By George Fullerton
Justin Thibault says that he enjoys the business—and the lifestyle—that his four machine contracting operation provides. And he came to logging after working at some other pursuits. Out of high school, Thibault studied to become a carpenter, and he also put in a good deal of time crewing on fishing boats on the Bay of Fundy.
While he gained good competency in both industries, he continued to think that working in the woods would suit him better. The opportunity to work full time in harvesting came when he heard that J. D. Irving was seeking operators in their Weymouth, Nova Scotia operations. The Weymouth operations were literally in the backyard of Thibault’s Doucetville home.
“I always liked mechanical things and machines, and when I heard that Irving was hiring operators, I applied and got a job operating a forwarder,” he says. “I enjoyed the forwarder work and being in the woods. When I was invited to try out working a feller buncher, I jumped at it, and again, I really liked operating and the maintenance work, equally.”
After Irving shut down Weymouth and began selling off woodlands, Thibault was unemployed but he received a small severance. Undeterred, Thibault took his severance and went out and bought a forestry trailer and hooked it on a Tree Farmer skidder, which was in the family.
In 2008, with the forest industry just beginning its extended economic depression, Thibault decided it was time to invest and build a mechanical harvesting operation.
“I started with practically nothing,” he explained. “It was either I make the harvesting business work or crash out.” He took out a mortgage on his family home to finance the purchase of an older Timberjack 230 forwarder with an Inchworm processor mounted on the front of the rack.
The Inchworm was an early processing head, designed and developed in Miramichi, New Brunswick. The Inchworm relies on chainsaw felled trees picked up with the forwarder loader. They are fed into the processor, which delimbs and bucks the stems in eight foot bolts. The loader then picks up the bolts and loads them on the back of the forwarder to move to roadside.
Thibault eventually bought two more Inchworms, which was one-third of the total manufactured production of Inchworms. He affectionately recalls the Inchworm as the poor man’s processor.
Thibault’s next upgrade was to a used Timberjack 608 processor. “It was a good move,” he says. “It provided me with a good deal of experience producing wood, and working very hard to keep it running. I eventually got a second 608 and another burned 608 for the head, and upgraded to a used John Deere 1510 forwarder.”
While the tail end of the first decade of the 2000’s was a challenging time to build a harvest contracting business, the dark period offered a tenuous opportunity for a start-up.
“An awful lot of harvest operators and contractors left Nova Scotia for work in the west and the oil boom,” says Thibault. “That actually opened an opportunity for people who wanted to work in forestry. The industry still needed wood—woodlot owners and mills still needed wood cut.” He says that if a contractor had the right equipment, good operators and watched the business closely, there was an opportunity to make a go of it.
“I figured if I had better machines, and was able to produce more consistently—as opposed to running old equipment and sacrificing production to repair time and costs—my business would benefit.”
Thibault decided to upgrade his equipment, to be able to generate better cash flow, which in turn would allow him to make payments on new gear. This theory led to purchasing a Tigercat 845 with Log Max 7000, from the Wajax Dartmouth shop in 2015.
“I had operated Tigercat feller bunchers and I knew their capacity and performance,” he says. “I knew they would produce. The Tigercat is a big carrier, and the Log Max is a big capable head, so we are able to handle big wood when we find it, and it still performs great in small diameter wood.
“I really like operating harvesters on tracks,” he adds. “I started on tracks and I know what to expect from them and how they work. When I get on tires, I am not as comfortable, I am not in my own element. I also really like the Tigercat cab. It is lean and relatively simple as far as gauges and switch arrays go. They just feel right.”
Working in rocky ground in a harvester with tracks is much different than operating a buncher in rock, he says. The harvesting allows the operator to build a brush mat that allows better travel, resulting in a lot less wear on tracks and undercarriage.
With the new harvester, Thibault was generating a lot more wood and realized he needed more consistent performance on the forwarder side—and he went shopping for more forwarder capacity.
“I like machine consistency,” he says. “I looked at a lot of the popular offerings, and came home with a new EcoLog 574C. I had a good hard look at Tigercat forwarders, but the EcoLog won out in the end. The EcoLog has some important similarities with Tigercat such as the Mercedes engines and Rexforth pumps.”
The first Tigercat harvester achieved Thibault’s expectations for increased production. He felt the industry had recovered to the point that even more harvesting capacity would generate more cash flow, and result in a better bottom line. When he decided on investing further, Wajax was able to set him up with a new Tigercat 855 and 7000 Log Max head, which arrived on the job site, this past June.
Thibault explained that he did not expect delivery quite so soon, but Wajax brought it out to the current operation overlooking the Bay of Fundy, near Annapolis Royal, and the old 608 went back to Wajax on the same float.
“I see contractors hanging on to their old harvesters when new ones come out because they think the trade offering is not sufficient,” he says. “Then they park the old machine, saying they will have a spare when they need it. But when they jump in it in a year or so, it won’t start and things are seized. I figure it’s best to make the deal on the new machine and move the old one—then I am further ahead.”
