New Business for a Small Alabama Town

FIA Data Helps Locate Wood-Based Company

by Gary Kuhlmann, SRS Science Delivery Group

Economic conditions from 2005 to 2010 meant bad news for much of the South’s forest industry, accelerating mill closings and job losses in small towns across the southern United States. Recently, the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) unit of the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station worked with a leading manufacturer to bring good news to one hard-hit community.

“We relied on data and expertise from the FIA headquarters in Knoxville (TN) to lead us to the right place for our mill siting,” says Bob Russell, director of Mills Operations for Brown-Forman Cooperages, a subsidiary of the Brown-Forman Corporation, one of the largest American-owned companies in the spirits and wine business.

The right place is the small northeastern Alabama town of Stevenson.

After an “extensive search in the Tennessee Valley,” Russell says that Brown-Forman Cooperages picked the Stevenson site because of its plentiful supply of oak trees. Russell learned from studies by Knoxville’s FIA forest researchers that there is an abundant supply in that corner of Alabama and into Tennessee and Georgia.

Just north of town, off U.S. Highway 72, the 55-acre Stevenson mill employs almost 30 townspeople to produce white oak staves, the narrow pieces of wood that that make up aging barrels for distilleries and vineyards. Some of the workers had been unemployed for years, laid off after a local sawmill closed.

“The new mill siting is a remarkable morale booster for us,” says Chris Oswalt, FIA research forester, who, along with his Knoxville FIA colleagues, visited the mill shortly after it opened. “This is one time when we witnessed concrete results of our research, and the results are especially meaningful because of the economic impact.”

The economic impact means not only new jobs but also renewed well-being for Stevenson—and beyond. The mill has a salary base of around $750,000, Russell says.

“Employment in the mill has a ripple effect,” Russell says. “We employ people who live in town and make purchases at local businesses. We also purchase high-grade white oak from loggers in the area as well as from private landowners. Many other businesses rely on us either directly or indirectly for some of their revenue, up to a 150-mile radius from the town.”

Brown-Forman plans to open a cooperage in the next year about 90 miles away in Decatur, Alabama. A cooperage is where staves, like those produced by the Stevenson mill, are made into the barrels that distilleries and wineries use for aging their products. Russell says his company expects to employ around 60 new workers from the surrounding area at the new cooperage. Brown-Forman Cooperage also operates mills in Jackson, Ohio, and Clifton, Tennessee.

For more information, email Chris Oswalt at coswalt@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Economics & Policy, Forest Inventory & Analysis, Forest Products