Third Branch Finds Niche for Sustainable, Low Impact Logging on Horses in Vermont

Derek O’Toole works at a site in Northfield with his horses. O’Toole and Johnson co-founded Third Branch Logging in 2018 because they believe there is a market in Vermont for low-impact logging that emphasizes forest ecology rather than speed or volume. Photos by Erica Houskeeper

by Christine McGowan, Vermont Forest Industry Network Brad Johnson would like wood products to be valued for the stand left in the forest, not just the dollar value of the wood removed.

“The lumber industry is sort of where the food industry was in the 1970s in terms of connecting the end product to the earth,” said Johnson, co-owner of Third branch horse logging in Braintree, Vermont. “People are just starting to understand that sustainability is not just about where your wood comes from, but also how it is harvested. “

Johnson founded Third Branch Horse Logging with Derek O’Toole in 2018 with two core values. First, they both enjoy working in the forest with horses and second, they believe that there is a market in Vermont for low impact logging that emphasizes forest ecology rather than speed. or volume.

“The wood you cut is not the product,” says Johnson. “The medium you leave behind is the product. Our take on sustainability is not about a benefit for me over the course of my life, but rather how it will benefit my children and grandchildren. The land I harvest today will be beautiful land, well stocked with a variety of mature and young trees that support wildlife habitat and ensure carbon sequestration for generations.

Partners Brad Johnson, Derek O’Toole and John Plowden. Johnson and O’Toole recently recruited a third partner, Plowden, who complements the team with cabinetmaking and milling training, enabling them to offer custom milling on site for customers.

A teacher by profession, Johnson left his post at Maine Coast Semester in 2000 where he taught environmental studies. Ready for change and eager to work outside of his hands, he enrolled in a fall apprenticeship at a small, diverse horse farm. “I didn’t know the front of a horse from the back,” he said. “I was about as raw as I could get to begin with.” But after only two weeks on the farm, Johnson knew he would never go back to work indoors.

“I was addicted,” he says. “I loved working with the horses all day and the work immediately made sense.”

Johnson moved with his young family to Randolph, Vermont in 2008, where he bought a single horse and a small tractor and began doing odd jobs in logging and farming. He joined a local CSA that used horses for farming where he met his current business partner, Derek O’Toole.

At first, O’Toole volunteered to help Johnson with logging work, just to have his team practice during the winter months, when farm work was less demanding. “We worked well together and had complementary skills,” said Johnson, “and ultimately it made sense to bring our teams together and form a company.”

An evolving business model.

Established in 2018, their first business model provided for more than 300 days of commercial logging work per year. They deeply believe in the benefits of working with horses in the forest and believe that commercial logging jobs are where they could have the most impact. “I have worked in the woods for 20 years,” Johnson said, “and I still haven’t seen a tool or technology that leaves a better, finer result in the woods than a horse for the kind of. goals I want to see. ”These goals include low impact logging that minimizes trail area, carbon footprint, soil erosion and soil compaction.

But operating a team of horses proved difficult during the winter months. “You just can’t move snow with horses the same way you can with a bulldozer,” Johnson said, “and towing a team on icy roads isn’t ideal either.”

Derek O’Toole, left, watches Brad Johnson chopping logs in Northfield.

The two regrouped, assessing where their teams would be of most value to landowners and landing on residential forestry jobs and horse-powered logistics projects. More in demand than commercial jobs, their new business model focuses on services such as high-risk tree felling, residential clearing, and winter sleigh rides. The regular income from these jobs allows them to choose the best commercial harvesting opportunities with horses – about one per year. “We like to say that our residential work supports our logging habit,” Johnson said.

Johnson and O’Toole recently recruited a third partner, John Plowden, who complements the team with cabinetmaking and milling training, enabling them to offer custom milling on site for customers. “We are in the Storming Norman phase,” Johnson said. “We’re looking at how the pieces fit together and how we make money. “

The goal: to have an impact and earn a living.

Even as they sort through the details and logistics of the business, they are crystal clear about their vision for the future: a logging company that values ​​forest ecology over short-term economic gains, working towards outdoors with the horses they love and earning a living wage. .

“I wish I could say that we get paid well, that we do the work that we love and that we have a positive economic and environmental impact. We’re not there yet, but I’m hopeful.

Johnson uses his own property as an example of how he sees his vision come to fruition. He owns a 94-acre woodlot made up mainly of white pine. The main objective of its forest management plan is ecology, which encompasses general objectives such as carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, preservation of soil structure and protection of water quality in nearby Stoney Creek.

Derek O’Toole prepares his horses for work at a site in Northfield.

Second, he harvests wood to provide resources for his home and family, like firewood for heating and wood for their new pole barn, all of which are milled on site. Johnson is aware of his own carbon footprint and believes local and sustainably harvested wood products are part of the solution to climate change. In addition to the fact that wooden furniture and cabinets trap and store carbon indefinitely, the use of locally harvested wood reduces transport emissions and therefore the overall carbon footprint of the final product. And of course, using horses for harvesting instead of gasoline-powered equipment further reduces that footprint.

“Every piece of wood used for the pole barn was harvested from our land and crushed on site,” Johnson said. “Not everyone can do it, but it’s a model that we can talk to our customers about. “

Finally, Johnson hopes to earn enough money from the timber harvest to pay his taxes, although he is careful not to set a monetary goal for the harvest. “I try to think really holistically about woodland,” he said. “It’s not just a piggy bank that you open with a hammer every 10 years and collect the loose change. It is a living resource that, with good management, we can enjoy every year.

Still a relatively young company, Johnson uses her teaching experience to help advance their business model. He is passionate about ecology, climate change and leaving forests in better condition than he found them, just like his partners. But he realizes that traditional logging business models don’t always support a slower, lower-impact form of harvesting.

“It is important that we reflect on big issues such as long-term forest health and carbon sequestration, while simultaneously working towards a point where young people can earn a living and support their families by working in the woods,” Johnson said. “It starts with the fact that we think of wood in a different way. “

Derek O’Toole works in the woods with his horses in Northfield.

About the Vermont Forest Industry Network

Vermont’s forest products industry contributes $ 1.3 billion to the Vermont economy and supports more than 9,000 direct and indirect jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating (2017). These figures more than double when maple production and forestry recreation are taken into account. The Vermont Forest Industry Network creates a space for strong relationships and collaboration across the industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products. Learn more about

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