Credit: Lynn Erickson

Jim Birkemeier, , Spring Green Timber Growers

Jim Birkemeier is a trained forester, but "managing" his forest is the simplest part of his job. "If you just respect the forest, it knows what to do," says Birkemeier, who started Spring Green Timber Growers in the early '70s.

By respecting the forest, Birkemeier, 58, has been able to make a consistent living on just 200 acres of land, located northeast of Spring Green. "No one else is making a living from their forest," he says. "We've learned how to do that."

While logging companies will go in and cut up most of a forest, Birkemeier takes the exact opposite approach. He only cuts up trees that are diseased, falling over or dead.

"[Foresters] take all the good, straight trees. We had to learn how to make a living on the rejects," he says. "We've been able to make money on small trees, the crooked trees. We do things just the opposite of what a professional forester would say to do."

This leaves the healthy trees to reproduce. "There's no need to plant trees," he says. "They produce a gazillion seeds every year."

The wood that Birkemeier takes from his forest ends up in one of two product lines: custom-blended hardwood flooring or smaller household items, such as cutting boards, ornaments, frames and furniture.

Birkemeier says part of his success is attributable to logging sustainably at a time when people were becoming more conscientious about where their products came from. But he's also been able to cut out the middleman by processing his own wood and selling directly to consumers. "We can take a small dead tree, cut it, saw it, and make a hundred times what our neighbors do on these trees, because we do it ourselves," he says.

Birkemeier's approach not only generates more money, but also saves a forest. "Most places in Wisconsin are being logged like crazy, and all the good logs are going to China," he laments.

As his business has grown, landowners from all over the world have enlisted his help in teaching them his secret. Last month, he was in India.

"They're paying me to train people how we can take these trees that industry says are worthless and make money on them," Birkemeier says. "Everyone is sick of the big corporations ripping the forest down and not leaving anything for the local community. You can live off the forest without cutting it down."

- Joe Tarr