Strong Roots Bob Ritchie's strong local roots-and solid forest practices-are paying off for his logging/mill operation.
By Paul McDonald
No pun intended, but Bob Ritchie's forestry roots stretch far back in Simcoe County in southern Ontario. "I love the bush," says Ritchie, president of Ritchie Forest Products. "I was raised on a farm. In fact, my grandfather had a sugar bush on 50 acres next door to where our sawmill is now. I remember gathering sap there when I was a kid. But it was sold off and every damn tree was cut off that land." Things came full circle this past summer for Ritchie, however.
Simcoe County had bought the 50 acres some time ago, after it was cut. "The county said they had no interest in selling the land so we did a swap-I gave them land with some nice red pine and they gave me what used to be my grandfather's land," says Ritchie. While Ritchie will be using part of that land to expand the yard for Ritchie Forest Products, most of it will be kept in forest and harvested selectively. "It's nice to have it back in the family," he adds.
That kind of commitment to the area in which they operate and to sustainable forests is a big part of the approach for Ritchie Forest, which operates a small harvesting and milling operation near Barrie, Ontario, about an hour and a half north of Toronto. In fact, Ritchie was recognized for his achievements this past summer when he was presented with a Wildlife Habitat Canada award under the Forest Stewardship Recognition program.
The award cited his work in logging training and education and "tireless efforts to influence the sustainable practices of his peers". The organization also noted that Ritchie is a founding member of the Huronia Loggers Association and credited him for promoting the organization and opening his mill for school tours. Ritchie is proud of the work they do in the mill and the bush. "I think we have a good mill operation, but I'm very proud of the work we do in the bush because that was where I was brought up and without it, there would be no mill. That's where it all starts." Ritchie's career in the forest includes working almost 20 years for a local pulp operation, harvesting red, jack and scotch pine in Simcoe and Dufferin counties.
When the pulp industry shifted away from using red pine, Ritchie saw a business opportunity- harvesting red pine thinnings-and set up his own logging business. The manufacturing end of Ritchie Forest developed more as a necessity. In the mid1980s, Ritchie and his crew were logging all over southern Ontario and were supplying red pine logs to a mill in the region. Virtually overnight, the mill shut down, and the Ritchie Forest sawmill was born shortly thereafter. The mill is small and "mostly handmade", he says, but this gang saw operation will turn out 4.5 million board feet of mostly red pine this year. Working with local wood, they produce four, six and eight inch material, in straight eight and ten foot lengths. Virtually all of it, in the form of round and square posts and lumber, is destined for the pressure treated market and goes to Weyerhaeuser Canada.
About 85 per cent of production currently goes to Weyerhaeuser. All of it is pressure treated at Shelburne Wood Processing Limited in Shelburne, about a 30-minute drive to the southwest. "The biggest logs we get would be around 14 inches," says Ritchie. "We might get the occasional larger piece but if we do, we'll shop it out to a mill down the road." In addition to the product that goes to Weyerhaeuser, they also harvest some larger timber for hydro poles, a high value item. Low-grade pallet stock goes to a local pallet company. Ritchie appreciates the simplicity of working with one big customer, which they've done before. "If you're dealing with a bunch of companies, you're on the phone all the time, selling to everybody."
And even though you may be dealing with a variety of companies in that situation, they may all want one size product, 6 x 6 for example. "The arrangement we have with Weyerhaeuser is great. When we hit 30,000 board feet, we phone a truck to come and pick it up With the set up we have, we provide them with mixed loads, with bundles of 4 x 4, 5 x 5, 6 x 6 or 8 x 8." There has to be a good degree of trust on the part of both themselves and Weyerhaeuser in this type of arrangement, he says. "When you're dealing with one customer, you're not following the price all the time. We are putting out good quality pieces and we are looking for a good price for that product." Ritchie is not looking to get the last penny according to the market price on a particular day-their focus is on the longer-term business relationship with Weyerhaeuser. On the lumber side, the focus is also on quality control.
