November December, 2004
 

 

 

 

Weeds to Dollars

Unique plant converts juniper into valuable products and provides training and employment for workers with disabilities

By Alan Froome

Turning a noxious weed into dollars sounds too good to be true, but a facility in southern Oregon is doing just that, making and selling wood products under the brand name Noah’s Choice. The weed is western juniper, usually classified as having zero value. The REACH organization has turned it into a variety of products including furniture, lumber, paneling and much more. There is no shortage of juniper in the region; it has been estimated that there is ten times more today in eastern Oregon than 100 years ago. REACH (Restoration, Education and Community Habilitation) Inc. operates its wood products plant on a 20-acre site in Klamath Falls, Ore., and is unique in many ways. It was conceived as a non-profit way to provide training, employment and rehabilitation for disabled workers, but has also become a versatile wood products company in its own right. It is probably the only mill in North America that almost exclusively processes juniper. In addition, the mill is heated geo-thermally, using water pumped out of the ground from hot springs at 110 degrees.

Restoring Range Land
The harvesting of the trees is carried out in conjunction with another REACH project, the Ecosystem Workforce Training Program, which trains people in land and environment restoration. This often involves the removal of proliferating juniper from what was once grazing or range land and is now more like desert. Dennis Long, Manufacturing Director at REACH, calls it land restoration. “We practice selective logging after first doing an environmental assessment of the area. Some of the oldest growth trees are often left standing to provide habitat for birds and animals,” says Dennis.

The ex-Weyerhaeuser engineer, who started out at the Snoqualmie Falls, Wash. mill, is now often referred to as Mr. Juniper and has been with the project from the very beginning. He quoted the basic philosophy behind the REACH idea: “Working to sustain people, communities and the Earth.” The folks at REACH love to tell the story about a local rancher who noticed a stream on his land had dried up. When the REACH Eco Rangers removed most of the juniper trees on the slope above the area, the water started flowing once more. “Juniper trees have roots going out to five times the diameter of the tree and the long tap roots typically consume 50 gallons of water a day, which accounted for the rancher’s disappearing stream,” says Dennis. “In our case the tree-huggers hug the loggers not the trees!” Marc Kane, Executive Director of REACH, said the U.S. Forest Service first suggested REACH find ways to utilize juniper. They started out making shavings for animal bedding, which found a ready market with quarter horse owners who like the pleasant smell of the shavings and its bug repellent features. From this simple beginning, REACH branched out into other uses for the wood in solid or fiber form and is still finding more uses today. Initial funding for the REACH plant was in the form of grants from a variety of Oregon state departments, which were matched by the local Jeld-Wen Foundation.

In the following three years, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Ford Family Foundation also contributed to the running costs. Today REACH is almost self-sufficient and only relies on around 8 percent of its operating costs from state grants. Marc said they pay the workers a fair wage, and when the operation starts to turn a profit, the plan is to hire and train more workers with disabilities. Dennis estimates that the plant could be expanded from 70 workers to as many as 300 in the existing 110 sq.ft. building.

Juniper Products
Compared to other species, western juniper is more like a hardwood than softwood, and a recent study by Oregon State University indicated that untreated juniper fence posts could last up to 35 years. This gave rise to another Noah’s Choice product. Because the trees are crooked with extreme taper, larger diameters are required to allow 4” x 4” full dimension square posts to be cut from the heart of the tree. This is the main reason REACH recently installed a new Hurdle scragg saw line, allowing them to cut bigger logs and produce wider boards. REACH estimates that 40 percent of the trees are recovered as solid wood products and 60 percent as fiber. The lower grade lumber is used to make pallets and the higher grade used for appearance grade items like deck boards and tables. Since the recent mill upgrade and home show display, the first orders have already been received for floor and wall paneling to expand the range of products. Despite all the new products, most of the logs are only good as a source of fiber and lumber is secondary. Alot of the fiber is shipped to the Jeld-Wen where they process the fiber through a Digester, after which it is combined with resin and pressed into paneled door skins. REACH processes trees up to a maximum of 36” butt diameter and bucks them to multiples of up to four 9’ logs with its mobile merchandiser. It was initially envisaged that this machine and some of the other machines would be moved to the various logging sites, but now all the trees are trucked into the REACH log yard for processing.

