On her Grade 8 report card, after an unfulfilling experience in biology class, Gina Mohammed received a barely passing grade and this comment from her teacher: “Obviously, she’ll never be a biologist.” Boy, was he wrong.
After rediscovering a passion for biology in high school, Mohammed went on to earn her undergraduate degree, followed by a PhD, in the science. Fast-forward to today, and Mohammed has become one of the Sault’s pre-eminent experts on non-timber forest products (NTFPs), a subject with which she became well acquainted during a 10-year stint as a researcher with the Ontario Forest Research Institute.
While others categorized common plants like raspberry and fireweed as nuisance weeds, Mohammed became intrigued with their supplementary applications, and her enthusiasm for NTFPs grew.
“I found myself more curious about the weeds and the other uses of the trees than just for the timber and the pulp applications,” she said. “It was a personal interest, just a curiosity about what else was growing out there and what else it was used for, especially for medicinal purposes and research around the development of new pharmaceuticals.”
She has since compiled a personal database of 1,700 plant species, which she tracks for their uses in medicine, food, manufacturing, landscaping, and more.
NTFPs are the subjects of Mohammed’s new 867-page guide, The Canadian NTFP Business Companion, published on CD this year. In it, Mohammed, who now operates the consulting and research firm P&M Technologies with her husband Dan, lays out detailed chapters on NTFPs and their properties for those considering entering the industry.
“The idea was to not come at it from an academic or science perspective, but more as a businessperson,” Mohammed explained. “It’s not a science document, but it has technical depth because I want people to understand their sustainable aspects and uses.”
The guide also includes information on the estimated costs involved, the equipment needed, resources entrepreneurs can draw from, precautions to consider, and hints from successful business owners.
Production of NTFPs is still a relatively new industry in Canada and in Northern Ontario, but Mohammed believes it has vast growth potential. Well-known NTFPs include maple syrup, Christmas trees, mushrooms and blueberries, but she challenges people to expand their view of the category.
Employing NTFPs doesn’t always mean “stripping stuff from the forest,” Mohammed said. The process can include growing plants in the forest in combination with the timber, or it could mean cultivation in environments such as farm fields, greenhouses or rooftop gardens.
Interest in NTFPs has grown with the expansion of the biofuels industry, but people are also looking for more natural products that have been grown locally, and NTFPs lend themselves well to small, home-based applications, Mohammed said.
There could also be opportunities for a network of businesses to work together. In birch syrup production, for example, one person may want to grow and tap the trees, while another might want to extract essential oils, and a third may be interested in creative marketing products such as seed-embedded paper.
“So, you get this complementary work amongst all these different types of businesses, and I really like to think that we could get to that level in more parts of Canada in the future,” Mohammed said.
A highlight of Mohammed’s research for the companion was her interviews with business owners who have had success within the burgeoning industry. She pointed to companies like Millson Forestry in Timmins, which has found success with value-added products to complement its conventional forestry business. Its online shop is stocked with essential oils, handmade soaps, and even burls and hunks of trees that would appeal to wood enthusiasts.
Because it’s still an emerging sector, the cultivation of NTFPs needs to be approached with caution to ensure the sustainable, responsible harvest of the resource, Mohammed emphasized, and she sees a need for more research and support on the subject.
There continue to be challenges for the forestry industry, not the least of which are the Canadian dollar and energy needs, Mohammed said, but with an estimated monetary value of “well into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” NTFPs and their growth potential shouldn’t be ignored.
The forestry industry “is subject to so much challenge, and yet it’s something we have to keep going,” she said. “I think, to really develop a good foundation and a sustainability, a resilience for the North, we have to look at small businesses and the full spectrum of opportunity for small businesses and microbusinesses, and forests is something I think we've largely ignored from that perspective. Yet, it's so obvious for us to do more with our forests, and to do more in interesting ways.”