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Ledwidge weathers the storm
Nova Scotia’s Ledwidge Lumber has weathered elements of the Perfect Storm—including a hurricane and a blizzard—in years past. That’s behind them, though, and the long-established lumber producer is now well-prepared for the recovery, with a modern sawmill equipment set-up.
By George Fullerton
Jim Ledwidge carefully chooses his words when he reflects on the series of misfortunes and struggles their family-owned mill has witnessed in the past number of years, including the recent downturn.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen the lumber business in my lifetime, but I think we are seeing a little bit of light at the end of that tunnel,” he says.
The sequence of adverse events Ledwidge refers to begins with the discovery of the brown spruce longhorned beetle at Halifax in 1999, that led to creation of a regulated area which restricted the movement and processing of logs in a specified region, which included the local wood basket for Ledwidge Lumber.
In September 2003, Hurricane Juan made landfall in Halifax County and cut a swath across Nova Scotia, directly through the extended Ledwidge woodbasket—as well as immediately impacting about eighty per cent of Ledwidge’s 17,000 acres of woodlands.
In February 2004, a major blizzard dubbed White Juan dumped a metre of snow—along with severe winds—which further damaged the hurricane-weakened stands and halted salvage and harvest
Referring to the downturn in the U.S. market, Jim said: “We have done everything we could think of to keep ourselves competitive and operating. We cut shifts, we held off on equipment purchases, we even sold woodland. It has been an extremely difficult time for us.”
The Ledwidge sawmill business was established by the family patriarch Laurie, beginning with a shingle mill on the family farm in Halifax County, Nova Scotia in 1943. After working with a series of portable sawmills around the region, he eventually parked his mill on the current site at Enfield, east of Halifax. After a fire hit in 1988, the current mill was built.
There are now three generations of Ledwidge’s at work in the mill and woodlands operation.
Now in his eighties, Laurie has turned the day to day management tasks over to his sons, Jim (woodlands manager and vice president) and Doug (general manager and president). Laurie still arrives daily at the mill offices, keeping an eye on the business and offering his wisdom on daily issues.
As he approached adulthood, Jim’s interest leaned toward the woodlands side and he began building up Treeline Trucking, delivering logs to the Ledwidge mill. Since taking on more management responsibilities, the Treeline fleet has gone from more than a dozen trucks to just a single unit, and the mill has come to rely on owner-operator trucks.
Jim’s three children currently work in the family business: Kimberly as financial controller, Cassie serving as communications co-ordinator, and Kyle working in a supervisory role in the woodlands operations, including planning road construction and operating the road building equipment.
Now in their thirties, the third generation of Ledwidges have an in-depth knowledge of equipment, logistics and management of the operation. As an example, when Cassie was asked when the bin sorter system was installed, she responded, “let’s see, I can remember when I was in grade eight, my Saturday job was to climb in under to clean it out, so it has been well over ten years ….”
While Ledwidge has weathered some serious challenges through recent years, there have also been some highlights and some recent signs of optimism.
In 2008, Ledwidge Lumber collaborated with the Canadian Woodlands Forum to host the large DEMO 2008 show, North America’s biggest logging equipment-live in woods, forestry show. The Ledwidge’s were able to provide a readily accessible piece of woods with good timber near the Halifax International Airport. They also worked to build a loop road and establish exhibit sites and then provided excellent hospitality to exhibitors and visitors, contributing to a highly successful DEMO.
A more recent and more important optimistic note is the general improvement in lumber prices and housing starts in the U.S.
The markets have brought some optimistic signals, said Doug Ledwidge. “We plan to continue to produce efficiently and maintain our high quality standards as we recover from this deep recession that has lasted much longer than we would’ve liked.”
Doug’s outlook has grown even more positive of late. “We continue to be encouraged by significant improvements in markets and we fully expect the recovery to continue. The numbers read fairly good, although the pulp chip market in Nova Scotia remains contentious.”
He noted the closure of the Bowater pulp mill (in western Nova Scotia) had left the province with one operating pulp mill at Abercrombie Point, although there is a pretty good outlook for the Port Hawkesbury pulp mill.
Laurie went on to explain that in years past when the Ledwidge mill was sawing long lumber, the lumber sold into the domestic market as well as the U.S. and overseas markets. Typically, when one market slowed down, other markets would pick up and level things out pretty well.
To illustrate just how tough times have been for the industry, Laurie pointed out that in 2004, Nova Scotia had 43 sawmills that were equipped with debarkers and chippers, and only a small number of those mills are still operating.
