Carolyne Locher reports on Eridge Park Logs, a small firewood business which is growing thanks to significant investment.

IN late summer 2020, a small local firewood business supplying nearly 1,800 cubic metres of locally sourced air-dried logs per season to local private domestic customers on the Kent/East Sussex borders was sold to Eridge Park Logs.

“I heard the business was for sale,” owner Mike Hill explained. “There had been offers from people that knew little of the business. I knew what I was doing and it seemed a good fit.”

Following a chat with the then owner, what Mike purchased was 228 tonnes of logs, a Mitsubishi L200 tipping delivery truck and the customer list. “Customers are not contractually bound to one supplier, they can order from anyone. It is more that I bought the goodwill, hoping that the then owner had done a good job.”

A publican by trade, Mike, 46, started Eridge Park Logs in 2012. Then with a young family, he said: “Children and pubs don’t mix. I let out my pub, in Bath, and invested in a business that kept me local and outside all day.”

Forestry Journal: Mike Hill and cordwood. He has plenty of logs in stock.Mike Hill and cordwood. He has plenty of logs in stock.

He began Eridge Park Logs with a tractor-powered Palax processor. “I did it all, from buying and splitting the trees to delivery and stacking. There is a lot of forestry in Kent and East Sussex. I started by looking on Woodlots, buying stuff that people were trying to get rid of. Not all of it was good quality and good quality was a prerequisite. I then contacted local timber suppliers, forward buying (12 months) parcels for delivery each March and October.”

Mike had a very clear idea of the customers he wanted to supply: any house with a chimney in Royal Tunbridge Wells. “I walked about 30–40 km, giving every household with a chimney a compliment slip wrapped around a log. If I drove anywhere, my Land Rover Defender was filled with logs and signage. If I went to the rugby club or took my children to school, all cars in the car park got a flyer under the windscreen wiper.”

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By 2020, Mike’s hard work had paid off and, with funds to reinvest, he bought a purpose-built Dalen 2054 firewood processor (with its own diesel engine, using 7–8 litres of fuel per day, creating little in the way of emissions) and a hydraulic 6 m³ KRPAN RV 45 live deck. “Once the logs are on the deck, one operator can cut, split and stack straight away. In all, I invested £55,000 in new equipment.”

Forestry Journal: The Mitsubishi L200 tipper truck, part of the business purchase.The Mitsubishi L200 tipper truck, part of the business purchase.

Eridge Park Logs operates from a large barn in a four-acre rented yard in Fordcombe. A second barn is being built to accommodate the increase in business. “We work on a two-year cycle. The roundwood is stored in the yard on bearers for a year, then cut (in approximate 10-inch lengths) and seasoned for a year in the barn. We do test them for 20 per cent moisture or less using a moisture meter. I also take some home – I have two wood burners myself – to make sure they are 100 per cent ready to go.”

The company sells a mix of oak and ash logs, with ash accounting for 80 per cent of firewood sold. “Some say it burns well green, but it burns better after a year. It’s hard, looks good in a wood store and works well. Some people ask for certain species. If we can do it, we will. Yesterday, a customer wanted oak because he had a load of apple to burn with it. We happened to be cutting oak, so we said yes, but only to burn it next year by which time it will be properly seasoned.”

Forestry Journal: Bags of netted logs for camping customers and local shops. Approx 2,000 bags, eight logs per bag.Bags of netted logs for camping customers and local shops. Approx 2,000 bags, eight logs per bag.

Focusing the core business on one geographic area means less time is spent driving. “With two delivery vehicles (Land Rover Defender and Mitsubishi L200) capable of delivering 2 m³ and 3 m³ respectively, we can make 17 to 18 deliveries a day. We did supply pubs and pizza restaurants until the pandemic. Facing a cash crisis, they stopped buying logs.”

Forestry Journal: A log on the Dalen 2054 splitter.A log on the Dalen 2054 splitter.

This has been offset by a local increase in glamping, camping and the popularity of fire pits. “Following the lifting of Lockdown 1, we had an idea that it might happen. With people being able to meet outside, demand for fire pit fuel went up and up. I had to employ the two part-time guys last summer, and even before buying the other business we cut three times as much. I supply three campsites now, a couple of thousand bags, and supply small bags to corner shops.” He expects this to continue as people meet outdoors (as allowed).

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Mike does not care for kiln-dried logs. “As a small producer, I don’t particularly understand them. A kiln-dried producer is unlikely to meet the customer; they usually sell on the internet. A small firewood merchant wants your business for the next few years and takes a long-term approach. Sustainability is important, so supplies are bought locally from those cutting a product that is then restocked for the next generation. A local supplier will have a conversation with a customer about different types of wood, different sizes of logs, managing your fire, and any problems, as well as advising on how best to store the logs – air is your friend, get as much as you can around the logs to keep them dry.”

Forestry Journal: Hydraulic 6 m3 KRPAN RV 45 ‘live deck’.Hydraulic 6 m3 KRPAN RV 45 ‘live deck’.

Eridge Park Logs is partway through the process of securing the Woodsure (‘Ready to Burn’) accreditation, and is awaiting a virtual assessment. “COVID-19 has slowed everything down, but we know our logs have a moisture content of 20 per cent or less and are fully compliant, so we feel very confident supplying them to our customers.”

This last season, Eridge Park Logs sold 1,000 tonnes of firewood; triple what Mike would normally expect to sell, or “three years’ worth of logs”.

“Being at home, unable to go anywhere or do anything, people put on the fire: ‘cowboy TV’,” Mike said. “Yes, I bought a business and took on customers, but we were going bananas regardless. The turning point was 5 January, when everyone was supposed to go back to work. We suddenly went from four days of deliveries to being fully booked three weeks ahead. Everybody in the area ran out of logs, but I still had them because I had the cash flow to buy the tonnage last year.”

Forestry Journal: Delivery of 25 tonnes of roundwood (for 2023) for from a local supplier in Sussex.Delivery of 25 tonnes of roundwood (for 2023) for from a local supplier in Sussex.

Eridge Park Logs’ firewood supplies for winter 2021/2022 are already cut, split, stacked and drying in the barn. When 1,500 tonnes of roundwood – forward bought for 2023 – is delivered, it will be stored for a year and then cut, split and stacked in one go.

Mike does not expect next winter to be as busy. “With a change in working, not everyone will go back to London five days a week, so demand will dip slightly, but eventually it will go above that.”

With no immediate plans for more investment, Mike said: “It’s an odd job selling logs. Not to sound geeky, but I’m looking forward to going for a pint in Tunbridge Wells (when allowed) and seeing smoke coming out of those chimneys, knowing that I have supplied those logs. It is work that I get satisfaction from and it means I can sleep at night. Working seven days a week, 18 hours a day in a pub is not conducive to having kids or to enjoying yourself. I will not go back to that.”

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