Dealers are just as important as the quality of machines and equipment, commented Thibault, about the Log Max 7000. “I know and I am secure that any part on that head is on a shelf in Moncton. I can make a phone call and know that the parts will arrive, and I can pick them up the next day.
“And Tigercat is made in Canada—and I know that with any part we need, I can have it within two days out of Ontario. But most parts come in just one day from Wajax’s Maritime shops.
“With the Ecolog, well, I am confident Log Max in Moncton will have the important parts on their shelf, same as they do for their head. On occasion, there might be a part that would have to come from Sweden.”
Good machines require good operators to remain productive, and Thibault is well satisfied he has a good team. He operates a harvester and his brother, Dayne, operates the second harvester. Cousin Ian Gillis operates the Ecolog forwarder, while Thibault’s father, Ricky, operates the John Deere 1510 forwarder. The harvesting team operates on a ten-hour day shift.
As his Thibault Timberlands Ltd. business has grown, Thibault found keeping the books and other administration chores, after a ten hour shift in the machine, was just too much. He said he had a hard look at the business figures and turned around and made a deal with his wife, Amy, to leave her daycare job and look after the books and other chores for the business. “It took a lot of pressure off me and she likes the work—it made a better quality life for both of us” said Thibault.
Thibault has brought more family along on his business venture. His uncle, Russell Melanson, has become the dedicated chain sharpener and bar straightener, along with taking on welding chores, cylinder packing and other mechanical work. Cousin Johnny Mahar is the dedicated trucker, along with a handful of regional truckers who also haul on an as-needed basis.
Thibault aims to produce in excess of 1000 tonnes per week, operating throughout southwest Nova Scotia harvesting private, freehold and Crown land for sawmills. Logs and studwood ship to Harry Freeman and Sons, studwood (on Crown land) goes to Ledwidge Lumber. Thibault also contracts with H. C. Haynes Limited to harvest their holdings and stumpage deals.
The continued depressed market for pulpwood in the province has led Justin to decline to produce any pulpwood on his operations.
“I have a good deal of pulpwood roadside that I have been sitting on for a long period,” he says. “It has dried out to the point that truckers don’t want to haul it because their revenue would be so low, if we could get in a market.
“I hope I might get that wood into a biomasss market. We can produce studwood down to a 3.5 inch top, while the spec for pulpwood is 3.0 inch. With the current pulpwood market conditions, we have decided we are better off not to produce pulpwood, and concentrate on getting as much in studwood as possible. Currently producing pulpwood generates negative revenue.”
While contracting provides challenges every day, Thibault is convinced that it is his place. He says with good gear, good operators and a good business strategy, he can remain successful and have a good quality of life.
On the Cover:
A Tigercat 870C buncher at work for D. Lind Contracting in B.C. In this issue, Logging and Sawmilling Journal looks at the situation the forest industry is facing with an increasingly older workforce, and where future equipment operators are going come from, beginning on page 4. (Cover photo courtesy of The Inland Group).
Where are the industry’s future employees going to come from?
There is growing concern in the forest industry about where future loggers and equipment operators are going to come from—and a B.C. logging company is taking action in its own backyard, working closely with a local high school to encourage students to look at the forest industry for their careers.
A new look for B.C.’s coastal forest industry
Forest management in B.C.’s Sea to Sky Corridor has taken on a new look, with majority-owned First Nations companies, such as Sqomish Forestry LP, now being large forestry players in the region.
Forest safety—by satellite
Satellite technology is transforming lone worker safety in the forest industry by ensuring no worker is ever without access to a vital line of communications in the remote locations so common to the industry.
Resolute ramps up Atikokan sawmill
Resolute Forest Products is ramping up its brand new sawmill near Atikokan, Ontario, part of the company’s overall investment of $150 million in the region, creating more than 200 jobs.
A family logging affair
Chris Weare of Nova Scotia’s R&C Weare Logging has readily stepped up to the plate—with the support of family—in running their logging business, a heckuva of a busy business affair with an equipment line-up that includes 13 harvesting machines, 10 tractor trailers hauling wood, and roadbuilding gear.
Alberta’s Spray Lake Sawmills has bounced back from the economic downturn, and is even stronger now thanks to consistent mill improvements—and it is looking to grow its treated wood program.
Getting ready for legal pot
The imminent legalization of marijuana—which could happen as early as this year—provides a good reason for forest companies of all sizes to prepare themselves with at least a well-defined and communicated substance abuse policy.
Building business-and a safe workplace
Ontario logger John Fleming has won two health and safety awards, and has found that in addition to helping build a safe workplace, the awards have helped build his business.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Jim Stirling on how B.C. is dealing with the spruce bark beetle on steroids, and possible containment strategies.