Living Woods Article
“Helping you economically heat your home with sustainable firewood from the Tanat Valley, by converting windfall and waste into manageable, clearly defined domestic carbon neutral fuel.” At least that is what my website says, but what does that mean? Is it just marketing blurb or a statement of intent, a road map for a sustainable way of life. Let me take you through what we do, why we do it and how we do it, what tools we use, what I have learnt so far.
What We Do
I live on a four-acre small-holding in the Welsh borders: the old part of the house is four hundred years old and is heated almost entirely with logs. I first came here when I was seven when it was an Outdoor Study centre, owned by King Edwards School in Birmingham where my uncle was the English master. It was a perk of the staff to rent it in the summer, we had our annual family holiday here from 1976 to 1992 when it was so run down that even we had to abandon it. It fell out of fashion to take public school boys to remote county cottages in the mid 80’s and the place fell into disrepair with broken windows, dead animals within and no water throughout.
From around the age of ten I would tell people that one day I would live there, so post-1992 I squatted the place on weekends and holidays, as an unofficial key holder while I tried to persuade the school to sell it to me. Eventually, five years after our last official family holiday I moved in, despite the great efforts of the neighbour to prevent me from doing so, claiming a full agricultural tenancy on the eight acres. So riding the wave of great optimism in the summer of 1997 with the election of New Labour, I finally realized my childhood dream. So for less than the cost of my wife’s Volvo I bought this 400 year old farm house with eight acres of land, settled the dispute with the neighbour by giving him half the land and set off on a journey of independence and sustainability. Twenty years later we manage to heat the place almost exclusively with logs and thinking that if we can do it why can’t others, set about to provide low carbon firewood to heat your home.
Why Do We Do It
Selling firewood is a lifestyle thing: you won’t make a lot of money, but you might just get rich in other ways. For me, giving up a long career in logistics to process firewood for sale was a combination of push and pull factors that has had a profound effect on me and my family. For years I struggled to find a firewood supplier who could tell me what they were supplying, what the unit of sale was (as opposed to a ‘load’), where it was from, what the moisture content was and why it came to be firewood. Living in a rural area, surrounded by woodland and farmland, I started to buy fallen trees from farming neighbours and other local land owners when it was cheap and available locally.
It gave me a connection to the land and the locality that I craved and was one of the determining factors in my move here in the first place. Driven by my desire for independence and sustainability, I began to see an opportunity to upscale my domestic logging activity, give up my day job and sell firewood locally, processing waste and windfall timber. One sunny Sunday afternoon my wife asked me why I was always so grumpy. I thought, what right have I got to be grumpy? I lived in paradise, had a beautiful young family and a well-paid job in my chosen career. The problem was that I had either been promoted to a position of incompetency or that the demands of the job was unacceptable to me, travelling upwards of 1000 miles a week in my company car between transport depots, customers and suppliers. I was a dad, a husband, a son, a brother and a smallholder as well as an employee. At around this time one of my brothers had given me a book on the virtues of working with your hands which rang loud bells with me; I remember I would come back from work exhausted and my wife would say: working hard at the office? I would say no, the definition of work is the movement of mass over distance over time, so no, I have sat in meetings, talked on the phone and sent a load of emails, no hard work there then.
How Do We Do It
We take local waste and windfall timber and process it into logs of different shapes and sizes and sell it back to the local community for domestic heating. It is a simple business model that has very few stages or transfers of ownership in the process. Generally the timber is tipped in the drop zone on the yard, processed, seasoned and then when under 20% moisture content, delivered to the end-user by me in my van. The logs are supplied in barrow bags which are a clearly defined unit of sale, tagged with the species, post code of where they came from and the moisture content. Prices are fixed and clearly shown on the website. I have a small machine that lifts them into the van and gravity is on my side coming out. Using a sack truck I am able to position them exactly where the customer wants them, more often than not stacking them neatly in their store, or leaving them in the weather proof bags. Traditionally firewood is delivered in a ‘dumpy’ bag that is left on your drive and will need to be wheel-barrowed away before you can park your car on a wet and windy autumn evening! Customers receive an invoice giving all my details and that of the firewood. Generally payment is made by bank transfer giving full traceability of the transaction. One of my customers has received eight deliveries now but I have never met or spoken to her: an order is sent by message over the internet, the delivery is made, invoice sent and settled electronically.
I talk to as many firewood merchants as I can to give me a greater understanding of the industry and what my place in it could be. One chap told me how he used to employ three people, operate two processors but found that he could not complete with farmers’ sons. So he took himself off to Latvia where he contracted with a group of farmers to supply him with a container of clear felled, kiln-dried firewood each week. The environmental costs of clear felling, kiln drying and trucking across Europe horrifies me, so I set out to meet up with farmers’ sons and sure enough I came across a local chap in my same SY10 post code who worked on his father’s and uncle’s 1000 acre farm, doing a standard 60 hour week for £50 and board and lodgings. He is 21 and has been selling firewood for ten years, buying his first chain saw at the age of 13. He is not only customer-focused but listens. He comes in a £140k tractor, towing a trailer that has been loaded with a telehandler, equipment that I cannot dream of affording, but is financed by the farm and hired by him on a daily rate to process and deliver the timber. He enables me to meet an increasing demand as I struggle to source and season enough firewood to meet my growing demand.
