J.T. Wilcox and his daughter Katie harvest and mill timber from the family farm to produce lumber and create unique slab furniture.
Wilcox Family Farms, well-known as one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest and most successful producers of egg products, is operated today by the fourth generation of the Wilcox family. The operation located in Roy, Washington manages 1,500 acres of extensively timbered farm, a network of food processing plants throughout the Northwest United States, an 800 cow dairy herd, and feed mills. Recently, the annual $200 million dollar company celebrated its first century in business with a complete restructuring of its business model by moving away from commodity products and towards organic, cage free, and other value added egg products.
The move ultimately led to an entire life change for J.T. Wilcox who’d been appointed Chief Financial Officer of Wilcox Farms in 2006. The one-time CFO stepped down, bought a Wood-Mizer sawmill and turned his attention to add value to sustainably harvested timber from the Wilcox family’s own forest.
J.T. began his new career with the purchase of a Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmill. “We do quite a bit of building on the farm,” said J.T. “The use of lumber from our own trees provides a considerable amount of added value to the logs we harvest.” J.T. generally harvests and mills douglas fir, maple, and cedar from the farm that is only cut if the tree is unhealthy. Today, J.T. is a self-described employee of his daughter Katie, an undergraduate at Whitworth University who has developed a substantial business working with her dad milling lumber and slabs to create beautifully finished furniture. “The first mill was very useful, supplying dimensional lumber to be used on farm projects for when we remodel chicken houses, converting them into cage-free houses,” said Katie. “My dad bought the first sawmill when I was a freshman at Whitworth. I would come home to visit and he would want me to help him saw. It was not love at first sight.” All that changed when Katie discovered woodworking.
Seeing potential for the mill to play a bigger part in their goals for the farm’s timber resource, J.T. purchased a Wood-Mizer LT35 sawmill with hydraulic log handling. The upgrade not only allowed for more efficient lumber production, it allowed for the ability to efficiently handle bigger logs for slab production. Katie and J.T. began to grow their new business, Hart’s Lake Pioneer Lumber Company, focusing on building slab furniture including tables, benches, conference tables and other products. “We want to stick with using timber from the farm because that’s our niche: local timber from a farm that has been in my family for over 100 years and is widely known around the Pacific Northwest,” shared Katie. “We have a planned forest rotation and when we are logging, we divert a few loads that fit our sawing needs to our log yard,” explained J.T. “Salvage of wind-blown and diseased trees are also a factor. We actually like the logs that have been on the ground for a year or two because the onset of decay gives the wood more character.”
As a small rural business using nothing but a portable sawmill, forklift, small tractor, sanders, and a planer, Hart’s Lake Pioneer Lumber has a smaller budget than Wilcox Farms so they market primarily through Facebook and word-of-mouth. “So far this has been effective, I think because the people who live around us value the type of product we are making,” said Katie. “A local, father-daughter business, with unique, handmade products is something people want to support.” When asked how J.T. enjoys running a furniture business, he answers with a laugh, “I’m not running it, I’m working for Katie. After a lifetime of being in charge, working for my daughter is one of the best things I do.”
In addition to running a small business with his daughter, J.T. also serves as the floor leader for the Washington State House of Representatives, a role providing him with significant influence as he advocates for both his district and for all of rural Washington. “I represent small towns and a rural district,” shared J.T. “People from my generation grew up in a place where they could work near where they live. No more. The rural economy has almost died in Western Washington and most people here are commuters. I’ve always told people that I would always consider a bill’s impact on the rural economy first. Being involved in a very small business has strengthened that commitment. Being able to work directly with my kids and see them as decision-makers at a young age has been tremendous. Whether they stay with it or not, it is still an experience that will enrich their entire lives.”
J.T. has experienced the business world from both sides, as CFO of a multi-million dollar company and as a small business operator, sawmilling and offloading slabs and boards with his daughter and business partner. He sees a bright future for the small business end of the lumber industry because of the tremendous environmental benefits mill owners provide the community, the economic benefits available to an often stressed rural economy, and the increasing awareness of local products as the preferred choice for many.