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Forestry industry helps grow Kentucky’s economy

Harvested logs are collected at Somerset Hardwood Flooring. Photo: Somerset Hardwood Flooring
Somerset Hardwood primarily uses red and white oak, maple and hickory. Photo: Somerset Hardwood Flooring
Photo: Somerset Hardwood Flooring
Photo: Powell Valley Millwork
A Crown lift truck at Powell Valley Millwork, Clay City. Photos: Powell Valley Millwork
The University of Kentucky’s Robinson Forest is a teaching and research forest. Photo: Reneé Williams/ Department of Forestry and Natural Resources—Extension
Nearly half of Kentucky is covered in forestland, including this section of the University of Kentucky’s Robinson Forest—a teaching, research and extension forest. Photo: Reneé Williams/UK Department of Forestry and Natural Resources–Extension

Look around and chances are the room you’re sitting in has a variety of wood products, from furniture and flooring to cabinets and trim. 

To make that possible, loggers harvested trees, sawmill operators cut wood into desired dimensions, trucks delivered lumber to manufacturers and builders, and stores sold the finished products. 

The total annual economic impact of Kentucky’s forestry industry is about $13.1 billion, providing 27,900 direct jobs statewide last year alone, according to University of Kentucky data. 

While homes often are built from softwoods like pine or fir from other states, Kentucky specializes in hardwoods like oak and poplar that become shutters, picture frames, furniture, flooring and more. 

The state’s forest products industry is diverse and robust across many segments, including paper, sawmills, furniture, cabinet and millwork producers, mulch, fuel pellets and animal bedding, says Michael Thornberry, vice president at Clay City-based Powell Valley Millwork. 

“Our products find their way across the nation to virtually every state, mostly in truckload quantities to distributors, large lumberyards, retailers and other manufacturers that can consume large volumes,” says Thornberry. 

Family-owned Powell Valley Millwork, served by Clark Energy, sources poplar lumber primarily from eastern Kentucky and southeast Ohio to manufacture picture frame trim for stores like Walgreens and millwork for The Home Depot. Its plants in Montgomery and Powell counties employ about 200. 

Somerset Hardwood Flooring, as its name indicates, manufactures hardwood flooring, but it also uses the sawdust from the process to make wood pellet fuel sold at Lowe’s, Menard’s and Tractor Supply Company through its sister company, Somerset Pellet Fuel, President/CEO Steve Merrick says. 

The Somerset-area sites, served by South Kentucky RECC, employ about 800. The company also operates a Tennessee facility. 

“It’s not for everyone obviously, but I think there’s a place for a lot of employees in our industry,” Merrick says. “It’s a good career for a lot of people.” 

Somerset Hardwood primarily uses red and white oak, maple and hickory, mostly from Kentucky but also from adjacent states. It owns and manages some timberland, contracting with several sawmills, Merrick says. 

BPM Lumber has manufacturing sites in London and Whitesburg and log yards in Kentucky and Tennessee. 

The company uses mainly red and white oak and poplar, along with a handful of other species, mostly sourced from private lands within about 150 miles, London Operations Manager Matt Begley says. 

Hardwood flooring and cabinet manufacturers comprise a large part of its customer base, he says. 

Branching out: high-tech and more 

Begley says the BPM Lumber plant in London, served by Jackson Energy Cooperative, operates in what the public might think is a surprisingly high-tech environment. 

“They think about their grandpa’s sawmill in the field, kind of an antiquated, crude process, but today it’s not that way,” he says. “Our mill, we have a lot of computers, a lot of optimization, a lot of scanners. We want to use all of the log and not waste anything.” 

The London plant’s residual wood is made into mulch or wood chips sold to paper mills. Sawdust not only is sold to companies like charcoal producer Kingsford Manufacturing in Burnside, but it powers the kiln’s boiler. Similarly, Thornberry notes that Powell Valley Millwork is a zero wood-waste facility, with sawdust powering its boilers for heating lumber-treating kilns and buildings. 

Plants also have in-house expertise. BPM, with a manufacturing site in Whitesburg and log yards in Kentucky and Tennessee in addition to a London facility, has seven full-time foresters and manages forests for others, contracting with coal companies that own thousands of acres to cut trees annually, Begley says. 

Somerset Hardwood also has its own forestry department, according to Merrick. 

Thornberry says the industry is mindful of the environment, adding that false stereotypes linger about illegal clear-cutting of forests. 

“Not only is this untrue, but data shows quite the opposite is occurring in the Appalachian forest,” he says. “The hardwood forest is naturally regenerating at a rate of nearly 2.5 to 1 due to responsible management.” 

Industry’s canopy is wide 

Bobby Ammerman, University of Kentucky Extension associate of secondary wood industry, says unlike some city or regional industries, the forestry industry’s presence is statewide. 

“Certainly, it’s one of the larger industries in the state, scattered out across Kentucky and in rural areas,” he says. 

The primary wood industry includes logging and sawmilling; secondary-market businesses turn the wood into finished products like flooring or furniture. 

Ammerman helps businesses in the latter segment boost success through training programs, problem solving, youth programs and job fairs. 

Kentucky Forestry Industries Association Executive Director Bob Bauer says the industry encompasses a wide range of jobs and companies statewide. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s not just the guy logging and the sawmill there, it’s also the people drying the lumber, selling the lumber, making the furniture and other different products,” says Bauer, whose 550-member group represents the Kentucky wood products industry, landowners and forestry entities. 

The bourbon industry is another major customer, he says, as white oak barrels are used in the aging process and distillers’ massive storage rickhouses are made of wood. 

Though the coronavirus pandemic has somewhat negatively impacted demand, BPM Lumber’s Begley believes the industry will survive and continue providing jobs and products for the commonwealth. 

“I believe it’s a strong industry, and it’s an industry in this state that’s been pretty resilient,” he says.

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