A Family Lumber Business

When raising beef cattle failed them, an Ontario family successfully transitioned to a new livelihood with their family lumber business.

| November/December 1979


Though "wood-in-the-rough" was on hand to process for resale, orders for custom planning and resawing kept the Wright's family lumber business busy for weeks.


Way back in 1971 (when MOTHER EARTH NEWS was still a mere girl), our family escaped the clutches of city pollution in all its varied forms and fell in love with the scrubbed-clean air of rural Haliburton County, Ontario.

For us (my wife Mary, sons Dave and Mike, and daughters Dawn-Liane and Karen) time really began that year, as we happily took up the chores and routines of caring for our chickens, a gelding, a Jersey cow, and a pair of Yorkshire-Hampshire sows and their piglets. However, our cash crop was cattle, and—by the fall of 1976—we had increased our herd to 20 head. Then—to our dismay—beef prices plummeted, expenses soared and our spirits sagged.

What to do? Sell out, of course: A two-year-old steer simply won't wait for market prices to improve. Instead, his appetite for hay and grain marches onward to the tune of big-dollar feed bills and small weight gains. Nevertheless, it's just about impossible to tend living creatures without becoming attached to 'em, and we watched the cattle buyer's departure with a numbing sense of guilt, shock, and dismay ... but—as happens to many other folks who strive to live independently in a natural setting—circumstances (in our case the dropping beef prices) demanded that we "buck up" and reconsider the uses we'd been making of our resources.

A Careful Switchover

It was then that we decided to convert our sturdy, empty barn (45' X 51') into a new mill and start a family lumber business. It would have cost $25,000 to $30,000 to erect a comparable structure, but the conversion—which involved removing the hay and stabling pens, installing additional posts for support, and thickening the upper floor with two-inch tamarack lumber sheathing—only required about 70 man-hours of labor.

Before rushing into the venture, however, we consulted the zoning bylaws to make certain the regulations that covered our land and buildings would permit the establishment of a lumber processing business. Much to our delight, the local council gave us consent in writing. Equally important, however, was the verbal approval we sought from our nearest neighbors. When a green-light situation seemed to prevail at every turn, we felt encouraged enough to go shopping for machinery.

Since labor costs had been a major factor contributing to the demise of many medium-to-small (eight to ten workers) mills, we reasoned that—despite the considerable expense of occasional equipment repairs—a small family operation that used large-scale machinery and had a good location would always have enough work to keep busy and should manage a reasonable return on the investment.

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