On any given drive through the US countryside, you’re likely to spot at least one old dilapidated barn that’s ready to collapse — assuming it hasn’t already, of course. You might even look at all that beautifully weathered wood and imagine what new purposes it could serve. Exposed to the elements for decades on end, barn wood has a characteristic slivered look, with each imperfection giving it a rich sense of history and personality. In recent years, as interest in “rustic chic” interior design has skyrocketed, so has demand for reclaimed barn wood, and that’s starting to become a bit of a problem.
In rural states like Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio, property owners say their barns are disappearing little by little, with thieves often taking a truck full of planks at a time to avoid getting caught. Kentucky has been particularly hard-hit, with cases of theft reported in at least 13 counties. Sheriffs say some barns are stripped down to nothing but their frames and roofs.
The wood is nearly impossible to track and identify, though local lumber buyers are on “high alert” for sellers hawking wood matching certain descriptions of quantity, color, and age. Some buyers are even asking sellers to supply W-9 tax forms in an effort to ensure the legitimacy of their products.
Justin Nagler, owner of Kentucky Wisewood in Louisville, told Fox 17 Nashville that five years ago, nobody could have predicted just how much hunger for barn wood would grow. As influential figures like HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines help popularize “farmhouse chic” and other rustic styles, demand for reclaimed barn wood often outstrips supply, making it even more expensive than new lumber.
“At first, folks just wanted the barn down, and they weren’t even trying to sell it,” Nagler says. “I’ve seen it change from ‘Come grab it,’ to ‘How much will you pay me to take this barn?'”
The theft of private property isn’t the only thing that has barn owners and other residents in the affected areas upset. It’s also the loss of the physical remnants of a cultural heritage that’s rapidly disappearing. Trends reflecting a nostalgia for old-fashioned subsistence farming, like farm-to-table restaurants and urban chickens, highlight the fact that small-scale farming has become economically unsustainable for many people throughout the United States.
Of course, demand for reclaimed wood is generally well-intentioned. Concerns about climate change and deforestation have encouraged many people to find new ways to reuse and recycle existing materials. After all, it seems like quite a waste to allow a desirable material to rot away in a field when it could become something new instead. But there’s a clear difference between gaining permission from a property owner to dismantle an old barn and stealing it outright.
If you love the look of barn wood and hope to use it for your own projects, look for reputable sellers to make sure you’re not accidentally buying stolen goods. You can also use lower-grade lumber, which is generally considered less desirable due to splits and other imperfections, and give it a faux weathered finish.