We live a mile up a steep hill and whilst this gives us glorious views and our own micro climate it brings its own challenges, especially in the winter time. To reduce the need to haul heavy green timber up the hill I managed to lease a cluster of barns and a yard a mile down the road, on the valley floor, keeping tractors and trailers on the valley road rather than in the lanes. One of the barns is across the river, accessed by a weak bridge where the children play pooh sticks and where we have developed a campsite on a bend in the river, enabling a work-life balance that was illusive to me in the corporate world.
What Tools Do We Use
While I was still working in the corporate world I was admiring an axe in a garden centre when my wife offered buy it for me if I gave up my day job and set up the firewood business that I had been talking so much about. It was a Friskrs X27 splitting axe and it does what it says on the label with grace and precision. If I said that you only need to shake it at a log and it would fall apart that would only be a minor exaggeration! I have a number of other sizes of axe from the same company; they require no fuel, other than the standard five a day, make no noise and provide a clean cut with no burr.
You cannot run a firewood business on axe-splitting alone, I use a cone-splitter which produces 40T at the tip directly off the PTO (power take off supplied from a tractor), which will split anything that you can physically lift onto it. Okay, so I have stalled the tractor a couple of times with it and had to change the shear pins a few times, as I wildly exceed the parameters laid out in the manual. The cone splitter is a Hi crack and so much faster than a hydraulic splitter as you are not waiting for the ram to return, anyway the old tractor is not up to such hydraulic power. It is older than me and was left to me by a close friend and neighbour who killed himself, leaving a note on the kitchen counter asking for the Patricks to have the dog.
It also came with a saw bench that is just waiting to take your fingers off. Another tool that earns its living is a four wheel drive, 3.5T articulated dumper truck which we affectionately refer to as the death trap, which is slightly unfair, especially as the steering wheel no longer comes away in your hands.
With a yard full of ash and oak waiting to be split, I have this week invested in a professional forestry saw. Whilst it cuts like a hot knife through spreadable butter, it did cost more than two weeks housekeeping. Life is too short to enter into the Stihl/Husqvana debate, but if you have a spare £600 and need a saw that will cut all day long with ease then a MC261 is worth looking at. Other saws and ways of severing major arteries are available.
What Have I Learnt So Far
I used to think that the achievement of dreams was all about hard work. I have now come to realise that it is more about sacrifice; hard work is a given. Luck plays a large part and the harder you work the luckier you become. Making a living out of selling firewood is hard and I struggle to make a living out of buying timber, adding value and then selling it on. I expected to be able to work a four day week, sell £30k worth of logs and live happily ever after. Dream on; timber represents 40% of the sale price and my insurance is £1000 a year, so I don’t get even the minimum wage and I am more on the expensive side at approximately £100 a cube. Sales drop in the summer but the kids still eat as much as in the winter. I offer a volume discount but only rich people with large houses and log stores take advantage of this as the rest of us worry about how to afford a summer holiday; we have not been able to afford one since I gave up ‘work’ and may only take one this year thanks to the generosity of wealthy parents, perhaps next year the whole family may be able to have a holiday.
There is a law of unforeseen consequences. My aim was to spend more time with the children: if my seven year old boy turns out to be a wayward teenager then I may live to regret that I was away so much in his formative early years. Being around more during the working week meant that I wanted to get more involved, taking the kids to school, cooking family meals and spending quality time with my wife who bakes celebration cakes. The lack of income meant that the cakes that used to provide for luxuries such as iPads and holidays become an essential source of income, especially in the summer months. She took on all the cakes that she could, worked tirelessly to keep us going to a point when she said that she was thinking of leaving me. After 16 weekly Relate sessions we realise that we did not consider enough what we would lose by me giving up my day job. We have learnt to listen more to each other and there is light at the end of the tunnel as we work together to increase the scale of the business to spread the fixed costs over a larger output of timber.
I still struggle with how best to spend my time: do I concentrate on what I am good at, that is sales, marketing and distribution, in short: people; buying in the firewood in bulk from local suppliers at a reduced margin or spending my days processing timber? I don’t have all the answers, but do have a load of questions about burning fossil fuels, about the life that our children will lead and how they will ever be able to afford to buy a house, what will happen after Brexit and what may happen as the new masters of the universe flex their inexperienced muscles. In the meantime I will continue to chop logs and trade with local people, processing their waste and windfall into manageable, clearly defined domestic, (hopefully) carbon-neutral fuel and hope that with a fair wind I will be able to maintain my home and family and that my wife sticks with me.