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The owners Northland Wood Products built the mill from the ground up, starting out with “homemade” equipment. Starting from Scratch
Northland Wood Products finds a profitable niche in Fairbanks, Alaska
The interior of Alaska is not for the faint of heart. With winter temperatures sometimes dropping below -50 degrees Fahrenheit, working outside and keeping equipment going can be a challenge for any operation. But twin brothers, Larry and Jerry Flodin, have managed to carve out a profitable niche in the heart of the northern town of Fairbanks.
Northland Wood Products was started by the Flodins back in the mid-60s, with partner Ron Rasmussen coming on board in 1975, and partners Allen Menaker and Jason Knoles joining the business in 1992 and 2000.
The Flodins truly built the mill from the ground up, starting with a “homemade” sawmill equipped with computer systems built and designed by Larry Flodin. Larry also built and designed much of the operating equipment as well.
Larry took innovation to a new level using materials on hand, including creating some of the sawmill parts from Alaska Pipeline pipe and using an original automation system that was made with relays recovered from the borough landfill.
They started with this “Fred Flintstone” computer (as Jerry calls it), but a fire in 1984 took them out for a few months, and they ended up installing a Siemen’s 545 programmable logic controller. Sales manager Jason Knoles states that they sell about 3 million board feet per year, with customers including DIYers, remote villages, government businesses, and commercial and residential contractors.
Leaning on Retail
Northland considers their retail business a vital part of the mill. According to operations manager Allen Menaker, “The sawmill is the heart of the operation, but retail is what keeps us working.”
It’s important to keep their inventory up and try to work about a year in advance. Because they keep a decent inventory, bigger companies can rely on them. Based on this, Northland is able to get a lot of oil-related business, working almost as a warehouse for oil companies as they meet their needs. By selling exclusively in Alaska, they have created a strong following for using Alaska products and supporting local businesses.
Piecing it Together
The mill sports a 1958 Newman M512 Planer, which was picked up at an auction back in the ‘80s and still runs fine. In addition to their hand-built computer systems, Larry Flodin designed and built the entire mill himself.
The homemade equipment includes a slasher saw and passavant 48” threeknife chipper, a two-saw trimmer with electronic programmable set works, and a log processor that processes firewood in addition to sawing logs.
They upgraded their feedworks a few years ago, going from a 50hp hydraulic unit, to a Jacobson Electric drive-to-drive carriage. The Jacobson has a 100hp AC electric motor, giving them better control and less downtime. There are no kilns, everything is air dried, and the average moisture content is under 15 percent. Anything sawed after August isn’t ready to plane until the following year. Roughly three years ago, they put in an edger-sorter, which cuts down on the need for additional manpower.
Harvesting in an Adverse Climate
Weather is always an issue, and the logging operation reflects that. Their current logging site is 40 miles from the mill, and sometimes just getting there can be difficult. About 50 percent of their timber sales are “winter only,” due to inaccessibility in summer.
Currently, all their sales are state sales and many of these areas are accessible only through wetlands and river crossings. They must wait until everything freezes up to get into these logging sites to harvest. While not considered the biggest part of their operation, they usually have two or three people out there.
They use a Timberjack 26/28 feller buncher and a Timberjack 660 log skidder, as well as a Clark 668C skidder. There is no processor in the woods, so they do the limbing and bucking by hand. They work in weather down to -30F any colder is too hard on the equipment.
They don’t do any cut-to-length logging, preferring the flexibility of having longer logs available. And while they try to contract out log hauling whenever possible, they do have their own log truck, a 1990 Kenworth W900B.
Sticking to Spruce
Northland started certified grade stamping in 1996. In 2005, the WWPA created a new species group known as “Alaska Spruce” and Northland is currently the only operation in the state of Alaska using that designation. Northland logs mainly white spruce, but the current sale they are working on also contains a lot of birch, which is being hauled in for firewood.
By keeping up a big inventory, larger companies can rely on Northland. At times Northland almost acts as a warehouse for oil-related businesses.
Waste is made into firewood to sell. In the mid-to-late ‘80s, the State of Alaska built an experimental road bed out of wood chips, in an effort to fight the permafrost that damages Alaska’s road systems every year. At that point Northland decided to put in a wood chipper. It was a good decision. During the past 6 years, the city of Fairbanks has bought all of Northland’s wood chips to compost sludge from the sewage treatment plant.
Northland intends to continue the growth and development of their retail side. They opened a store in the southcentral city of Anchorage a few years ago, and they ship product down to it regularly.
The mill has no kilns. Instead, everything is air dried. The average moisture content is 15 percent.
With continued focus on new innovations, as well as Northland’s commitment towards maintaining production despite inclement weather conditions, their company looks forward to a future of growth and development. When asked how he keeps coming up with ideas, Larry states “Whenever you are around any machinery, you start seeing how it could be improved. We set out to build the perfect sawmill.” With a deprecating laugh, he says, “Of course, now we know there’s no such thing!”