March 02, 2004

SIUC Country Column Owners of small sawmills may benefit from cooperative

by K.C. Jaehnig

Owners of small sawmills might be able to ratchet up their profits by clubbing together to set up a kiln for drying raw lumber.

Drying would add a lot of value to the boards by making them ready for the secondary processors," said John E. Phelps, chairperson of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's forestry department.

Some mills are putting in dry kilns on their own, but a lot of smaller operations can't afford to do that. A cooperative is a way to make it possible."

Such cooperatives might also help save a rural industry that is dying out.

At one time, there were more than 300 sawmills in the state - now there are less than 100," Phelps said.

We're seeing a lot of movement of our logs to other states. They're still being harvested here, but they're not being processed in Illinois, which takes away jobs from local economies. By building on what we have, maybe we can address that."

Members of the Illinois Wood Products Association have long agreed on the need for a drying facility, Phelps said. What's new is the cooperative element.

It's not for everyone - it's the smaller operators who would really benefit - and it's not the easiest thing to do," Phelps said.

But we did a feasibility study in 2002, and we're now holding workshops for those with an interest to tell them what's involved, both financially and in terms of techniques, and why it's of value."

The feasibility study and the resulting workshops are all part of a $29,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service aimed at providing technical assistance to rural forest-product businesses.

A second study, this one focusing on the possibility of setting up millwork, finishing and other similar co-ops, will get under way this year.

We'll be looking at an integrated system of cooperatives, but drying is the first step," Phelps said.

In addition to producing the feasibility studies and associated workshops, the grant underwrites training courses in lumber grading, skidder use and logger safety. It also supports Phelps' work as "Mr. Answerman," a source of advice on everything from big-picture questions on the forest-products industry as a whole to something as specific as the right kind of lumber needed for a truss.

Phelps holds most of his workshops and training courses in the spring and summer at various locations around the state. They fill up quickly, so sign up soon, he said. For more information, call Phelps at 618/453-7464 or e-mail him at

Shaping cooperative ventures is among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the long-range development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.