Sunday, March 9, 2003

Timber helps prop up Iowa

Hard-hit county adds maker of barrel staves

By S.P. Dinnen
The Des Moines Register

BLOOMFIELD, Iowa - Iowa has long reigned as the king of corn. Now comes another opportunity for bragging rights: Barrel staves.

Perhaps it's not destined to be a multibillion-dollar industry. Still, Seguin-Moreau - a French concern that bills itself as the globe's largest maker of those slats of wood that are lashed together to build barrels - plans to begin production this month and employ about 25 people.

Southern Iowa is economically distressed, and jobs at any wage, or in any industry, have been hard to come by.

The arrival of Seguin-Moreau, which will aim its output at prestigious California wine producers, comes as the logging industry of Davis County - where the plant will be located - seems on the uptick. Thirteen sawmills operate in the county.

"We are now beginning to see that these woodlands have more value," said Paul Wray, a professor of forestry at Iowa State University.

Farmers and others who own land where trees grow are receiving millions of dollars annually from their sales of harvest-ready trees. Jobs are being created in felling the timber and converting it to usable lumber.

Statewide, the total value of Iowa's logging industry - which includes both raw product and all finished goods statewide - is almost $1 billion annually. Nancy Greg, an editor at trade magazine Southern Lumberman, said most of Iowa's output is of so-called hardwoods, such as cherry, oak and walnut, which aren't nearly as caught up in the national logging recession.

"It's a cash crop for a lot of people in this area," said Dave Simonsen, executive director of the Davis County Development Corp. In fact, poor results from other crops may have encouraged pursuit of enterprise in the timber industry.

Roger Musselman, agricultural extension agent for Iowa State University, said many Amish migrated to the area in the 1970s but found farming didn't pan out as well as expected. They gradually switched gears and now account for much of the logging and all but two of the sawmills operating in the county.

Because they abstain from electricity, the Amish use diesel engines to power machines that sort logs, strip away their bark and then saw them into usable pieces. At the county's newest sawmill, which Omar Kunz runs to cut maple, red oak and walnut, creature comforts such as artificial lighting or central heat aren't on the list of benefits for the employees, all Amish.

Adding value is key to economic development. Pallet-making operates on razor-thin margins, while the staves that Seguin-Moreau and another local stave maker, Clark's Saw Mill, make add value. They're drawing upon some of the finest white oak produced in the world.

Furniture makers - the Amish operate a few shops in the county - also add value, which even leads to a little tourism.

With a growing industry, loggers also have to take care that they don't fell more trees than they are replacing. A hardwood tree can take 50 years or more to mature to marketable size.

Both Musselman and Seguin-Moreau plant manager John Caltrider said they have heard concerns about overlogging. But Michael of the Department of Natural Resources said the state cuts only about half of its potential annual harvest.

Simonsen estimated that about 120 people in Davis County work in logging; Seguin-Moreau will add more.

"It's the fastest-growing agriculture-related industry right now" in the area, he said.

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