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It’s only the first day of the fair yet Jakob Rauchenberger is already worried he may go home empty-handed. “I drove 450 kilometres from Bavaria to come here but I don’t see the model I’m looking for,” he says, a trace of disappointment visible on his face. Rauchenberger is in the market for a mulcher, a device to clear brushwood that hooks to the back of a tractor. So far, the German farmer is having more luck with his outfit, a postcard perfect Lederhosen get-up that’s had compliments from passers-by all morning.

Welcome to the 19th edition of Forstmesse, Switzerland’s biennial gathering for fans of forestry products. Held over four days in mid-August, it sees the lakeside city of Lucerne overrun by brawny woodsmen in search of the newest toys for clear cutting. With 280 exhibitors, it’s one of the industry’s biggest fairs for the European market and attracts more than 30,000 visitors.

Besides showcasing the latest in axes and tree splitters, the fair is a good indicator of where the sector is heading. With the recent hike in oil prices, many booths are promoting green energy. Several Swiss firms offer visitors a look at wood-pellet-fired heating systems for homes and there are talks and demos highlighting the benefits of biomass.

As an added bonus, Forstmesse also plays host to the Swiss lumberjack championships, something fair attendee Franco Pedrini can’t wait to see. “I’m looking forward to the speed event,” he says, referring to the 30-second time trial where chainsaw-wielding participants test their precision and swiftness with a blade. Pedrini goes on at length about the pieces on display by artisans from the School of Woodcarving in Brienz. A Swiss institution since 1884, several of its craftsmen have gone on to earn a living making musical instruments. “It’s something not to be missed, they are true artists.”

The fair’s dress code can best be described as farmer casual and there’s no risk here of being clipped by someone pulling a wheelie suitcase stuffed with brochures. Strapping fellows in plaid shirts move about in packs and by the look of many of them, the moustache (remember Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.?) is enjoying a comeback – then again, whiskers have always been in vogue in Switzerland. While log-lifting cranes attached to flatbeds and tree-stump excavators draw the big crowds, there’s a little something for everyone whose job takes them outdoors. A Swiss firm exhibits chaps for rugged work with saws and there are sturdy-toed Gore-Tex boots. There’s even a travel agency promoting package holidays to British Columbia to learn about Canadian lumber.

Perhaps the most striking feature for first-timers at Forstmesse is the lax attitude towards smoking. No signs threatening fines are visible and indoors, patrons puff away, oblivious to the ashes that fall near neatly stacked logs. As if to tempt fate, one stall selling tobacco is only metres away from a stand made entirely of cedar planks.

Lunchtime allows for a momentary break from the action to visit hall one, where major industry players hold court. Prime place is occupied by Sweden’s Husqvarna, the world’s leading maker of chainsaws. Urs Fallegger, president of Husqvarna’s Swiss subsidiary, beams with pride as he discusses the firm’s use of eco-friendly petrol for chainsaws. “It’s free from benzene and lead so it produces cleaner exhaust gases during use,” he says.

Renewable energy is a hot topic at Forstmesse as many look to capitalise on the public’s interest in green energy. “A rise in fossil fuel prices favours wood and it is C02 neutral,” explains Roland Furrer of the Swiss Forest Owners Association. In Switzerland, burning wood satisfies barely 4 per cent of the country’s energy needs but a lobby group has emerged and Furrer sees a rosy future ahead. “Traditional methods are becoming popular again.” But talk of felling trees, even if it’s for a good cause like reducing greenhouse gases, is a delicate issue, as Furrer admits: “Most Swiss have emotional ties to the forest. I call it the slaughterhouse paradox. People like to eat meat but don’t want to see what happens to the cow. It’s the same with wood.”

For the moment, Swiss forests enjoy a “surplus” as 2006 witnessed 5.7 million cubic metres of wood cut (an 8 per cent increase over the previous year) versus 8 million cubic metres added via natural tree growth. Yet the construction industry is now taking a bigger share of timber from Swiss forests. Sales manager Albrecht Hahn works for Jenz, another company riding the renewable energy wave by living off what others throw away. “Sixty per cent of the tree gets wasted, since lumber yards select only the highest grade wood to sell to furniture and construction industries,” explains Hahn as he lights a cigarette.

German firm Jenz takes advantage of such profligacy by selling machines that shred residual wood into small chips. Jenz’s vehicles are popular since they can drive straight into forest areas and hack away on site. Once the branches are ground down, the mobile hackers transport the resulting material to biomass plants to be burned for fuel. “There’s a huge potential for it now. Unlike waiting for the wind or sun to power your plant, with biomass you can feed the electrical network day and night.”

Saw it all:

the main players

Husqvarna
Husqvarna is the world’s leading supplier of chainsaws with a 40 per cent market share. Established in the 17th century, the Swedish firm now sells cutting equipment in over 100 countries. Urs Fallegger, president of the Swiss division, admits natural disasters are good for the company’s balance sheet. “We always see a jump in sales after a big storm.”

Menzi Muck
Switzerland’s Menzi Muck has an annual turnover of €25m and has sold more than 5,000 of its popular excavators worldwide. Its bestseller is the A91, which retails at €160,000. Ideal for clear cutting and uprooting trees in hilly terrain with gradients in excess of 40 per cent, it uses a claw-like extension to stay balanced.

Jenz
Jenz’s largest machines shred logs of a metre diameter. With over 2,000 machines sold, the firm is now looking to emerging markets for growth. “We have entered a licensing agreement in Brazil so we can build our machines there to meet demand from South American customers,” says sales manager Albrecht Hahn.

Stallinger
Stallinger’s oldest saw mill dates back to 1667. The Austrian firm sells select spruce, fir and pine to builders and has over 1 million cubic metres per year of sawing capacity. The annual turnover for holding company Stallinger Kaufmann is €250m-€300m. This year, it opened its first Swiss plant in Domat/Ems.

Latschbacher
Founded in 1954, Austria’s Latschbacher makes data-collection equipment for the lumber industry. Colour tags with barcodes ensure felled trees are classified quickly by grade and size before heading to the mill. Stats get entered into chunky 1kg PDAs that run on Windows.

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