Reflecting on instability in the pulp chip market, Laurie recalled back in the 1960s when he started shipping pulp chips by rail to the Bowater mill at Liverpool, the chip cheque provided a welcome income ‘bonus’. He said that today, that chip income is a critical revenue stream for sawmill operations. “Sawmills cannot operate without that chip revenue stream—our forest industry absolutely needs pulp mills.”
Since his official retirement, Laurie’s daily routine includes a visit to the woodlands operations and to check in with Kyle to see how road building and maintenance projects are progressing. The road building equipment line-up includes a D4 dozer, Cat road grader and a John Deere excavator. Ledwidge contracts harvesting on their woodlands to Frank Weir, whose equipment team includes a feller buncher, three harvesters and two Fabtek forwarders.
On the subject of forest management, Laurie explained that he is now seeing studwood harvested from stands he had harvested in his younger years, adding that good silviculture practices make the logs from this rotation much better than the first cut.
The Ledwidge sawmill currently employs seventy people in single shift operation, although the mill is designed to produce 100 million board feet annually, on a double shift schedule. The mill processes spruce and balsam fir (eight foot) logs, and relies on suppliers from across Nova Scotia, as well as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Wood supply breakdown is 60 per cent from industrial operations, 30 per cent from small private woodlot, eight per cent Ledwidge holdings and two per cent Crown. Industrial wood is purchased by mass scale, while private wood is stick scaled. Ledwidge considers the Maritime Provinces as their wood basket.
In the wood yard, a Fuchs 460 loader offloads trucks and feeds the mill. Logs enter the mill, feeding two Carbotech double rotor debarkers. Debarked logs are scanned with Prologic technology and then sorted into six sort bins that batch logs for two HewSaw saw lines.
The original R200, installed in 1997, is served with four bins with one 2 x 3, and up to two 2 x 4, sawing patterns.
The newer HewSaw R200 Plus was commissioned in 2004 and it saws from two 2 x 4 up to two 2 x 6 on a scan and set basis. The most common saw pattern at Ledwidge is two 2 x 4, and as result these logs are directed to either saw to balance log flow. More difficult (crook, sweep) logs go to the R200 Plus, which has advanced optimization and precision log turning capacities. Together the two lines average 55 eight-foot logs per minute.
Lumber from both saws feed into a single surge deck and grade station where fir is marked in addition to deflecting out low-grade. Passing through an Autolog scanner, lumber is delivered to a sixty-three bin sort according to species and size. Six bins serve as floaters to handle high volume lumber sizes. Trim tolerance for green lumber is 3/4 to 2 inch, stacker technology is Carbotech.
The current kiln system began in 1993, with additions through to 2008, with current capacity sitting at 450,000 board feet. Kilns are two Wellons track type units, with capacity of 250,000 board feet, and a COE package-loaded unit, with capacity of 200,000 board feet.
Kiln energy is supplied through a Wellons biomass boiler that is supplied exclusively with planer shavings.
The planer operation centres around a Yates A20 12, based on single shift operation, with additional shifts as required to meet the production schedule. The trim and stacker technology is by Carbotech. The manual wrap system also relies on a Carbotech wrap dispenser and cutter.
In addition to the Fuchs loader, the yard equipment includes two John Deere 344 wheel loaders and a Deere 544 on bark loading duty.
Bark is sold as hog fuel to the Brooklyn power plant in Liverpool, as well as a local landscape company serving the Halifax region. They have to be Canadian Food Inspection Agency certified to receive and handle bark, as per brown spruce longhorned beetle regulations.
Oversize wood is sent to other sawmills. As a regulated product in the brown spruce longhorned beetle exclusion zone, it requires an official certificate to move logs to a collaborating certified facility. Certificates mean extra administrative effort, paperwork and added costs.
Sawdust is sold for pellet manufacturing, and pulp chips are sold to Northern Pulp at Abercrombie Point. Treeline Trucking contracts chip transport to a broker.
Ledwidge’s primary lumber markets are in the United States and it relies on truck delivery. About 20 per cent of the current production is sold in the domestic Nova Scotia market, and 10 per cent is exported overseas to markets in the Middle East and Europe.
Cassie explained that Ledwidge continually investigates new market opportunities that come along, adding that they enjoy a very positive partnership with their broker, Eacan Timber.
Reflecting on nearly seven decades experience in the lumber industry, Laurie commented on the extended industry downturn, saying that downturns in the past would typically last about three years, then the industry would bounce back.
“This one has lasted a lot longer and it has been very tough for us, but now we see things improving, and a recent Weyerhaeuser report provided a very positive outlook and hinted that we may see a shortage of lumber.”
While Ledwidge Lumber has witnessed some very serious challenges over the past decade, it’s clear they maintain a positive and professional attitude toward the family business that will carry them forward and achieve success as the lumber business turns around.
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