How a Fargo Timber company increased its urban timber production

By developing uniform finishes and products that showcase the unique character of urban wood while remaining small enough to be nimble, Dakota Timber has found a scalable way to reuse discarded urban trees.

Nestled in wooden packing materials, the metallic green ash borer, native to Asia, was the first discovered in the United States in 2002, in southeastern Michigan. Since then, the beetles – whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, reducing the trees’ ability to move water and nutrients – have been responsible for the destruction of tens of millions of ash trees in 30 states. States and municipalities have responded with structured removal plans to keep invasive tree-killing pests at bay, resulting in the removal of unprecedented numbers of trees in cities across the country.

“There was a lot of effort, especially in the Midwest, to build capacity because a lot of trees were suddenly falling and they had to be able to deal with that,” says Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry for American forestsan organization dedicated to creating healthy forests founded in 1875. “So there was innovation going on.”

And innovation is exactly what a forestry company in Fargo, North Dakota did. Today the Dakota Timber Company processes approximately 750,000 board feet of local lumber each year, much of which is urban lumber from city trees in the local community.

Dakota Timber’s roots go back to founder Seth Carlson’s college years at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Carlson and a friend started making wood products alongside their studies, mostly platform bed frames, but Carlson was soon exhausted by the high demand. He took a few years to refocus and focus on cycling until he heard that a lumber salvage business in Duluth was closing. After negotiating with the bank and maxing out a few credit cards, Carlson purchased all of their remaining inventory and hired a company to transport it to Fargo. “I thought I was just going to sell it and be done with it, but 10 years later I’m running a full-scale manufacturing business,” says Carlson.

He soon realized that no one was interested in buying raw reclaimed wood, that he had to turn it into a finished product, such as floating shelves, table tops and mantels. A few years into the business, around 2015, Carlson began pivoting its business model. Growing up, his father was a forester in nearby Casselton, North Dakota. “It was a dream of mine to use city trees that were falling from disease, storm damage or whatever,” Carlson says.

The vast, nearly treeless prairies that make up the Great Plains do not support a large timber industry, but Carlson knew intimately the trees that come down and are planted almost continuously in North Dakota’s cities.

He did some rough math on the back of the napkin and estimated that three of North Dakota’s biggest cities — Fargo, Grand Forks, and Bismarck — alone probably produce close to a million board feet a year from elms only.

“It is possible to capture approximately four million board feet in urban forests nationwide. That’s more than our national forests,” says Leahy. “I think a lot of people think about [urban lumber] like a nice side doghouse, but it actually has the potential to be very sustainable and make a very essential economic and environmental contribution. A study 2019 estimates the potential annual value of urban wood to be between $89 million and $786 million, depending on the end product.

Carlson purchased a sawmill for the shop and the team began tinkering, looking for finished products that could absorb the unique nonconformity of urban wood. “An endless chain of troubleshooting,” as Carlson explains, led the company to two main products: tabletops and floating shelves. The tabletops are advertised as a mix of urban hardwoods, meaning each has its own distinct look.

While tabletops can be assembled from multiple species, each floating shelf is only one species, but customers want shelves that look uniform across the board. “So that it’s not so obvious that a shelf is a different species…we found a way to finish them with a weathered finish…that ties it all together,” he adds. -he.

What began when Carlson and his company hauled discarded logs out of landfills has evolved to sourcing directly from logging companies that cities contract with.

Although the use of urban wood is not unique, many other companies are also active in the urban wood sector, including Hood wood, Trilox and Urban Lumber Co. — finding a way to increase production is. Carlson says Dakota Timber’s secret to being able to compete with big-box stores is the small and nimble nature of its business. They have refined their processes over the years to meet real-time customer demands.

“If a trend changes, we can stop a product line and create a new one instantly,” he says. “Within weeks, we can start producing the product we consider popular in real time, while large retailers take trends from the previous six months or year to make guesses about what to buy for the following seasons.”

Additionally, with supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, local sourcing has helped keep inventory circulating while overseas shipments spend months waiting on freighters. Still, even the trees that fall in Fargo alone are more than Carlson’s team can touch.

“A majority still goes to the landfill. It’s always cheaper and easier in the short term to throw everything away,” says Leahy. “If it’s not thrown away, it often turns into chips that break down pretty quickly, but you’re not really storing that carbon long-term if that’s part of the goal. And you’re not maximizing the benefits You’re not creating all the jobs you could get out of it.”

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. His work has been published in National Geographic, US News & World Report, Rewire.news, etc. She holds a master’s degree in social design, with a focus on intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology and fine arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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