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Achieving efficiencies
Facing tough industry conditions, Ontario’s Goulard Lumber continues to work hard to achieve operational efficiencies and get the most out of every piece of timber.

By Marek Krasuski  

The stacks of lumber lined in perfect formation along the bank of the Sturgeon River confirm Goulard Lumber’s enduring presence in Ontario’s forest industry. In light of current industry conditions—increasing energy costs, export taxes and a stronger Canadian dollar—that’s no small feat. Located in Sturgeon Falls, a small community of 5,000 situated between North Bay and Sudbury, Goulard Lumber has weathered such challenges through three generations of continuous operations, punctuated by market slumps and occasional wholesale destruction.                 

Established in 1948 by Hector Goulard and sons Romeo and Leo, the company has twice been razed to the ground by fires, once in 1974 and again in 1985. Today, Hector’s grandson, general manager Marc Goulard, carries on the family tradition, overseeing the harvesting and sawmilling operations and continually working to increase operational efficiencies. “In the old days we would take out only select species, but today we take everything out—white birch, balsam, spruce, jackpine and poplar,” says Goulard. Markets have been expanded to support the broader harvesting.                                   

Marc Goulard (left) is a third generation lumberman, continuing a tradition begun by his grandfather, Hector Goulard, and Hector’s sons Romeo and Leo. The trio established the mill in 1948 in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario.

As a comparatively small mill employing 75 people, Goulard Lumber does not produce sufficient volume to compete with the mega mills in construction grade material. Instead, it focuses on red and white pine boards. The best boards, ranging in length from six to 16 feet, are shipped to points in eastern Ontario and Montreal where they are later processed into finishing materials such as frames, mouldings and wall paneling.                                   

Milling white pine is time consuming and labour intensive, a costly process due to its specific properties. “White pine is just like hardwood with the best grade on the outside,” explains Goulard.

Logs are fed through a Nicholson 36-inch ring debarker, then placed into a Cardinal heavy duty 48-inch carriage that moves them over to two Comact 12-inch double-cut bandsaws. Once positioned, each log is cut and rotated four times, the blades slicing through the highest grade wood closest to the perimeter. “The bandsaws cut logs into one-inch to three-inch thick boards,” explains Goulard. “Then we’ll use a Comact 960 to resaw to get them down to one-inch thick planks. This helps relieve pressure from the bandsaw.”                                   

A Morbark edger squares off the variable widths which range from four to 12 inches, and the ends are then cut by a Morbark trimmer. Lower grades of wood—a rating of 4 or 5 on the numerical scale—are shipped to markets in the Toronto area where, Goulard notes, they are used for roofing material, cement forms, crating and other roughed-in wood products.                 

With the din of bandsaws, debarkers and other equipment in the background, a crew of workers mans the boardway where wood grades are assessed by the number of knots, then organized into selected piles according to grade, length and thickness. A dry kiln is available for finishing materials but most boards are air dried. The mill’s year-round logging and milling operations, capable of supplying steady inventories, are key to the enduring customer relations the company has nurtured over the years.                                   

“Our customers have been with us a long time, mainly because we can deliver what they want when they want it,” Goulard explains.                                                     

As operations begin to wind down in the late afternoon, Goulard surveys the many changes that have occurred during his decades-long career in the forest industry. He has been at it 36 years, and though he faces a steady diet of pressures both within the operations of the mill and the industry at large, his high energy level defines a man who loves his work.

Goulard Lumber employee Brian Roy mans the Morbark edger, squaring off the sides of boards to different widths ranging from four to 12 inches  

“It’s a different kind of life,” he muses, extolling the benefits of a profession marked by diversity. “I can be in the bush in the morning, overseeing operations at the mill in the afternoon, and speaking with customers in Toronto the next day. There’s never a dull moment.”                 

Still, increasing regulatory pressures demand a nimble adaptability for mill owners who expect to survive. In previous years, exclusive harvesting rights would simply be granted. “Today,” Goulard notes, “it’s much different. Now we are allowed only so much area to cut each of the different species.”                                   

Sufficient quantities of pine trees, culled from the townships in which Goulard Lumber holds timber rights, enable the company to specialize in pine, producing between 50,000 and 60,000 board feet per shift, with an annual production rate of 15 million board feet. The other species, accounting for more than half of total logging operations, are shipped to other mills.                 