Ritchie notes that they had a zero defect rate with the wood they send to Shelburne for Weyerhaeuser, versus defect rates of up to 17 per cent for some other companies. Their wood can go directly into the cylinder for treating with no sorting required. The end product goes to quality conscious Weyerhaeuser customers, such as Home Depot, Home Hardware and Beaver Lumber. Consistency is important in terms of quality, as well. In the spring lumber markets, when lumber is much in demand as housing construction gets underway, quality can take a back seat at some mills. "We turn out the same quality product, month after month," says Ritchie. And he notes that while some distribution companies may be able to get "one off" deals from mills that they normally don't work with, these deals may end up costing the company a customer or souring the business relationship if the quality of the lumber is poor. And it could end up costing the company more. "If they receive poor quality wood, they have to sort it and that costs them money.
And some of that wood, which you spent good money transporting to your operation, ends up in the chipper because it's not up to grade. "We've worked hard at turning out a quality product and we think it pays off," says Ritchie. That effort extends to the bush where they make a conscious effort to leave the forest in good shape so they can do a return trip in as soon as eight or 10 years. On the logging side, Ritchie Forest has two Takeuchi machines, each equipped with a head produced in Wisconsin, called the Pine Beatle. Manufactured by McIntee Forest Products, the head is built for plantation thinning. It weighs in at 1,500 pounds and takes up to a 14-inch tree. The carrier is a good match for the Pine Beatle and for the operation. "We've tried a few of the smaller carriers, and we found the Takeuchi works best for us. Among other things, it has a better hydraulic system on it." The machines are also versatile and-a must in plantation wood-nimble. "And their ground speed is good. With some of the other machines, you could finish one row and it would be a slow crawl to get around to the next row."
Although the company has been using mechanical harvesting equipment since 1989, Ritchie notes that it had been proving harder each year to find cutters, which was another reason to switch over entirely to mechanized harvesting. At any time they might have had to have up 50 cutters on call to cut timber. Their availability was sometimes not ideal, which could have an impact on wood flow. "We have to keep the wood moving. For example, in the summer the red pine can't be cut ahead because it will turn black so quickly. It discolours with the high humidity and moisture content." Their harvesting system could see the wood cut at noon on one day and be in the mill yard the following morning. Added to the high moisture content of the wood is the closed in site of the mill. "Our yard is not very good for this. It's damp ground and it seems to hold the humidity."
But with the recent purchase of the family land next door, he wants to widen out the yard and get more ventilation through the site. Following the harvesting machines in the bush is a Fabtek 244 forwarder and a Timberjack 230 forwarder. Back at the mill, the company has a Timberjack 230A and John Deere 544G for moving logs around the yard. In this area of southern Ontario, there is not much in the way of Crown land and, as result, there are no Sustainable Forest Licences.
As a result, finding wood is always a scramble, says Ritchie. "We've got no cutting licence and that's a sore spot with me. All these operators can come down from the north and submit bids on the county wood, which is put out to tender." These northern mills have the ability to bid high on purchased wood since they already have relatively inexpensive wood through cutting rights up north. Ritchie said he would be happy if they could even get a third of their mill requirements on a long-term commitment. "One thing that has helped us is that we have developed a good name locally so we do a lot of the private wood around here.
We get people contacting us all the time to cut their wood." A lot of this business is still done with a handshake-when it comes to paperwork, they might make notes on what is expected to be done, writing down the details on a piece of paper on the truck hood. Over the years, while the numbers fluctuate, about 40 per cent of their timber comes from private woodlots, with 60 per cent from Simcoe and Dufferin counties. Simcoe County has one of the largest municipally owned forests in Ontario, with more than 27,000 acres. Tracts range in size from seven acres to 3,500 acres and are distributed throughout the county. Tree age varies, from newly planted seedlings to over 300-year-old hemlock and white cedar. While it may be a challenge to find wood, Ritchie said there is actually more wood in this area of Ontario now than there was 50 years ago.
Acreages that had been used as marginal farmland have now grown back to forests. In a tour of operations, Ritchie points out a number of former farms that are now growing trees. "Ground that was no good for farming is getting back into the hardwood." But being so close to the growing urban areas-such as Barrie and Toronto- brings the threat of further development and the loss of forestland. "The challenge is to manage the growth and to keep the forest," says Ritchie.
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