As we slowly start making our way through spring and into summer, we have been thinking back on how sopping wet we all were last year, and how long it can take an industry like ours to dig itself out of a mud puddle.

If you spend enough time in a workshop, warehouse, or studio, you might start thinking of the rainy weather as something that gets you wet as you run to the car and slows down your commute. However, some customers have recently been reminded that their local lumber yard is only one step in a long supply chain that all starts out in the woods.

Last year wasn’t just rainy, it was exceptionally rainy. 2018 was one of the top five wettest years ever recorded in the entire continental United States. The northeast and Pennsylvania in particular were hit hard. 

This map shows Pennsylvania’s rainfall for September 2018, and how far above average the rain was. Purple counties got over 75% more rainfall than average, with many areas getting more than double what they normally see.

It rained a whole lot in PA in September 2018.
Sept. 2018 Departure from Average Rainfall. Blue means a lot more rain than normal for the month. Purple means a crazy amount more rain than normal.

Rainy weather is more than an inconvenience for loggers. There are the obvious safety hazards for those trying to swing chainsaws with rain in their eyes and boots buried in mud. 

There are also access issues. Mud can easily immobilize a skidder, and leave both those beautiful cherry logs and equipment stranded in place.

Many people don’t recognize that rain and mud can also create serious environmental concerns. Even diligent loggers and their equipment can disturb wet topsoil, which washes into waterways. With over 83,000 miles of rivers, creeks, and streams in Pennsylvania, this is a big issue.

In order to protect forests and waterways, state and federal regulatory agencies have rules which can sometimes simply shut down logging until the rain stops and the woods dry up.

Washed out PA roads from 2018 flooding.
This road in Hellam Township, near Lancaster, PA, washed out in Sept. 2018. From York Daily Record.

The endless days of rain and high humidity also has an impact at the mill. We can see the inflow of logs slow down. As the ambient humidity creeps up, stacks of flitches and boules need more time to air dry. Due to the long processing time of our material, these backlogs work out of the system slowly.

Like in so many other cases, we can find logic in the past. Many of Pennsylvania’s old farmers doubled as sawyers in the winter. The wet, warm summers were focused on growing food, and the cold, frozen winters was the time to log and saw lumber. This system let them stay out of the woods when it got too wet, and allowed them to stack up lumber to dry when the cold forced the humidity down.

So, when you find tight supplies at your lumber yard “due to rain,” remember that there’s a lot of steps between that stand of black walnut and your workbench. We at Horizon will be here working away, rain or shine, but a year of record-breaking weather reminds us all that we’re working with a real, natural product that starts with someone standing in a rainy forest.

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