FARMINGTON — Tying plaid bows on tightly wired balsam fir swags, a group of young 4-H members recently learned about the many uses of the native tree, how to produce a swag from fir tips and then market it.
"It takes a few minutes for kids to make," said Dave Fuller. He is the University of Maine Cooperative Extension agriculture and non-timber forest products professional.
The workshop was held at the Franklin County extension office.
The lesson is part of a curriculum developed to teach about the history and use of balsam fir, how to harvest it in a sustainable way, and to teach business skills to help them become an entrepreneur, he said. The curriculum is starting to be used in some schools.
"Even a 6-year-old is able to make one," he said.
After learning how to create the swags, other students have gone on to make more, taking orders from family and friends, he added.
Fuller was joined by Judy Smith, 4-H aide in Franklin County, and Debra Kantor, extension educator from Somerset County Extension, who shared information on pricing the swags, establishing a cost and researching competing swag prices online.
Fuller taught the youngsters how to identify the tree, talked about the history of balsam fir decorations and the wood's use beyond lumber and pulp for making paper.
The balsam fir pillows are big gift items. The Shaker women at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester made them in the late 1800s, he said, quoting a saying attributed to them, "verily our money does grow on trees."
He tweaked the saying to: "money can grow on trees if you harvest sustainably."
"If you do it right you can pick off the tree for a long time," he said.
The manufacture of balsam fir products in Maine provides hundreds of jobs and balsam fir non-timber products are currently valued at $25 million, according to information on goods from the Maine woods that he shared with them. Balsam products, mainly pillows, wreaths and other seasonal decorative items, are shipped around the country.
Other uses for balsam fir include Christmas trees, weather sticks, resin and incense.
Smith and some parents helped the members make a decorative, scented swag.
After talking about business skills and how to price their creations, Kantor helped them go online to research swag prices.
The prices are in the $10 to $15 range, she said. After figuring their costs for materials, wire and ribbon, she taught the members to include the cost of their labor. Fifteen minutes to make a swag at $10 an hour is $2.25 plus materials brings their costs to just over $3, she said.
"The work they do has value," she said.