By Margaret Mills
We own a tree farm in southern Clackamas county. The annual timber harvest provides a modest income, but ours is a family partnership with multiple households and we have sought additional sources of revenue in order to benefit more family members, leading us to research various non-timber forest products. These have included foraged wild foods, herbs for medicinal use, craft and floral products, as well as firewood and other traditional ventures. We found the economic potential varies from little “side hustles,” to businesses that could, potentially, rival the sale of timber from our property.
Cones were not a new product for us. In the 1950’s and 60’s our family collected Douglas fir cones to sell for seed, but seedlings for reforestation are produced differently now, and seed-cones are no longer the market they were. My adult daughter and I recently began experimenting with marketing forest craft and floral products. In addition to selling boughs for holiday décor through the Oregon Woodlands Cooperative, we decided to add Douglas fir cones to our list of potential craft products. Fir cones are easily accessible, crunching underfoot on most walks through the property and littering the driveway near the house.
We collected a few hundred cones in a relatively short time, and learned to divest them of bugs and dirt by washing them in a sink of warm water with a little mild soap and a dash of vinegar, then drying them at a very low temperature (200?F) in the oven for a half hour. Cones close up when subjected to water, so ours were left to dry and open completely for another week or so in a cardboard box or on our improvised “drying trays,” (cookie sheets commandeered from the kitchen). We listed the best of the dried cones for sale in bulk lots in our Etsy shop. While waiting for orders we foraged for other species on our property and brought home hundreds of tiny hemlock cones. We also have stands of young Ponderosa Pine but did not believe they were producing cones. Upon closer inspection, to our delight, we found a bounty of beautiful pinecones hiding like Easter eggs in the tall grass beneath the trees. We also visited a cluster of White Pine deep in the forest resulting in a large tote of long White Pine cones. All but the White Pine were cleaned, dried and listed in the Etsy store for sale to crafters.
However, we had chosen to market craft items because we love to create, so while we waited for the orders to start pouring in, we began experimenting with our stock. We learned to bleach some of the cones, turning them into a soft off-white or beige color, we cut cones apart to make faux “flowers,” and we began (couldn’t help ourselves) making things, including wreaths. We discovered wreaths made of pine or fir cones are popular in a rustic or shabby chic style of décor. One design in particular became a favorite, and we embellished it with hemlock cones and acorns. The acorns, from oak trees, are not available on our property, but we easily sourced them elsewhere. We began experimenting with paint. Cones wreaths in a variety of colors with acorns painted gold or silver began to adorn our wall space. We learned not to leave the cones too long in the oven (they will burn), or to layer them too deep to dry (they will mold). And we learned not to leave painted acorns on the outdoor workbench the day I looked up from my desk to see a blue jay with a golden acorn in his beak. I ran out to discover that more than half my 30 painted acorns were missing.
The cone wreaths went up in the Etsy store as well, and within a few weeks, during the Christmas holidays, we made some sales. The interest in our own creations was an unexpected development, but we continue to get some interest in the bulk craft supplies as well, so we keep both options open.
This little business enterprise is barely out of the “hobby” stage, very much in infancy, but we’ve noted several encouraging changes for rural entrepreneurs since the long-ago time when we collected seed-cones to sell to the local timber company, or cascara bark at the local feed store. While the traditional marketing avenues for our type of product include friends and family, craft shows, our farmers’ market, and an art and craft consignment store, new ways of reaching markets have developed that increase our chances of reaching customers. We sold our boughs through OWC, for example, rather than having to find our own buyers.
However, the real game changer is the internet. Not only do we sell mostly online, we are learning to use various social media to create interest in both our craft supplies and our creations. We have a Facebook page, and have made use of Facebook ads. For arts and crafts, Pinterest is ideal and has produced the best results, leading to a very discernable jump in visitors to our Etsy store. There is, admittedly, a learning curve on how to best market online, the use of social media, photography and other skills, but the potential for reaching the customers seeking your unique forest product is very encouraging, and sometimes surprising. I found a lot of interest in our rustic décor items coming from New York City. In fact, my first sale was to New York, a demographic not easily accessible from rural Oregon without the internet.
Whether this will be a lucrative business remains to be seen, but so far it has been a lot of fun, both exploring the farm for potential craft materials and inventing new ways to use them, ways that potentially may bring a bit of our wild forestland to far-off urban dwellers. And that seems worth doing.