Cortes value-added wood products: A workshop for Champions

Narrator: “Mills have closed across rural British Columbia, devastating the economies of many small forestry dependent communities. Tiny Harrop-Proctor Community Forest has bucked this trend. The Harrop-Proctor experience shows that even a small, locally controlled mill can make a significant difference in creating local jobs while adding value to forestry operations generally.”

“ About a quarter of the wood from the community forest  is staying in the community. Comes four kilometres down the hill, ends up here, gets bucked up,  runs through the mill, and local builders are coming to buy stuff.  There’s a huge benefit there because those jobs weren’t here before,” explained Rami Rothkop speaking in a film about Harrop-Procter Forest Products (close to Nelson, in the Kootenays). 

Related story: Highly generative community forest meeting launches next phase of opportunity roadmap

The Cortes Community Forest Cooperative hired Rothkop and his associate, Oliver Scholfield as consultants to help Cortesians draw up a value-added forest products business roadmap. Around 40 people turned out for a workshop they held in the Klahoose Multi-Purpose Building on Saturday. 

Rami Rothkop: “It’s been overwhelming, the level of interest here. I’m kind of vacillating between overwhelm and excitement, just because there’s so much interest and there’s so many champions.  I don’t know yet what’s going to happen here, because  I’m coming in from  Proctor with some ideas of things that worked for us. Now my co-worker Oliver and I are here trying to collate all the information that has come at us for the last three days and somehow help out as best we can to create with some knowledge of things that did and didn’t work for us, a vision for a Cortes based on what folks want here.” 

“I don’t want to dictate anything. I want to say, well, in my experience, this worked for us. This might not work here because of things we didn’t think about, that I didn’t know 20 years ago.” 

“We met with Ron Wolda Friday morning. The guy’s brilliant. We hit it right off. He’s a piece to the puzzle.  You’ve got Henry Verschuur on the other end of the island milling boards and he’s a piece to the puzzle. We’ve got Aaron and Jeremie.  There’s all these people here that have great ideas, and so now we need to collate them.”

“The next step is to take it up a notch and  amp up the vision on behalf of the local producers.” 

Cortes Currents: What were people saying at the workshop?

Rami Rothrop: “We broke out into small groups and the answer is all over the map. Everything from stuff we’re doing, to furniture, to toys, to art.”

“We’ve got a lot of capacity here, maybe not on the business end so much because so many people are just doing things. But,  again, it’s too early for me to call, and it’s not really my call to make anyway. We do this with you guys, not for you guys.”

Cortes Currents: Tell us what you did at Proctor.  

Rami Rothrop: “ In the late nineties, the NDP government was doing these land use initiatives. One of them was a parks campaign. The  goal was to increase the park space in BC. Myself and a bunch of other activists got together and put it in a proposal for the West Arm Wilderness,  a park proposal that went basically from Nelson over to Creston, including here at Proctor.”

“It was 50,000 hectares, and we were successful in our campaign, except they excluded the Harrop-Proctor watersheds.  Some of us cynical types  thought it was because there were so many activists from Harrop-Proctor working on the parks campaign.” 

“So many of us got together early on and said, ‘well look, we didn’t win this one. We won it, but we didn’t win it for where we live. So what are we going to do?’” 

“The NDP also was calling for community forest licenses for a pilot project they had set up. We put a proposal in for the areas that were excluded from the park. My first choice would’ve been conservation, but we didn’t think politically that was going to happen.” 

“So we did an exhaustive, somewhat naive proposal for our utopian vision of what was going to happen in Harrop-Proctor. Do you know who Herb Hammond is? Herb’s a really dear friend of mine now, and he had a big influence on my life at this time. We engaged with the Silva Forest Foundation (which he founded) to do the mapping.”

“We put a proposal in that was our acceptable level of cut per year, which was dramatically less than what government would do.  It’s 11,000 hectares, government would’ve taken out about 20,000 meters a year. We said we can live with 2,500 and we were successful. It probably was the first time it happened in  the province where a community had dictated their own cut.”

“We had all kinds of just different business ideas. One of them was logging, and one of them was value added. In the end we ended up focusing on value added and logging, mostly because of capacity.”

“Not that the other ideas weren’t good, the other two were botanical forest products and ecotourism, but we let those go.”

Click here to watch Deep Roots One

“There was a local sawyer named Dave Johnson, who was one of my co-founder buddies. We contracted with Dave to mill boards for the community forest and we marketed them on a very limited basis, just around the community and a little further away. We did that for several years.” 

