Profile - Prairie Logging
NProfile of Saskatchewan Logger/Sawmiller Tobin Lake Farms
By Tony Kryzanowski
W hen the grain is in the bin, a lot of prairie farmers spend their downtime chatting with their buddies at the local coffee shop to relieve the boredom that follows the harvest. Rick Morris, a farmer in Carrot River, Saskatchewan takes a different approach. Morris puts his downtime to good use operating a local sawmill, but his reasons for doing so are very similar. "We have a bunk house out there and it's very comfortable," says Morris, referring to the couple of months he and his crew spend cutting enough white spruce to produce 500,000 board feet of dimension lumber each year. "We're always talking about farming or whatever, because most of us are farmers. It's like going to the coffee shop in town." For the past 10 years, Morris has rented a sawmill and planer mill from his retired father-in-law and in the process has become something of a local hero. Many farmers must now work off the farm to provide themselves with supplemental income. Operating at full production with two shifts, the Tobin Lake Farms sawmill employs as many as 22 local residents on a seasonal basis.
The off season employment provided by the sawmill sometimes means the difference between having the cash to afford farm input costs and having to go hat in hand to the local bank for a loan. The cost of servicing debt is one major reason why so many Canadian farmers are throwing in the towel. With a family consisting of five children, including two sets of twins, the sawmill income has also meant a lot to Morris over the past decade. Given that grain prices are at one of their lowest levels since the Depression, it's especially made a difference this year. Morris says that as long as he can sell his lumber, having the sawmill operation to fall back on is a bit like an insurance policy on his farm business. He seeds 2,000 acres annually. "We aren't officially done farming yet this year," he said this past fall. "But if it doesn't get any better, it is going to be quite a loss. Hopefully, the sawmill is going to keep our head above water as long as we can keep moving our product." Ideally, he says it would make sense to market the wood through setting up their own lumberyard in town, but he says there are just so many irons he can keep in the fire. Morris's sawmill represents a snapshot of Canadiana, as the combination of farming and a seasonal sawmill has represented a way of life for decades in many parts of the country. At one time, it was as regular as the changing of the seasons.
When harvest was over and the frost was in the ground, it was time to fire up the sawmill. But as Canadians began migrating to cities and timber resources were allocated to large forest companies, smaller local sawmills became somewhat of an endangered species. The province of Saskatchewan, which has only recently realized the full economic potential of its northern forests, may be one of the last bastions of the independent, seasonal sawmill owner. Morris remembers his father telling stories about how he worked for The Pas Lumber Company, who owned timber rights in north eastern Saskatchewan back in the 1930s. The forest industry has a long, but somewhat technologically underdeveloped history in the region. That doesn't mean that it isn't viable, however. It is only through the ingenuity of individuals like Morris- who have kept antiquated equipment operating- that they are still able to produce dimension lumber suitable for the market. You won't get an argument from Morris about the age of his sawmill. The backbone is a 48inch circular saw with 11/32nds teeth. The most important improvement Morris has made is installation of hydraulic setworks to the carriage. "That really speeds things up, and that really speeds up the canter too," he says. "The sawyer is not fighting with the log when he's turning it." He has also made significant improvements to the board edger. "There was just a little old two-inch edger in there," says Morris, "and we moved it up to a four inch, which helped us when we did some of the smaller trees. We've made it safer in places too, so guys aren't subject to getting hurt somewhere along the line ."
He is very conscious that many of his employees also have farms to operate and families to support. Morris conducted a significant rehabilitation of the planer mill that sat idle for a couple of years. This included placing it on a cement pad and putting a roof over it. He also obtained his lumber grade-stamping certificate. The harvesting operation begins about the middle of November and under ideal conditions is completed in about five weeks. Their timber rights are on Crown land about 40 kilometres from home and Morris expects that they have enough timber to last them for another six years. He hand fells the trees down to sizes of 7 1/2 inches at eye level. The logs are bucked in the bush and then attached to a line skidder for transport to roadside. They hire a trucker from Carrot River to haul the logs to the sawmill site. By February, the sawmill kicks into production and they manufacture anything from 2x4 to 2x12 in eight to 16foot lengths. They also produce a small amount of 1x6 and 1x8. The majority of their production is in 2x8, which is the most efficient use of their wood supply and is also the easiest product to sell. The lumber is all air dried on site. They use a broker in Winnipeg who sells the majority of their lumber into the American Midwest. In the spring, the Tobin Lake Farms sawmill starts up its planer mill, but they like to have all sawmill operations wrapped up by April 1. By then, their farmer employees are hearing the call of the land.
Their biggest and most recent investment has been in a nearly new Volvo front-end loader. Morris says he spent a lot of time shopping around; checking out used equipment first, but could not find anything to his liking. He then discovered this Volvo loader, which only had 600 hours on it. It cost only slightly more than a competitor's loader with 14,000 hours on it. Since then, he's found that the loader is well suited to his sawmill and handles better. While the Tobin Lake Farms sawmill equipment is still viable, Morris realizes that its days may be numbered. He is shopping for something newer. "The sawmill is getting old and is so labour intensive," he says. "I'd like to look at something that is not quite so labor intensive and does a neater job of sawing with not as much waste. That will hopefully take place. I've been looking around for a couple of years." In spite of the decline in the number of small independents across the country, it's not time to write the epitaph for all of these operations. Recent advances in smaller, portable sawmills may inject some new energy back into the small sawmill market. Smaller independents such as Loyalist Forest Products near Kingston, Ontario, which sells 70 per cent of its product over the Internet, Lola Lumber in Red Deer, Alberta, and Nagy Land and Lumber in Mistatim, Saskatchewan, have already proven that tapping into the niche lumber market can be profitable. The keys are an aggressive marketing approach and networking.
Like so many other smaller sawmill owners, Morris believes that the long-term viability of his operation may lie in his ability to sell into niche markets, such as tongue and groove lumber, and producing lumber from hardwoods. Rather than make a huge investment, however, Morris intends to take it one step at a time and adapt newer equipment into what is operated efficiently at the current sawmill. And while it may be old, it is familiar, functional-and paid for. Like farming, he knows that it's the input costs that can quickly turn a viable operation into a money loser. But for him, it will never be purely a case of operating the sawmill because of its moneymaking potential. "I think I'll be doing this in 10 years," he says. "I still do my own falling. I like it because of the exercise and I know what I have to knock down instead of trying to rely on someone else who doesn't know quite which one to take. I don't mind the bush work at all." Morris still visits the coffee shop in town once in a while, but mostly to enjoy a good plate of Chinese food. He prefers to talk about farming with his buddies over lunch at the bunkhouse, after working up a good sweat at the end of a chainsaw.
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