Chipping Away at Wood Waste While Creating Good Will

Scott Turner, president of Truetimber Arborists, an accredited, 20-year TCIA member company based in Richmond, Virginia, has many goals for his business, one of which is to reduce wood waste to zero. As it is for many tree care companies, wood-waste utilization is a major effort, though for Truetimber, generating revenue from it often is not a primary target.

Efforts to reduce wood waste
One of Truetimber Arborists’ most recent efforts to reduce wood waste is milling lumber. It used some of that lumber to build this outdoor learning center at a local school. All photos courtesy of Truetimber.

“We have not turned wood chips into a revenue stream yet, but we use distribution of wood chips to build relationships in the community,” says Turner. He donates wood chips to community gardens and parks for open areas and walkways.

“Some end up at the recycling place, but it’s more fun to get them moved around here in Richmond, to keep the local biomass regenerating the soil around our own hometown,” says Turner, a lifelong Richmond resident.

An app Truetimber previously used to let clients log in and order chips did not exactly work out, he says. “We struggled with it a little bit, not getting the drop-offs worked out. We would get somewhere and not even be able to get the truck in,” he says.

“We developed our own app, and it wasn’t expensive. It’s still active, it creates orders. What I didn’t have was designated staff to look at the daily orders and see if they made sense. If there is someone a mile away, it’s really convenient to just make a drop a mile away.”

Firewood processing
Truetimber has been processing firewood for about 15 years. “It’s not a high margin on that, but it’s still a nice relationship builder, and it’s nice to make sure there is no waste,” says Turner. It also keeps the firewood coming from nearby. The company has wood-splitting equipment, but has not invested in a large grinder for turning trees into chips or mulch. “We do offer nice rounds that are easy to split, so someone can split their own firewood and get some exercise,” he says.

Backyard use
One use of wood byproducts near and dear to Turner’s heart, as a parent of two daughters, is anything that benefits the backyard, living as he does with his wife and family in a lush urban forest near the banks of the James River.

“Here in Richmond, COVID gave an unexpected boost to being outside. People fell in love with their backyards, and that was one of the silver linings for me in a horrible piece of history. People relearned the value of outside space and trying to make things more enjoyable for their kids,” he says.

Another goal for parents was finding a much-needed counterbalance to their kids’ screen time, finding ways to get them outside and unplugged.

“One of the ways for creatively using (wood) byproducts was starting a side company, Truetimber Backyard, to build with it. On our website, you can see all kinds of byproducts being incorporated into (things like) tree houses, even just branches for kids and adults to use in play places,” he says. And swings. “I can’t get enough swings into Richmond,” says Turner.

On the company’s website, you can see the long list of outdoor offerings – backyard swings, zip-line platforms, natural play structures, fort-building kits, sandboxes and the tree houses (very popular), not to mention garden borders and decorative-lighting installations. Also bathhouses, backyard throwing targets and even stackable wooden snowmen. “You can do lots of fun, creative stuff with tree parts,” Turner notes.

That includes Truetimber’s buildings.

“Our whole facility consists of custom, timber-framed buildings, actually tree trunks with limbs still on them that support the roofs of the buildings. I love to see trees serving another purpose after they have to come down. So they are literally holding up the roofs of our buildings,” says Turner.

“We hope to do more with creating live-edge keepsakes for our clients who have lost trees that were special to them,” he notes. “We offer customers keepsakes, such as benches or tables. Somebody who is going to miss their tree is going to have some parts of it still in their life. That business is not fully off the ground yet, but is in development.”

Truetimber also offers mushroom grow kits for someone living in the city who wants to grow good, healthy mushrooms in their backyard. The company provides the specific type of wood required and a kit to grow shiitake, oyster and lion’s-mane mushrooms, among others.

Kiosk shelter for a friends’ group of an unearthed African-American cemetery
Truetimber used lumber from its new band-saw mill to build this kiosk shelter for a friends’ group of an unearthed African-American cemetery in Richmond.

Band-saw mill
One of the company’s most recent efforts is milling lumber.

“We got a band-saw mill just last fall – still learning to be masters of it – and we take some trees and mill the lumber and build outdoor structures,” says Turner. Truetimber has built an outdoor learning center at a local school and a kiosk shelter for a friends’ group of an unearthed African-American cemetery in Richmond.

“It’s valuable just for them to be able to know that wood came from the world around them, and that we sawed it up and built a structure for them,” says Turner.

Custom, timber-framed buildings made with tree trunks with limbs
“Our whole facility consists of custom, timber-framed buildings, actually tree trunks with limbs still on them that support the roofs of the buildings,” says Turner.

Good marketing
“We are a 25-year company here in Richmond, and people just find us. Truetimber Backyard definitely makes money, but does not have the income for supporting a company of 45 employees. What it does do is make phenomenal brand awareness, promoting our brand in a big way,” he says.

Meanwhile, the company of 45 employees is very busy trimming and taking trees down, and focusing on tree climbing. It does not do chemical applications. It has 10 teams, including three with crew leaders who are women, and an apprenticeship program.

“We were recently named Virginia’s first Journeyperson Program in Arboriculture, in recognition of the efforts we make to develop an employee into a Certified Arborist and climbing specialist,” says Turner. “Career development has always been a big part of our mission.”

Twenty-two of Truetimber’s 45 employees are ISA Certified Arborists, and 18 of those are working in the trees “making sawdust” each day, says Turner.

Forming strong community ties
After traveling the world for five years as an enlisted member of the United States Navy, Turner earned a master’s degree in physics before deciding that trees and nature had become his passion.

He created Truetimber in 1998, and started an outdoor outfitting business called Riverside Outfitters in 2005 to share his “love of our river, our trees and the tree-climbing experience,” says Turner. “Tree-climbing camps and after-school enrichment programs for children have been a big part of the bond Truetimber has created with the Richmond community.”

In 2014, Turner was named a “River Hero” by the Friends of the James River Park for his stewardship of the great outdoors in Richmond.

Turner says utilizing wood waste ties in with everything the company does.

“Primarily, we are enjoying the benefits of the marketing advantage of trying not to be wasteful,” he says. “Our clients like to know that.”

Indoor trees for training
Having the trees inside makes for convenient training, too.

Managing revenue
As for managing revenue streams, if it’s too intimidating to incorporate a side business, he recommends setting up a limited liability company (LLC), so it is not part of the main business and not distracting to the core offering. It also helps protect your main business and other assets.

“I don’t want to get too sidetracked by that, so we just form different LLCs to manage those, for liability, for everything. It’s a different thing, so just form a different LLC,” he advises.

“While the use of byproducts is not fully set up as a separate revenue stream, it does greatly reduce disposal costs. We were spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year to dispose of things, so that is something we are not spending money on. At this point, at least it’s an expense reduction in reducing our waste-disposal fees,” says Turner.

“The main point is that this is just so well embraced and received by the community, it’s a great thing to be doing. The nature-loving part of the community and those paying for their trees to be properly trimmed, they get a big kick out of it. It makes you popular, and it’s good to be popular if you are trying to be in business.”

Tamsin Venn is founding publisher of Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine and author of the book “Sea Kayaking Along the New England Coast,” and has been a contributing writer to TCI Magazine since 2011. She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

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