With the demand for furniture and flooring not tapering off, China turns to Western North Carolina wood


Jimmy Lee, owner of Oak Valley Hardwoods in Robbinsville. Photo credit: Angeli Wright

The rumour circulating in the timber industry that the Chinese were steadily buying up the lumber mills had been persisting for years in Western North Carolina. However, the Chinese buyers in question is actually a single charismatic man, one Jimmy Lee, whose total count of 11 mills include the old Stanley Furniture plant, which once held the distinction of being the largest employer in Graham County.

Majority of the lumber processed in the old plant and at other locations in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia are predestined for the markets in Asia, notably China, where the increasing demand for hardwood is constantly whetted by consumers with an inclination for quality products and the recently-accrued finances to satiate it.

The Stanley Furniture facility in Robbinsville was once the biggest employer in Graham County before it closed down in 2014. Jimmy Lee then bought the facility and converted it into a lumber mill. Photo credit: Angeli Wright

The constantly-changing world market creates employment for local timber workers, loggers, and exporters, among others. When the value of timber remains strong and stable, landowners are spurred on to grow and manage timber as an investment rather than using the same land to grow and harvest more orthodox crops.

In this vein, North Carolina’s long-term investment in timber has paid off; their timber exports to China have soared in recent years. This trend is not native to the state, but can be witnessed throughout the entire country, as increasing amounts of timber are harvested on American soil and transported to China where furniture, flooring, and other high-end goods are produced for the consumers.

From 2011 to 2016, wood exports from the state of North Carolina to China averaged at US$165 million, approximately 30 times the US$5.7 million of exports sent to China in 2000, the US Census Bureau reported.

In late 2003, the lumber transported to China would return to the United States (US) as pieces of furniture or other wood products. However, the nation’s developing economy has flipped that entire scenario on its head.

“Ten years ago, China started to consumer much more lumber, to make more furniture, flooring, any wood product. Five years ago, yellow poplar, which is a very low end chipper wood, China makes the furniture with it, ships it back. But the expensive wood, like walnut, nothing comes back. Cherry, no. Red oak, white oak, mostly stays in China, which is very different than what we are thinking,” Jimmy Lee said in his interview with The Citizen-Times. “We think America uses the high-end, most expensive wood, for furniture, but in reality, no. China is using the most expensive lumber to make the most expensive furniture.”

Recently, China has witnessed an explosion of affluent and middle-class citizens, and the majority of them are entrepreneurs or well-paid staff in international conglomerates, associate professor of economics at Duke University, Daniel Yi Xu, said. “Overall, China is a very strong furniture exporter, but for a small minority, the high-end furniture, they just don’t have the capability to the natural resources to produce that locally.”


Source: The Citizen-Times, part of the USA Today Network