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First Light: A Logger's Life

First Light: A Logger’s Life
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Our wood chart shows you the relative heat values of New England’s fuel woods.

You see the woodpiles everywhere around here, tidy rows covered by old corrugated roofing panels, sprawling jumbles beneath blue plastic tarps, glimpses of neatly stacked cordwood on back porches.In a side yard up on Turnpike Road in our New Hampshire town, there’s a perfect beehive of concentric circles of wood, the whole thing maybe 4 feet high and 12 feet across, each course of logs tipping delicately in toward the center of the stack.

Old-timers would approve — there’s no better way to dry firewood — but I marvel at the time behind the stacking. When I got married and started a family, time became a scarcer resource than money, or maybe a more precious one, and I stopped heating solely with wood. (A friend calls our propane boiler “dial-a-cord.”) But now propane is up to $2.50 a gallon in New Hampshire.

Search online or read the pamphlets from your local county extension agency, and the economics of heating with firewood are all about relative efficiencies and heating values and costs per BTU of heat generated. And there’s the old adage that heating with wood actually warms you twice: the first time being when you cut and stack it. But there’s another set of economics that is mostly ignored, or lost in the romance of the woodsmoke: that of the logger.

North of where we live, logger Paul Paulin makes half his annual income selling 900 to 1,000 cords of firewood. It’s mostly maple, culled from the better wood he sells for saw logs. He’s doing pretty well lately: Unlike some areas, this part of west-central New Hampshire provides a steady supply, and as heating-fuel costs have soared, so has the demand for wood, along with its price. He’ll deliver a cord of green wood for $150, seasoned wood for around $200.

His prices are a little lower than the average around northern New England, but his operation is typical. A thousand cords of firewood sounds like a fair amount of income, but it’s labor- and equipment-intensive money. Paul makes ends meet by being thrifty with his machinery. He usually has two or three chain saws (of the half-dozen he owns) in working condition. He runs a 30-year-old skidder, an ’87 Caterpillar ‘dozer, an old GMC pickup truck, a ’95 Freightliner FL70 diesel truck for deliveries, a log loader, and a $50,000 log processor (a beast of a machine that can cut and split a cord and a half of wood per hour). He bought it all used. The upkeep is constant, and his own fuel costs are high, but all together it beats the debt of buying new.

As for the labor, it’s mostly invisible to people this time of year. Most of Paul’s customers get their wood delivered green, in May or June. His landing field, which in the spring is filled with as many as 700 cords of wood, holds a fraction of that with winter coming on. Not too many folks up here get caught needing firewood this late in the game. Those who do are often out of luck, and $300 a cord for last-minute dry, seasoned hardwood isn’t unheard of.

Paul’s in the woods now, cutting logs for the sawmill and starting to stockpile cordwood for next year. He wishes more of his business were in saw logs, where the money’s more efficient. But that’s not what the woods give him — the quality of the trees just isn’t that high — so three-quarters or more of his time is spent on cordwood.

It’s hard, dawn-to-dusk work, with a thin profit margin. No hired help here; Paul’s 11-year-old boy, Brandon, runs the log loader.

For more on buying, storing, and burning firewood, visit: extension.unh.edu/news/energy

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