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Eugene Oregon’s Hairy Dog Thinning rescues overgrown tree farms

By Bob Bruce

Take a spin through almost any rural area in the Pacific Northwest and you are practically guaranteed to run across at least one (and maybe quite a few) nasty-looking, overgrown ex-tree nurseries or ex- Christmas tree farms. You’ve seen ‘em — big dark clumps of spindly branchcovered stems that look like bottle brushes, all packed so close together you can barely walk between them.

Larry Donohoe has seen such out-ofcontrol plots many times. Not only that, he owns one — 150 acres of over-grown tree farm about 12 miles outside of Eugene, Ore. He didn’t plan it that way, but as he points out, nobody ever does — it just sort of sneaks up on you until one day, you’re scratching your head thinking to yourself that what you’ve got is a field full of raggedy-looking trees too big for Christmas trees, too small to sell for timber, and too valuable to just bulldoze over and burn.

Fortunately for Larry, he happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time to take this common problem and turn it into an opportunity. And what’s more, the solution he came up with was a win-win for everybody. Like a lot of agribusiness professionals, Larry has tried a little bit of everything over the years to keep the cash flow steady and the bills paid, in the face of unpredictable markets and rising costs. As he explains,

Larry Donohoe stands next to his JCB 8060 miniexcavator with Arbro Stroke 410 processor and stroke delimber head.   

“Through the years we’ve done Christmas trees, cattle, hogs, turkeys, chickens, rabbits. But the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is the forestry- related stuff because you don’t have to chore that. You get it in the ground, and it gets growing. I don’t know how many thousand cord of firewood I’ve cut and sold. I’ve logged our own ground, planted it back, rehabbed our land three to five acres at a time, and done a little work for others.”

The Right Idea
Larry also works as a sales consultant for Brim Tractor Company out of Salem, Ore. It was when he went out on a sales call regarding a JCB mini-excavator that he had his “aha moment”. The contractor had a larger excavator with a processor head attached, but Larry immediately saw the benefits of doing the same thing in a smaller more maneuverable footprint.

Before and after — the unthinned stand on the right and the thinned stand on the left.

“There’s thousands of acres of overgrown Christmas tree fields that people planted and then figured out pretty quick that they’re a lot more work than it looks like, and the market is a lot more aggressive than they realized, so they just walked away,” he says.

In fact, his own 150 acre stand was 15 years old, heavily overgrown, and in serious need of a good thinning. He figured that a small excavator with an appropriately- sized processor head (as long as both components were sturdy enough to handle the job requirements) would be just the ticket to clean up not only his woodlot but a lot of others just like his.

Assembling the Right Equipment
The problem was nobody in the area had such a piece of equipment available to buy, rent, or borrow. So he built his own. Actually, he assembled it. He began with a JCB 8060 midi-excavator. Sure, his company sold JCB equipment, but he did some comparisons and decided it was the best choice no matter what. At about 13,000 pounds heavy, the 8060 puts out about 58 horsepower from its Isuzu power plant. It features minimal tail swing for easy maneuvering in tight spaces, has a full 360 degree cab swing, and 120 degree independent boom swing. It also has a lot of strength for its size, delivering almost 11,000 pounds of bucket breakout force and close to 6,000 pounds of dipper force. In a timber-falling situation that translates into plenty of what it takes to lift, maneuver, and place the cut stems.

On the end of the boom he attached a Arbro Stroke 410 processor and stroke delimber head. Hakmet, which sells the 410, is is a Finnish company that has for decades been designing and selling tree harvesting equipment especially well-suited to the smaller diameter stems and fragile tundra-like ground typically found in Scandinavia.

Doing it Right
Getting into a dense stand of Christmas trees and successfully thinning it without completely ruining the “leave trees” is only the beginning. “Cutting is just part of it,” says Larry. “You have to be able to recover the timber, or it’s really an expensive operation.”
To solve that problem, he took a 4-wheel drive John Deere 5520 tractor and armored the bottom of it, then hooked it up to a Kesla/Patu 8HD trailer which in turn supports a Kesla/Patu 655 log loader.

The combination, he says, is ideal for playing pick-up-sticks with small diameter timber.
“The Scandinavians are the experts in small log handling because their growing season is so short. The trailer has 4-wheel disc brakes and it articulates so you can kind of snake down through the trees or back again. It also has hydraulic drive assist, meaning in muddy ground it will turn the back wheels. The loader can reach out 22 feet in any direction and pick up the wood.”

According to Larry, his equipment combination results in a winning solution that is perfectly placed between the overwhelmingly difficult alternative of doing the thinning by hand, and the economically impractical (and in many cases actually physically impossible) alternative of bringing in a full-sized processor.

“Now we’re able to cut it off the stump, get it on the ground, stroke the branches off, measure it, cut the top off, all from the comfort and safety of the cab. Then you kick it out on the ground, come along behind the excavator with the tractor/loader, traveling on your own slash so you lessen your compaction issue and don’t leave a footprint, recover the butt logs, and smash the slash down to nourish the soil.”

The Right Buyer
In general, recovered logs are sold for pulp rather than any other use. “It’s not so much a logging endeavor as it is stand management, says Larry. “Small woodlot owners, like those who belong to the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, or another fine organization called Women Owning Woodlands, are educating themselves, or have been educated, on the value of managing your timber or it can go backwards on you. It’s like weeding carrots — if you want big carrots you’ve got to weed the garden.”

And while Larry’s equipment lets the landowner recover the residual value of the thinned trees, that does not necessarily mean the sale of the pulp will always be enough to completely offset the cost of removal. “I try to come up with a fair hourly rate because a lot of people, when you start talking about doing the job for so much per ton, or so much a thousand, their eyes roll back and glaze over because they don’t know what you’re talking about.”

And putting it on a per-tree basis doesn’t work either. “If I say to them, for example ‘This tree is worth $20,’ then their eyes immediately go to every stem they can see, and they’re adding up all those $20, but they’re not factoring in you’ve got to log it, you’ve got to load it, you’ve got to ship it, and all the rest. So if they go out there and count their stumps, when I settle with them they think I screwed them.”

Fortunately for Larry and his customers, his equipment and operating costs are low enough, and the market price for pulp has been high enough, that in most cases it will be a wash costwise.

Larry says what he does is stand management. Most of the logs are sold for pulp rather than used for other purposes.

But even if it’s not a total wash, he says, the landowner comes out ahead in the long run and they pretty much all seem to realize that. “Most of what we work in is at that point of, if they don’t thin, they’re going to be losing money regardless of what the market is today. When I finish, the landowner gets a stand that was almost stagnant, but is now released.”

That’s a benefit any landowner can appreciate. “When I started thinning on my own ground, in the first week I picked up two jobs that I could see from the top of the hill. It’s kind of like Tom Sawyer and painting the fence — people see it and come up and say ‘Hey, I’ve got some of that, will you look at it?’”

For a guy who’s tried just about ev erything from cows to chickens, this might seem like a golden opportunity — thousands of acres of demand and so far just Larry providing the supply.
“Obviously, I’m pretty passionate about it. But it’s not like I’ve invented the mousetrap. You’re always going to need to manage young stands, and I’m trying to get people to look at this as a viable niche for long term employment.”