Opportunities in forestry: Non-timber forest products

Producing non-timber forest products within a forest can create income and open new markets. Value-added products from the forest represents a possible solution to non-timber forest products’ well known market challenges.

Anyone who has taken a walk through the woods knows that forests produce more than just timber. All this non-timber physical production is helpfully termed: non-timber forest products (NTFP). You’ve likely had the most common NTFP with your pancakes: maple syrup. This broad grouping also includes nuts, fruits, woody decorative florals, medicinals and botanicals. Collectively, these products represent an opportunity to experience the forest in a new way while supplementing income.

The Upper Peninsula has a particularly expansive assortment of NTFPs. In Dr. Marla R. Emery’s report Non-timber Forest Products and Livelihoods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, she notes that 140 NTFPs are harvested across the region, representing 54 botanical families and over 100 species. While 64 percent of these are for non-market uses, such as medicinals to treat family members, the report notes that gatherers are already taking advantage of opportunities to supplement their income in small ways.

In a marketing frame, each NTFP has its own customer base, time to maturation, and risk of price fluctuation. Shiitake mushroom production techniques and end-markets, for example, are well known. A comprehensive report from University of Vermont Extension notes that, ‘shiitake is one of the few mushrooms that can be made to “fruit” on demand’, enabling a grower to time harvest for when demand is highest. Not all NTFPs are as easy to produce and market. Wild ginseng commands a shockingly high price. When it’s deliberately cultivated, though, the price is much more mundane.

There are broad marketing challenges across the sector. NTFPs are niche products with smaller, less developed markets that are prone to price fluctuations. More time must be spent finding buyers, and these buyers can, often, only handle a limited amount of product. For example, fresh nuts can garner high prices at high-end restaurants and bakeries. However, this is a naturally small market that is probably located far from the site of production. Perhaps this market is easily ‘flooded’ as every other producer tries to sell the same product at the same time, meaning much lower prices for everybody.

Additionally, some species should only be lightly collected, in lieu of being more intensively farmed. There’s an overall risk to species extirpation when collecting NTFPs that is more pronounced among certain species: American ginseng is now an endangered species in Canada. In having a lighter touch, an NTFP could be collected lightly as an ingredient to use in another product; Some micro-breweries have started using juniper berry, elderberry or birch to flavor their beers. Certain NTFPs should not be harvested at all.

Certain NTFPs, though, can be cultivated and successfully sold at a larger scale. Turning one of these NTFPs into a value-added product is a means for increasing marketability. A value-added product, sold in a retail space, reaches a larger base of customers at a higher profit margin.

A local fruit could be sold in a seasonally flooded farmers market. It could also be transformed into a jam and sold at a grocery store among higher profit margin products, year round. Mushrooms can be turned into a shelf stable tincture, a health supplement. Maple syrup can be transformed into a variety of products, including maple cream and maple hot sauce.

There’s a lot of nuance to a non-timber forest products business. If you have ideas for adding a non-timber forest product component to your business, consider utilizing the MSU Product Center. The MSU Product Center is an organization that brings together on-campus expertise in the sectors of food, agriculture, forestry and natural resources to help entrepreneurs define and launch innovative products. Field-based Innovation Counselors advise entrepreneurs on business planning, regulatory requirements and product development needs. To access business development assistance, select the ‘request counseling’ tab on the MSU Product Center website or call 517-432-8750. 

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