21st century Britain. Problem is that folk buy firewood only half of the year. What do you do in the other half to provide the other £14,000? What other products and services can we offer the community? I am working out what can flow from our current supplier base through our facilities, be repackaged, value added and then redistributed on existing vehicles to our current customer base, that is also inversely seasonal to the firewood. Part of the answer may come with gardening supplies and services.
For me the question lies on a deeper level: what we wish to do with our three score years and ten. Is the aim to make as much money as you can and then spend it before you die, or are there non-financial goals that have greater worth? Can we work cooperatively for a wider gain, both economically and environmentally? Could we run Tanat Valley Firewood as a community interest company where the benefit is shared in the area? Could we provide local transport services similar to the old post bus where folk would travel through rural areas with the postie, with routes and schedules backed up by live vehicle location online? Or why not offer electric pool cars that we charge through the solar panels and the biomass boiler? Could we dare to think that Tanat Valley Firewood could be a centre of best practice for rural economic development through sustainable energy generation? We owe it to our children to ask these questions.
In the meantime, we have established an excellent supplier base and are lucky to have an expanding customer base that appreciates our passion for providing a sustainable and positive rural, low carbon, firewood lifestyle.
Family life, I have come to realise, doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. I try to capture the essence of our family life here on the hillside in my regular blog on our website, inspired by the article I wrote for Living Woods last spring.