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December 14, 2006 ADDISON INDEPENDENT By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL -- When a builder or manufacturer needs to buy lumber, it's often hard to say where that wood came from. Mills often truck logs from particular species of trees in from neighboring states, and local wood might travel to a mill in Quebec for cutting.
"When you consider the source for the logs at the majority of mills, it can come from a number of places," said Bristol-based forestry consultant Ben Campbell. The normal path of lumber might be from the Adirondacks in New York to a mill or warehouse in Vermont, and then sold to build a home or office in Massachusetts.
A local lumber outfit run by Tom Lathrop has started offering an alternative to that. Lathrop of Bristol recently started Exclusively Vermont Wood Products, a company selling a brand of wood in which they keep track of a chain of custody of wood from stump to staircase.
"We wanted to cut and have a little more control over where wood comes from," said Lathrop, owner of the company. "We really stress that it's local here."
For example, one recent set of logs processed at his mill was bought from a New Haven farm, turned into flooring at the mill on Hewitt Road in Bristol, and sold to someone building a new home on Carlstrom Road in Bristol. "The total journey on the lumber was about five miles," Lathrop said.
Campbell consulted with many of the landowners from whom Lathrop buys lumber on how to manage their land and sell the wood.
Lathrop, who has owned and operated the Lathrop's Maple Supply mill for years, comes from a long line of timber people. The Lathrop family has worked with lumber in Bristol since the 19th century. The Claire Lathrop Band Mill Inc., owned by Tom's brother James Lathrop, has operated in Bristol for 66 years. James Lathrop recently announced that his business was going out of business; the Claire Lathrop Band Mill suffered a fire in 2002, from which the owners said it never fully recovered.
This past July, Tom Lathrop started his Exclusively Vermont business, which he is running as a separate company from Lathrop's Maple Supply but under the same ownership. He proudly boasts that all wood used by Exclusively Vermont comes from woodlands that the owner has registered with Vermont's Use Value Appraisal Program (UVAP), except for lots too small for the criteria of the program.
"If you talk to Tom (Lathrop), he can tell you where that lumber came from," said Chris Olson, state forester for Addison County.
The idea of locally produced wood is not unique -- Gagnon Lumber Inc. in Pittsford mills wood on local land they own -- but Lathrop said that his mill was the only one in the state that can produce a finished product like wood ready for use in flooring. "We're the only outfit that can do it in one location," he said.
And Olson said Lathrop's mill is still the exception to the rule. "It's not common that someone is capable of following the lumber from stump to the consumer's hand," he said.
Lathrop said that most wood might travel a long way during production partly because many organizations don't have all the parts -- the mill, lumberyard, drying kiln and more -- in one place and owned by a single company. Lathrop's Maple Supply has milled lumber in Bristol for years, which Tom Lathrop says enables him to make a local line of lumber economical in ways that others have not been able to.
The UVAP is a state program open to owners of parcels of land of at least 25 acres that are managed according to a plan developed and approved by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. The program is intended to make it easier to use land by setting property taxes based on how the land is being used rather than the amount it could be sold for, which would often result in higher taxes.
Olson said that there are a number of ways to ensure the quality and origins of lumber, and the plans he reviews for the UVAP are one such way. "Tom is using the structure of that program (for his operation,)" Olson said.
Olson compared Exclusively Vermont Wood Products to another, more familiar way for people to support area businesses. "In a certain way of thinking, it's like farmer's markets," he said. "To me, that's pretty meaningful."
Though this way of producing wood is new, Lathrop said that he sees it as a way to continue the business he has been in all his life. "I don't know how to do anything else, and I love doing what I'm doing," he said.
The next step, for him, is increasing the mill's capacity to produce a finished product. Lathrop said he has plans to install a factory to produce flooring. Exclusively Vermont already has the permit for a 15,000-square-foot facility nearby, but it will probably not be in operation for a year or more.
Lathrop said that the idea of Exclusively Vermont came mostly from his wife. "Pamela was really instrumental in giving me the inspiration to make this come around," he said. But even at the mill, he has noticed increased demand for wood from local forests over the past few years. It was "brought on by people's asking us about the origin of wood," he said. "The demand for it is there."