10: Management and Marketing of Nontimber Forest Products

10. Management and Marketing of Nontimber Forest Products

David S. Wilsey, Director, MDP Program (former Extension Educator), University of Minnesota

Julie Miedtke, Extension Educator, Retired, University of Minnesota


Non-timber forest products, or NTFPs, include most everything you find in the woods that is not merchantable timber. The scope of what is included in the category varies substantially but, more importantly, the term refers to the many products of forest origin that enhance or contribute to lifestyles and livelihoods. Collecting and using these products is an integral part of our common regional history and economy and often generates or reinforces social and cultural connections.


The goal of this chapter is to introduce you to the richness of NTFPs. It is intended to serve as a gateway to the universe of NTFPs, not as a final destination. It highlights their value, as well as challenges, and presents some crucial considerations for landowners interested in reaping the rewards from the many goods in their woods and beyond. NTFPs may allow you to achieve better forest management and a more stable forest livelihood through the development of complementary forest resource management strategies.

What are non-timber forest products (NTFPs)?

NTFPs are the various berries, ferns, and mushrooms we pick to eat. They are the wild game whose meat sustains our families. They are gathered medicinal plants, roots and barks collected for basketry and crafts, and the seed cones used to regenerate our forests. NTFPs are the balsam boughs and princess pine that, when worked by careful hands, become the wreaths that decorate homes during the holidays.


For some, NTFPs provide affordable outdoor recreation opportunities. For others, they generate a much-needed paycheck. NTFP harvest also strengthens social bonds and reinforces personal and cultural ties to the land.


When are NTFPs encountered?

The task of summarizing NTFPs or characterizing their varied uses and values is made challenging by the diversity of interesting and useful forest plants and animals, as well as the potential for multiple uses of each resource. Additionally, NTFP use is seasonal, and often practiced at smaller scales than other forest uses such as logging. For these reasons, NTFP value is best considered cumulatively – as a suite of products harvested during a single season and throughout an annual cycle composed of seasonal activities.


If you are using NTFPs commercially, an important consideration is the seasonality of supply and demand for the product, or for the products in which the NTFP is used. Here are some examples of seasonal NTFPs:


Tree saps are collected beginning in early spring, when mild daytime temperatures contrast with overnight freezes. Sugar maple is preferred for tapping, but other maples can be tapped, including red, silver, and box elder.


Maple sap may be sold unprocessed, but is more commonly reduced and sold as maple syrup. In Minnesota, roughly 40 gallons of maple sap reduce to one gallon of syrup.


Paper and yellow birch can also be tapped, but due to lower sugar concentrations require roughly 100 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. Often, birch syrup is consumed or used as an additive without reduction.


Black ash is a tree species used in basketry and prized by Native American and other artisans. One log provides material for 20 to 30 baskets, depending on the finished products. Spring is the best time to cut a tree, when sap is rising. Black ash and other ash species are threatened by the emerald ash borer, which is impacting North American ash populations.


Morel mushrooms are a prized and high value specialty forest food. Morels are found in dry or well-drained forest soils and proliferate after burns. Caution: false morels look like morels, but are poisonous. Always consult with an expert.


Pussy willows are shrubs with gray-brown bark and typically associated with wetlands or riparian areas. Willow branches are used by the floral industry when the ‘cat paws’ are bursting.


Berries and fruits including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, June berries, choke cherries, and wild plums are harvested throughout summer months for consumption and sale as berries or value added products, such as jams and jellies. Berry producing plants are typically associated with disturbance, such as fire or timber harvest operations.


Tree bark, including the bark of paper birch is a traditional material used to construct baskets, decorations, shelters, and canoes. Bark is harvested in the late spring to early summer and, properly done, does not harm the tree. Birch is a pioneer species associated with disturbance. Other barks of interest are northern white-cedar and basswood.


Cones of various conifer tree species are collected in the summer and fall and sold, unopened, as a source of seed for tree nurseries and public management agencies. Opened cones are sold to the floral and seasonal décor businesses.


Boughs of balsam fir, northern white cedar, and other conifer tree species are picked after the first hard frost for use in the region’s wreath industry. Bough harvest and wreath-making provide seasonal income.


Holiday decorations including club moss or ground pine are harvested from autumn to early winter and sold for use in decorations such as wreaths and runners. Plants are found most often in pine-hardwood and maple-basswood stands. Care should be taken as the timing of harvest corresponds with reproductive spore dispersal.


