Winter loggers, summer sawmillers
By Marek Krasuski
In some situations, the size of lumber mills governs equipment decisions and daily operations in Northern Ontario. That, at least, is the case with Lahaie Lumber, a small logging operation and sawmill in the tourist town of Alban, 60 kilometres south of Sudbury. Specifically, space influences the choice of equipment.
Lahaie Lumber faces Highway 64, just minutes from Highway 69, Toronto’s main artery north to Sudbury. Its back border opens onto a quintessential northern landscape of verdant swaths of emerald green foliage and the meandering flow of the stunning Murdock River through the wilderness terrain. The natural confines of the yard, approximating five acres, were factored into Mike Lahaie’s decision to purchase what he euphemistically calls the “cherry picker.”
The German-made Liebherr 932 loader boasts an extended arm that provides a 35-foot reach, essential for maximizing storage space. Since Lahaie Lumber does not mill wood during the winter, inventory is left to grow with each day’s harvest. “From January to March we simply fill up the yard. The Liebherr has helped a lot because we can pile logs as high as 30 feet. It’s been an excellent machine for this purpose,” notes Lahaie, a fourth generation sawmill and logger operator.
Lahaie purchased the previously owned 1996 Liebherr five years ago. It had 10,000 hours on it at the time and continues to provide uninterrupted service for a mill that can’t afford much down time. “We haven’t touched it since we bought it, so it’s been great for us,” he says.
Had the Liebherr not been purchased, the log deck would have occupied a greater area, interfering with the operation of the mill once its two shifts run at full capacity.
Like many of its counterparts operating in the Sudbury Forest, Lahaie Lumber harvests red and white pine, spruce, poplar and some hardwood. Most of the pine and some of the spruce is processed in the mill, while other species are dedicated to Domtar’s Espanola pulp mill, along with wood chip inventories. The bark is shipped to the Gro-Bark plant in Caledon, Ontario while sawdust is sent to Panolam Industries in Huntsville, two hours southeast of Alban.
As a small mill, the firm operates on the basis that there is beauty in simplicity. Richard Filion, controller for the company through two generations of Lahaie operations, contrasts the attributes of a standard, mechanized operation at their site to the attempts by other mills to install computerized technologies. These are great for strategically placed mills with easy access to technologists, he suggests, but risky for more remote operations.
The Lahaie operation produces approximately 45,000 board feet per day during its two-shift operation, and is powered by a 20-year-old Morbark system that Mike Lahaie’s father, Leo, installed in 1987, and which continues to be lauded for its reliability. In addition to the circular saw system, the log deck, carriage, edger, trimmer and chipper were jointly designed by Mike’s father and Morbark to meet the mill’s particular requirements. A Morbark debarker was purchased separately.
Volvo L90 loaders transport logs to the log deck, then remove lumber from the mill site to the shipping yard.
“Our maintenance costs are very low and we hardly spend any money on major repairs. When we do need parts we’ll order them from the Cardinal mill equipment supplier in North Bay,” Mike notes in his appraisal of the equipment’s efficiency and cost effectiveness.
Lahaie Lumber is noted for two distinguishing hallmarks. Sawmill operations are suspended in the winter, and most of the mill workers morph into winter harvesters who cut wood from six neighbouring townships, as determined in the approved Ministry of Natural Resources five-year plan for the Sudbury District.
Lahaie Lumber’s winter harvest operation is contracted to Bernie Duvala sawyer during the sawmilling seasonwho depends on two John Deere 653 feller bunchers, three Deere grapple skidders and six cable skidders. Lahaie and Filion both credit the feller buncher for improving worker safety and accelerating the cutting and bunching processes, before the logs are hauled by the grapple skidders. Some pine stands, however, are cut with chain saws and brought to the landing site with cable skidders, also used to minimize environmental damage. The trees are then organized into piles with a Komatsu 120 wheel loader.
Lahaie Lumber owns and operates two slashers, a Hood 24000 and a Serco 270. The slashers cut trees into logs ranging in length from eight to 16 feet. Logs in excess of 16 feet are also harvested to meet special orders. Slashers load logs onto Western Star trucks4900FA and 4900SA seriesand a Ford L9000. An average load carries 40 metric tonnes of lumber or pulp wood.
The winter operations demand a full staff of 15 workers. Many of the sawmill workers become part of the winter harvest operation. The mill foreman and other workers become skidder operators; truckers become slasher operators and the sawyer becomes the contractoran excellent fit as the sawyer knows exactly which logs are best for milling and which should be dedicated to pulp production. Despite the worrying indications of a continued slump in the forest industry and the appreciation of the Canadian dollar against its American counterpart, Lahaie Lumber continues operationsit owes its survival in part to its compact size and adaptability. Forty per cent of Lahaie’s wood is milled into a variety of sizes of square timbers.
“The sale of beams is so vital to the operationthey help keep us alive during the rougher times,” notes Lahaie. Beams vary in size from three to 14 inches and range in length from eight to 24 feet. True North Log Homes and Four Seasons Log homes are its principal purchasers; much of the remaining lumber is sold to Murray Brothers Co. Lahaie Lumber is also nimble enough to sell on a small, local scale. “We have all types of people who will come in for a small truckload,” Lahaie continues. “We are the only company with square timbers in the region, so it gives us a bit of an edge.”
The mill is located near the French River and neighbouring Lake Nipissing, home to hundreds of cottage owners who rely on Lahaie for special orders. Lahaie cites a recent example, demonstrating the company’s agility in changing the pace and direction of production. “Recently a client asked for 23 8x16’s, 56 6x20’s and 38 8x24’s. We had five days to produce the order. The money was good, but unfortunately regular operations had to be disrupted.” Despite such interruptions, Lahaie Lumber’s capacity to adapt to consumer demands helps to raise their profile in the region.
Lahaie Lumber has survived four generations of changes governed by new technologies, market forces and government regulation, and is poised to continue a strategy of being adaptable. Some of the challenges it faces are industry specific, notable with the concerns shared by Filion. “We are hoping that market conditions will improve after the next presidential election,” he notes, referring to past softwood lumber disputes with the United States and the appreciation of the Canadian dollar.
Escalating costs also ravage the bottom line. Insurance premiums have risen significantly, even in the absence of any claims. “That’s for exactly the same coverage,” Filion complains, “and with no explanation for the increase.” Lahaie also invests $70,000 in fees to the Vermillion Forest Management Company, a consortium of eight lumber operations that oversees harvesting on Crown lands in the Sudbury Forest.
Challenges spring from Lahaie’s location. Hiring and retaining staff are difficult in this booming mining region where workers opt for soaring wages and a platinum benefits package with mining companies. Compounding the need to adapt even further is Lahaie’s proximity to the expansion of Highway 69 from a two-lane highway to a new four-lane expressway from Toronto to Sudbury. As granite rises are sliced into straight, flat roadbeds, massive construction machinery literally reconfigures the topography of the northern wilderness and thus complicates access to future harvests.
The end result is there will be a need to build new roads. “It’s hoped the government will help cover the costs of whatever additional roads need to be built,” says Lahaie.
Nonetheless, adaptability, evidenced in Mike Lahaie’s flexible response to changing conditions, is a fitting postscript to a multi-generational company that has withstood the test of time.