Mill Expansion and Layout
In the spring of 2004, the REACH organization completed a million dollar expansion at the sawmill, enabling it to cut larger logs plus kiln dry and plane the lumber. It has taken six years to reach this level of capability and the improved mill now allows REACH to get into the lucrative flooring and paneling markets. The layout of the REACH plant is not the usual straight through sawmill flow plan because so many of the products made are labor intensive and require small teams of workers at different locations around the large building. Forklifts are used to move lumber from place to place. The recent REACH mill improvements included a mix of new and used equipment. The upgrade included the addition of a new Nyle dry kiln, a new Hurdle headrig, a used planer and a wide belt sander. After bucking and sorting in the mill yard, logs are now processed by one of three primary breakdown machines into cants, slabs or shavings.

The improved sawmill now comprises:
• Mobile log merchandiser, designed and built in 1998 by Walt McGee at 4MAC Industries, located in the log yard bucks all trees to nine-foot logs and sorts them three ways, large logs for the Hurdle scragg saw, smaller logs for the end-dogger scragg and the rest for the Jackson fiber machine
• New Hurdle Machine Works modular 36” 2 block log carriage and 60” circular scragg saw
• Older end-dogger headrig with scragg saw (shop-built), located next to the Hurdle unit
• Morbark Stac Trac 2000 cant crane/stacker, located downstream of the headrigs to lift and stack square fence posts and cants up to 12”x 12”
• Jackson Harvester machine that turns the uglier raw logs and blocks into shavings
• 4 ft. diameter x 20 ft. long rotary drum shavings dryer, with recycle system (shop-built)
• Black Clawson rotary screen
• Baker ABX horizontal band resaw with 12”x 12” capacity, kept busy cutting thin boards from cants and slabs
• Cemco model 2 Sander 30”wide belt, built in 1972, rebuilt by “retired” millwright Jack Harham at REACH, with a used Carothers Bros bag house and a new Grecon spark detection system
• New Nyle dry kiln, 30,000 bd.ft. capacity • Madison Planer/ Moulder, 1969 model
• Custom pallet assembly jigs
• Amadas Industries loose fill bagger, Premier Tech 4 stage baler and Verville 3 stage vertical baler

Dennis says he’s pleased with the new additions and plans to extend the building roof over the new Hurdle scragg saw and carriage, which he described as “Excellent value for money.” The new kiln is, to his knowledge, the only one in the country drying juniper. It operates on a seven-day cycle. Dennis plans to convert the kiln heating system to use the sites’ free geothermal energy to provide base heat for drying in the near future. At present REACH produces around 12,000 bd.ft. a day of lumber and 18 bone dry tons of fiber. Following the mill upgrade, the first batch of flooring was processed by Mill Run Hardwood Floors of Surrey, BC and sent back to REACH in May 2004, before forwarding to a U.S. flooring distributor. A total of 180 different products are now made at the plant, many of them completely finished and sold through distributors. There seem to be endless new uses for juniper. Recent orders have been received for the fiber to use in papermaking. Even the sawdust is now packaged for use as an industrial strength absorbent under the name of Super Sweep. REACH has found that a 1 cubic foot bag will absorb 4 gallons of liquid, much more than diatomite or clay products, and the first orders for Super Sweep have now been shipped. The enthusiasm of the REACH organization and its employees is infectious — the concept of removing a worthless weed and turning it into a range of valuable wood has turned out to be good for both the landscape and everyone involved.

Dennis Long Scaling Logs                  

Morbark Cant Crane/Stacker     

TW

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This page was last updated on Wednesday, December 29, 2004