Imagine what it would be like to buy or sell a house without the frame of reference provided by a real estate market. The value of your property would be unknown and you wouldn’t be able to price-check comparable houses, because that information wouldn’t be available.
If someone knocked on your door and made you an offer, you’d have no idea if it was a good price but if you needed the money, you might consider it.
We may not manage houses this way anymore, but this archaic model remains the modern-day reality for more than 30,000 Nova Scotians who own land.
Will Martin and Alastair Jarvis, co-founders of Woodscamp, an online marketplace for landowners and loggers, want to change that. They’re working to revitalize the forestry industry by fixing the system around it.
“The network of human relationships that made the market work for a century is in the process of disintegrating,” Jarvis, who has experienced this breakdown first hand, said. When he moved back to Nova Scotia in 2005, he bought a house in Lunenburg that had a woodlot and had no idea what do to with it.
“I describe it as walking through a library of books written in a language I don’t understand. That’s what it felt like to walk through the forest.”
More than 70 per cent of Nova Scotia’s land base is comprised of small, privately-owned woodlots like the one on property Jarvis purchased in Lunenburg, which makes for a fragmented supply network. The most efficient ways for loggers and mill operators to access the timber they need is to go knocking on doors, asking people if they’re willing to cut trees off their land.
“One of the things that characterizes those exchanges is the asymmetrical information,” explains Jarvis. “Mill owners understand the value of timber and they know what the market demands. Land owners don’t have that information, especially if they’re not working the land on a consistent basis.”
Closing that information gap is a key component of the Woodscamp mandate.
“There’s this tension between the responsibility people feel for the legacy of the land and the frustration that comes from not knowing what to do with it,” said Jarvis.
This is a dilemma that Martin has seen time and time again in his 15 years in the forestry industry.
“The status quo is to clearcut the whole lot, regardless of what other values are at play,” said Martin.
“I realized that if I wanted to see a more sustainable forestry practice that incorporates a wider set of values, then I had to be part of creating a new business model.”
That business model, in a nutshell, is to co-ordinate getting the right wood, from the right forest, to the right mill, at the right time.
Landowners can register on the Woodscamp site, and receive a free assessment of the potential for their family forest to generate revenue. By providing access to this information, Martin and Jarvis want to empower families and private land owners to participate in the forestry industry in a way that aligns with their values. They know that a woodlot may be the most significant asset in the family and they would like to see more people unlock that economic and environmental potential.
“Woodscamp is about learning from the best of what’s happening in web-based technology and using those tools to fundamentally transform how we manage our land base,” Martin said. “To be able to make good decisions without compromising the health and value of our forests, we have to find a way to co-ordinate.”
As brokers of that co-ordination, the Woodscamp business model relies on taking a percentage of any timber sales they help to broker. Similar to the way that a mortgage broker helps people who are looking for a mortgage to find one that meets their needs, Woodscamp acts as the bridge between private owners of forested land and mill owners who need trees to operate their business.
Their approach has the potential to help keep forests and the forestry industry alive.
“There is a way to treat these properties like investments and harvest them sustainably by taking pieces over time,” said Jarvis. “If we can solve this in Nova Scotia, it’s our hypothesis that we can solve it in other regions as well.”