Red-osier dogwood is an example of a decorative branch and is a shrub with smooth, bright red bark. Its branches are used for basketry and in the floral industry during the holiday season, when the bark takes on an orange coloration. Willow stems are harvested for basketry and other decorative uses. Alder branches and stems are used in basketry and rustic furniture. Harvesting dogwood, willow, and alder branches properly will not harm the plant, as they respond to cutting with production of coppice sprouts.


Game animals such as moose, deer, wild turkey, and grouse are much-appreciated components of forest ecosystems. Management interventions can improve habitat and forested areas can be used privately or commercially for recreation or hunting, provided local laws and permitting practices are observed.


Fur bearing animals found in forest ecosystems, such as raccoons, weasels and fox, can be hunted or trapped for their pelts. Preserved pelts can be sold to fur traders.


Character and figure wood most likely result from insect and bird injury, knots, disease and decay, burls, and irregular grain coloration or patterns. Examples include burls, diamond willow, and “spalted” wood. These specimens can be sliced into high-value veneers, turned on a lathe, or carved to accentuate appearance and value.


Small-diameter wood, including sticks, twigs and vines are used as decorative material and in traditional basketry. Some tree species are sought for furniture wood, notably pine, tamarack, and cedar. Examples include alder, aspen, birch, dogwood, ironwood, mountain maple, sumac, and willow, among others. Birch and other hardwood species are also used to make specialty products such as artificial trees and picture frames. Stems are typically between two and ten feet and less than three inches diameter. Harvest should occur during plant dormancy when bark retention is desired.

Where are NTFPs found?

Naturally occurring NTFPs are site specific, which means that a small parcel with diverse habitat may contain a variety of products. Conversely, a large parcel that is fairly uniform may contain few non-timber forest products. Of course past harvest practices as well as new and enrichment planting may dramatically alter what can be found from what is to be expected.

Why use NTFPs?

Why we use natural resources is as varied as the resources that we use. For some, it’s about making money, plain and simple. For others, the money is non-existent or unimportant. More likely the suite of NTFPs that interest any one person touches on motivations ranging the spectrum from livelihood to lifestyle and from commercial to personal. Quite possible the motivations change from person to person and over a lifetime.

Who uses NTFPs?

Each of us possesses a unique suite of knowledge, skills, and interests. More often than not we are part of families or peer groups where each individual’s knowledge and interest areas overlap, but are different. As with anything else, natural resource interests and practices differ from person to person. Not giving a voice to those close to you who share your natural resources opens the possibility of overlooking the diversity of interesting and potentially valuable resources within reach.

Management and Marketing Considerations

Harvesting NTFPs simultaneously affects the health of individual plants and animals, plant and animal populations and communities, and the broader forest ecosystem. Minimal disturbance occurs by simply walking around in the forest. At the other end of the spectrum, management for preferred species affects plant health and morphology, stand structure, and species composition. Harvest effects are a function of what is harvested as well as timing and technique of harvest.


Just as there are forest management guidelines in many states to protect water quality and other natural resource values during forestry operations, the Forest Stewardship Council has produced guidelines for NTFP management that lead to ecologically sustainable practices. The Forest Stewardship Council’s generic guidelines for NTFP certification highlight issues to consider:

  • Land tenure and access / use rights and responsibilities
  • Forest management planning and monitoring techniques
  • Forest management practices
  • Environmental impacts of harvest, including biodiversity conservation
  • Social and cultural impacts of management and harvest
  • Community and worker relations
  • Broader benefits from the forest and economic vitality
  • Chain of custody for NTFPs.


The potential for commercial use of NTFPs depends on:

  • Plant biology (growth, reproduction, population size, and ease of propagation)
  • Seasonal nature of markets, including timing of supply and demand
  • Scale of operation that meets both quality and quantity expectations
  • Accessibility of formal and informal social and commercial marketing networks
  • Internet and other marketing opportunities

Learning More

Learning about NTFPs has the potential to enhance your livelihood and complement your lifestyle, while connecting you to the region’s diverse cultures and shared history and economy. The process begins with a simple step: a conversation with your neighbor or some friends in town. Local artisans and crafters as well as colleges, universities, state and federal agencies, private enterprises and the Internet are all potential sources of information and support for NTFP activities and enterprises.


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Woodland Stewardship: A Practical Guide for Midwestern Landowners, 3rd Edition Copyright © 2019 by University of Minnesota Extension is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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