And the company works to make use of everything. Two loads of woodchips, for example, are sent every day to Domtar Inc in Espanola, west of Sudbury, where they are processed into paper. Bark is used for garden mulch and the sawdust is sent to Panolam Industries in Huntsville to be used in the manufacture of finishing boards. “We used to use the furnace to burn sawdust and wood chips, but today we have to keep everything to remain competitive,” he notes.                                   

Goulard takes a cautious approach to the hiring and training of mill workers. The dangers of working close to industrial machinery that cuts through wood with the bite of a shark’s tooth are potentially lethal and, therefore, demand slow, guided training. Predictably, prospective workers who come to the plant with a resume of related experience will be given priority over novices. But untrained workers, when hired, need to be shepherded through the stages of the milling operations.                                   

“I’ll first put the workers on the edgers. This gives them the chance to be on constant watch over the functions of the saw,” which, he says requires the most training. But not everyone adapts to the more complicated machinery. “Even after a month of observing the workings of the saw, some guys just can’t catch on.”                                   

Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight that comes from misfortune—the two fires that burned two previous mills to the ground—Goulard assumes a balanced attitude to the issue of smoking, even in a prevailing climate of vitriolic opposition. Knowing full well that smokers will sneak off to steal a puff through an eight-hour shift, he allows smoking in strictly designated areas, a move designed to minimize the risk of fires ignited by errant cigarette butts in highly flammable conditions.                                                     

The Sturgeon River used to be the main source of transporting logs to the plant from 100 kilometers upstream. Those days, of course, have long since passed, rendered obsolete by technological advancements and vanquished by environmental regulations. But the surface of the adjacent yawning bay, blanketed with rolling humps of logs, still serves a vital function. Other mills lacking the benefit of a nearby river or lake install sprinkler systems. Here, during the summer months, the white and red pine logs are submerged in water to mitigate damage from infestations of bugs and to prevent them from staining.                                   

But this practice of extending the logs’ shelf-life does have its limits. “I’ll have another week left before I start milling those logs. If I leave it any longer, they will start to stain,” Goulard observes. Far out of sight, beyond the production activity at the mill, harvesting operations continue. Approximately 150,000 cubic metres of wood is cut each year; one third is sent to the mill, the remainder shipped elsewhere.                                   

Goulard draws striking contrasts between the logging operations of today and yesteryear. “In the old days you would have one jobber here and another at a different site. But it does not work that way anymore.”                                   

Today, the consolidation of machinery and manpower work in tandem to harvest 15 to 20 loads a day, each load measuring 40 tonnes. A crew of 35 workers is divided among three operations located 100 kilometres north of Sturgeon Falls—two at separate cutblocks and one at a roadbuilding site to prepare access for next year’s new location.                                   

Chainsaws and skidders cut and winch only pine logs from the bush. Tigercat bunchers—an 822 and 845B—harvest and fell the remaining species. Two Cat 535 skidders haul logs from bush to roadside.                                                     

A Risley 2000 Lim-mit delimber mounted on a Cat 320 adds more muscle to the harvesting operation, notable, he says, for its suitability in a mixed wood environment.                                   

Until now, the delimbed branches have been piled and burned, but Goulard foresees changes as synergies are established to transform branches into fuel. “There’s a lot of talk about using the stuff left in the bush for cogeneration plants,” he says, while anticipating future savings. The expense of piling and burning will morph into a revenue generator as waste is bought for conversion into biofuel.

A Volvo wheel loader (right) unloads another load of logs harvested from two cutblocks 100 kilometres north of Sturgeon Falls.  

With an eye to cost savings, Goulard prefers a mix of full-time employees and sub-contractors to harvest and transport fibre. Contractors cover the costs of their own machinery and are paid a set price for each tonne of timber, saving the company the added expense of monitoring their performance. Some of the money that Goulard Lumber and its competitors pay in Crown stumpage to the Ministry of Natural Resources is channeled back into the Nipissing Forest Resource Management Unit (NFRM), an organization that oversees the long-term health and productivity of the region. The NFRM replants annually in selected cutblocks, normally in clearcut regions. In contrast, other areas dominated by birch and poplar replant themselves. But Goulard’s staple diet of white and red pine necessitates a kinder, gentler harvesting approach. “We will harvest a third of a cutblock, then return in 15 years to cut another third. It’s a good method to ensure sustainable forest management,” he says.                                   

Goulard likens skidder and chainsaw activity in the bush to the tilling of a garden. The soil, he says, needs to be turned in order for fallen seeds to sink deep enough to germinate