A Fourth-Generation Tennessee Logging Family Faces A Crossroads: Who Will Carry On The Trade?

Timber is a big business in Tennessee. Around $1 billon of the state’s tree products are shipped abroad every year, and state economists estimate that it’s a $20 billion industry. But logging experts are worried about the future of the labor force. With massive trees falling and sharp saws running, the job is among the most dangerous in the world and not necessarily lucrative – and that makes it unattractive to young people.

To illustrate this issue, talk to the Redfern family in Robertson County. They’ve been in the woods for four generations, now deciding if their will be a fifth.

Michael Redfern is a forth-generation logger who runs a three-man business with his two sons. (Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Michael Redfern is a forth-generation logger who runs a three-man business with his two sons. (Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Michael Redfern is dressed in overalls and a red-and-white trucker hat, a wad of tobacco tucked in his lower lip. He says logging to him is as natural as breathing or drinking water.

“Well, I’m not bragging or complaining. But around Robertson County, if you mention the word ‘logging,’ the Redfern name comes up a lot, because we’ve been in it a long time,” he said.

But at least part of the Redfern family is plotting an exit strategy. Michael’s 29-year-old son Jonathan is looking for a job in nearby Springfield.

“Because, you know, honestly, my dad’s 57-years old and takes a handful of pills every morning just to walk,” Jonathan Redfern said. “And some day, I’m gonna be the same way if I cut timber every day for 30 years. It just ain’t for me.”

He plans on staying until his dad retires, which could happen in the next few years. For now, the three-man operation, Jonathan, his dad and little brother Justin, still head into the forest most days.

They’re all an essential link in the process. Jonathan saws, Justin drags the tree out of the woods with what’s called a skidder. And their dad drives the logs to a mill. He’s the negotiator.

Justin Redfern operates a skidder, a tractor that drags fallen trees out of the woods. (Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Justin Redfern operates a skidder, a tractor that drags fallen trees out of the woods. (Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

The Most Deadly Job

On the perimeter of a privately-owned field, the Redferns fell a hundred-foot cherry tree. Cut properly, it could fetch up to $400 at the mill, though the landowner gets half of that. Jonathan Redfern says no one’s getting rich like this.

“You know, we own our own business. People think we’re sitting on a goldmine over here, but all we’re doing is making a living,” Jonathan Redfern said. “We’re fine with that. I enjoy it. We’re middle class at best. But it’ll wear you out.”

Justin Redfern snakes the skidder tractor around a cluster of trees to find the best angle to tie up the fallen timber, then drag it out of the woods. Michael Redfern says Justin’s been driving the tractor since he was nine years old.

“Sometimes he gets it in places where I go: ehhhhh. And he’ll go off in there and come right on out, you know?” Michael Redfern said.

And it’s more than hard work. It’s incredibly perilous. Logging accounted for 62 deaths in 2012, the most recent year numbers are available *– that’s more than any other industry in the U.S. Jonathan says trees can be unpredictable.

“A lot of times, if you get in a tree and it’s bad in the middle, you’re not holding anywhere,” Jonathan Redfern said. “So when you start cutting, at some point, it’s going to do what it wants to do.”

Looming Shortage Of Workers

The daily grind and the hazards of the industry are blamed for the projected shortage of loggers. Equipment becoming more mechanized is also part of the problem. For example, there’s now a machine that, in one fell swoop, can take down and de-bark a tree. Log falling jobs, for instance, are expected to decline 43% over the next decade.

Money may be the biggest factor. It’s not just that the saws and skidders are expensive – which they are. Timber is also a volatile business, says Adam Taylor. He studies wood products at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

“The wood industry is unstable,” Taylor said. “It’s a commodity industry goes up and down, and you have to be able to weather those ups and downs.”

Jonathan Redfern saws a tree he fell into smaller segments, which are then hooked up to a skitter. From there, their dad drives them to the mill. (Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Jonathan Redfern saws a tree he fell into smaller segments, which are then hooked up to a skitter. From there, their dad drives them to the mill. (Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Federal labor figures show that most loggers are middle-aged or older, and the overall workforce is expected to decline nearly 10 percent over the next decade.

A recruiting effort is already underway: Mills are sponsoring youth outreach events, forestry groups are organizing logging classes, and even Congress has jumped into the fray.

Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho has a bill. It’s aimed at lowering age restrictions that have kept anyone under 18 from working with heavy logging equipment. The thought is that the children of loggers would be more likely to pick up the trade if they got an earlier start.

“And I think if we continue to make it more difficult for young people to get into this field, and we make it difficult for the logging community to do their work, I think we’re going to see these jobs actually lost,” Labrador told WPLN.

Labrador says an American logging shortage could stoke a demand for foreign wood. Labrador’s bill came after heavy lobbying from logging groups around the country to try to come up with solutions to address the shortage problem. Among the most visible activists has been Texas-based American Loggers Council.

Back in Robertson County, Jonathan Redfern won’t be encouraging any young people to take up logging.

“Absolutely not. I’ll tell them to stay as far away from it as you can get,” Jonathan Redfern said.

Jonthan says if he has kids, he’ll encourage them to instead go to college – preferably one far away from a sawmill.

Younger brother Justin Redfern, on the other hand, plans to stick with the tree business, so long as he can get some decent help.

“That’s something I often thought about. It’s not real hard to find someone to drive the truck. You can find a truck driver,” Justin Redfern said. “That’s not hard. The hard thing is gonna be finding somebody to run that saw.”

Redfern says not just anyone can take down towering hardwood. It’s a trade that – until now – most people were born into.

Yet even he may have to forgo the woods if he can’t find a logger to replace his brother.

Michael Redfern sharpens his chainsaw before he and his two sons head into the forest to saw down trees. (WPLN/Bobby Allyn)

Michael Redfern sharpens his chainsaw before he and his two sons head into the forest to saw down trees. (WPLN/Bobby Allyn)

*Correction: Our original story said 64 deaths occurred in 2012. We regret the error.

Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.