In Tennessee, timber is big business. The state exports around $1 billion worth of tree products every year. Finding enough loggers to keep the industry going, though, is a challenge these days. And we're going to hear the story now of one logging family. They've been in the forest for four generations. But they don't know if there will be a fifth. Here's reporter Bobby Allyn of member station WPLN.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Meet Michael Redfern - dressed in blue denim overalls and a red and white trucker hat, a wad of tobacco tucked in his lower lip.

MICHAEL REDFERN: Well, I'm not bragging or complaining. But around Robertson County, if you mention the word 'logging,' the Redfern name comes up a lot, because we've been in it a long time.

ALLYN: Michael runs this three-man operation on the northern border with Kentucky along with his sons Jonathan and Justin. Jonathan saws. His younger brother Justin drags the tree out of the woods with a skidder. Their dad drives the logs to a mill. On the edge of an open field, the Redferns fell a 100-foot cherry tree. It could fetch up to $400 at the mill, though the landowner gets half of that. Jonathan Redfern says nobody's getting rich like this.

JONATHAN REDFERN: People think we're sitting on a gold mine over here, but all we're doing is making a living. And we're fine with that. I enjoy it. You know, we're middle-class at best. And we just make a living here. But it'll wear you out.

ALLYN: It's also perilous. Logging accounted for 64 deaths last year. That's more than any other industry in the U.S. [Post-Broadcast Correction: The audio version of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly states that logging accounted for 64 deaths last year. In reality, there were 62 logging-related deaths in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.]

JONATHAN REDFERN: A lot of times, if you get in a tree and it's bad in the middle, you're not holding anywhere. So when you start cutting, at some point it's going to do what it wants to do.

ALLYN: You've learned how to scram - how to get out of the way.

JONATHAN REDFERN: Oh, absolutely. I've got a pretty good three-step quick-jump there.

ALLYN: Logging isn't just dangerous, it's economically volatile. Adam Taylor studies wood products at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

ADAM TAYLOR: The wood industry is unstable. You know, it's a commodity industry. So it goes up and down. And you have to be able to weather those ups and downs.

ALLYN: And then there's the physical toll.

JONATHAN REDFERN: Because, you know, honestly my dad's 57 years old and takes a handful of pills every morning just to walk. And some day, I'm going to be the same way if I cut timber 30 years. And, you know, it just ain't for me.

ALLYN: For all those reasons, Jonathan is looking for another job and not in logging. He's likely not the only one. Federal labor figures show that the logging workforce is aging and many are not expected to be replaced. So mills are sponsoring youth outreach events. Forestry groups are organizing logging classes. And technical colleges are adding logging to their curriculum. Even Congress has jumped in. Rep. Raul Labrador, who has just thrown his hat in the ring to be majority leader, has introduced a bill. It would allow loggers' kids to use heavy equipment, even if they're under the mandatory minimum age of 18.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: And I think if we continue to make it more difficult for young people to get into this field and we continue to make it more difficult for the logging community to actually do their work, I think we're going to see these jobs actually lost.

ALLYN: The bill was pushed by the American Loggers Council. Spokesman Daniel Dructor says his group has lobbied Congress on the issue for years. But even legislation may not help.

DANIEL DRUCTOR: Parents just aren't encouraging their kids to go into the profession anymore. They're looking for them to do something that they could - might make a better living at.

ALLYN: Back in the forest, Jonathan Redfern says he won't be encouraging any young people to take up logging.

JONATHAN REDFERN: Absolutely not. I say stay as far away from it as you can get.

ALLYN: But Justin plans to stick with the tree business so long as he can find someone to replace his brother.

JUSTIN REDFERN: You can find a truck driver. That's not hard. The hard thing's going to be finding someone to run that saw.

ALLYN: Redfern says not just anyone can take down a towering hardwood. This is a trade that until now most people were born into. But it's one that takes a toll. And for that reason their dad, Michael Redfern, says he can't blame his sons for wanting to take another path. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Nashville.


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