“I got burnt out and I left for a few years and then went back and had new enthusiasm. So I jumped in with some really reliable, smart people to take a stab at Harrop Proctor Forest Products. We started up Dave’s mill and  ran with that for a while.”

“Me and Dave and his son were working at the mill one day, and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I’m not a miller, I’m not a sawmill guy.’” 

“And this guy walks down the road. He is about six foot three, and he comes into the mill. He said, ‘Hi, my name’s David Strum, and I just shut down my mill in Creston.  I had a mill and a kiln and I did flooring and I had a moulder and I know all this stuff.’” 

 “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? You coming along now was just so fortuitous.’” 

“David Strum and I became good friends.  He was instrumental, and is still instrumental in the success of Harrop-Proctor. He had all the pieces  that were needed, or most of them, it was brilliant really. We worked together with Dave for a while and then we put a proposal in for a little bit of funding with Columbia Basin Trust. They helped us buy our first mill and our edger. Dave and I built a kiln. We ran with those pieces of equipment and started to build the business up.” 

“We didn’t have to market because people loved the story of the community forest. They loved pulling  into this rural sawmill to buy boards.  It basically was exponential growth from there.”

“We added more equipment as time and money allowed. We added a moulder and we started making value added forest products like siding, paneling, decking, that kind of thing. We went from one employee, which was David at the beginning, and now there’s eight or nine. I’m answering your question slowly.”

“None of those jobs were there before at all. One of the gauges of success in our collective minds is jobs aren’t a cost or a benefit.” 

“In the BC forest industry, the goal’s been to put people out of work and mechanize and make more money for corporations. I’m not cynical, that’s just what’s happened in BC. Our jobs per cubic meter have decreased.” 

“At Harrop-Proctor we’re milling about 2,500 meters a year, which is about 650,000 board feet. We do that in a year with eight people. A medium size to large mill down the road, does it in a day with eight people. A super mill in Alberta does it in two hours with eight people.” 

“There’s been this mantra forever of value added, and we’ve gotta do more value added. Well,  Industry’s goal, with notable exceptions, has been to not do value added.”

“It’s been to do as many boards as possible for as cheaply as possible. It’s worked out well by and large for big forest corporations, but  it has not served communities very well. That was our thing, to come full circle in the conversation.”

“There’s a lot of debate about no logging at all, but the community basically accepted the fact that it was possible to do it in a more ecologically and socially acceptable way. They weren’t ever going to accept industrial or government logging in our watersheds.”

“I’m feeling the same energy here on Cortes where, ‘yeah, we’ll live with a bit of logging, but not in the conventional sense and this business will also evolve with that set of values.’”

“Oliver and I have been hired by the community forest to create a value added roadmap with you folks.  It is a roadmap to get from where we are now to an as yet unknown goal in the future. My sense is there’s going to be side roads and main roads on how to get there, and we’ll blend those things together.” 

“Our job is to help, in the next three or four months, create a business plan. I.e.- a roadmap on paper with numbers, exploring various options that we hope/think will be viable in a community business sense.” 

“I’m thinking the next stage of that will be to hand the reins maybe to a paid, or a partly paid, champion to help us get going, because it hits a point with this stuff where it’s just too much to ask a volunteer.”

Cortes Currents: Let’s talk about this champions job description. What will he or she be doing?

Rami Rothrop: “Yeah, he or she. That’s exactly right because there’s definitely some she’s here that could do it.” 

“That person would look at  what’s happening on the island? Who needs help? Can we pool the products and brand it under the Cortes Community Forest Coopertive name?  Are we going to explore markets off island” (That could start happening for some things to move.) What products are we choosing? Are we going to look at a community communal space to encourage people that don’t have access to tools and expertise, to create things that could hit the marketplace?”

“My sense is it’s going to be a bunch of things together here,  because that’s just what’s happening. You can’t just say, we’re going to support this because there’s all kinds of honorable things percolating.”

“A lot of these folks that we’ve met here don’t want to be out there selling wood. They want to do what they’re doing. So sales would also be a component of that, I think promotion, and I think the potential is here, as it was in Procter, where you don’t have to do a lot of promotion.  It’ll create its own momentum, but we have to get it going.”

Cortes Currents: You’re leaving today? What’s the next step? 

Rami Rothrop: “This was  the inaugural visit. Oliver and I will now take all the bits and pieces that we picked up and collate it. I’ll be back myself at some point, probably in the next month or six weeks to start doing some homework.” 

Top image credit: The value added workshop – Photo by Bill Weaver

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