Geo Parkes & Sons: surviving fires and wars

June 30, 2011

When English entrepreneur George Parkes arrived in Knysna in the early 1890s, he noted the great business opportunity presented by the hardwood timber that was growing abundantly in the surrounding natural forests. He duly purchased a struggling sawmill and established a timber business, the core of which is still operating today more than a century later as Geo Parkes & Sons (Pty) Ltd.

Geo Parkes headquarters Jim Parkes
The head office in Knysna.

Jim Parkes (left) with harvesting foreman Fanie Kok in the Parkes natural forest.

Parkes forest Geo Parkes: Felling a tree
Parkes forest in Knysna, pine (foreground) and natural forest as far as the eye can see.

Chainsaw operator Nikolaas Jafta expertly fells a yellowwood in the Parkes forest.

 

The first products that he manufactured with the local hardwoods were machined wagon parts and tool handles that until then were being imported from abroad.

Wisely, he also purchased 6 000 acres of forest land near Knysna, known simply as Parkes forest, and later, in 1923, he bought another piece of land with natural forest called Hoogekraal in the George district.

By then George Parkes' sons had come over to Knysna to help him run the business, which survived numerous hardships over the years, including fires, economic recessions and wars. George Parkes was a man who loved a challenge and was prepared to take risks, at one time even purchasing a floating dock that ran aground on the rugged Cape coast en route to the port of Durban with the intention of salvaging and selling the equipment that was on it.

The current MD of Geo Parkes & Sons is Jim Parkes, the founder's great grandson. Jim joined the family business in 1996. The head office is still located at the 100-year-old Parkes building in central Knysna, which is a local landmark.

The main Parkes forest outside Knysna comprises 2 800 ha of beautiful natural forest as well as 600 ha of pine and gum. The Hoogekraal estate outside Sedgefield has 1 850 ha of mainly natural forest and pine.

These estates represent one of only a few natural forest resources in the country in private hands, where harvesting of indigenous hardwoods is permitted.

Geo Parkes & Sons forests are legally protected for conservation, but harvesting is permitted under special licence from SANParks in accordance with the timber yield regulation system. This allows trees that are already dying to be harvested, e.g. yellowwoods with 65% crown dieback, stinkwoods with 30% crown dieback.

The forest is divided up into 10 compartments, with harvesting operations allowed in each compartment only once every 10 years. This gives the forest time to recover. Only low impact felling and log extraction techniques are allowed. Sanparks used Percheron horses to skid the logs out of sensitive areas. Parkes & Sons' harvesting team uses an old mini-cat equipped with a winch to skid the logs out. The floor of a natural forest is especially sensitive to compaction, so heavy harvesting equipment is not an option.

The harvesting process starts with the Parkes team marking trees that they want to harvest. SANParks staff visit the site and make sure the selected trees can be harvested in terms of the accepted criteria, and issue a permit for each individual tree which is plotted on a GPS. SANParks also inspect the site after harvesting to assess the impact on the forest.

Jim told SA Forestry magazine that the company used to sell indigenous hardwood timber on auction, but since 2001, they have opted instead to harvest and sell to order at a price 'negotiated directly with the buyer'.

They sell most of the species offered by SANParks, including yellowwood, stinkwood, ironwood and witels. Last year, they also sold some blackwood for the first time in several years. Blackwood is an exotic species planted in the natural forests years ago in a bid to augment the supply of indigenous hardwoods that were being heavily harvested at the time.

Jim said that his company currently harvests around 200 cubic metres a year from the natural forests, which is 'way down' on the volumes harvested in past years. He says he has the capacity to harvest double that.

However, despite the fact that SANParks has currently suspended harvesting of indigenous hardwoods from the forests that they manage, local buyers are not coming forward in droves to purchase Parkes' timber.

The primary issue appears to be around price. Jim Parkes maintains that the prices he is asking are reasonable, and in some cases are in fact below the prices of six years ago. "At some auctions, yellowwood prices were the same as pine," he said.

Several local traders and furniture manufacturers, who are members of the Southern Cape Timber Buyers' Co-operative, said Parkes' prices are too high and their customers' won't pay them.

In any event, the market forces of demand and supply will ultimately determine the prices.

Meanwhile, on the supply side, it is likely that the cost of harvesting indigenous hardwoods in the SANParks-managed forests will rise to more realistic levels once the operation is out-sourced. This operation has been performed up to now by SANParks at a loss.

The indigenous hardwoods of the Southern Cape support a furniture-making industry that employs around 800 people directly. It is the primary industry on which the town of Knysna was developed, is part of the town's history and still gives it a unique character today.

Efforts are currently being made by Geo Parkes to establish a 'Timber Route' in and around Knysna that could help to restore this historic industry to its former glory.

Published in June 2011

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