December 2003 January 2004
Taking it all on
The husband and wife team of David and Sue Millson take it all on in the forest, from growing seedlings through to overseeing harvesting operations.
By Ray Ford
If it involves forestry, Sue and David Millson do it. From hatching to dispatching—from seed extraction and seedling production to timber harvesting—their Timmins, Ontario-based firms, Millson Forestry Service and Millson Timber Inc, provide a full range of silvicultural and timber harvesting services. “We want to see that harvesting isn’t done in isolation from silviculture, and each step leads naturally to the next,” says David, who met and married Sue while they were both forestry students at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University. “Harvesting is the first step in silviculture,” Sue adds. “Our dream is to follow the trees full circle.” Following the trees full circle means doing everything from cone collection and seed extraction to seedling production, site preparation and slash piling, reforestation, harvest, roadbuilding, log hauling, and forest management planning, all of it centred around the Romeo Malette forest in Northern Ontario.
It’s an unorthodox approach in an industry that is increasingly specialized, but it has allowed the Millsons to develop their regional niche and pursue a philosophy that promotes comprehensive forest management. “Most tree planting contractors only plant trees, and they plant them all across Canada,” David says. “We’re not that big, and we plant fairly close to home. We want to diversify and stay close to home. “Until now, every operation has been done in isolation from the next step, but our goal is to tie the whole thing together. When we do our harvest operations we keep in mind we’re also going to be planting in the same area. It makes your follow-up operations easier. For example, you don’t pull out bridges until you’re done planting, and you build logging roads so they’ll last a couple of years—and your silvicultural costs go down.” That big-picture approach has allowed the firm to grow to 40 full-time workers year round, with an additional 20 students and 80 tree planters during the summer.
While the actual cutting and skidding is subcontracted to Louken Logging Inc. of Timmins (see Louken story on page 30), Millson supports the subcontractor with its own processor, builds roads, and hauls logs with threeof its own trucks and another seven owner-operators. One advantage of working with contractors is it limits Millson’s investment in equipment, although the company still runs a fleet ranging from loader-equipped farm tractors to a Hitachi 270 and including more than a dozen pickup trucks. Structured as two firms, Millson Forestry Service employs all the staff and oversees tree production and silvicultural operations, while Millson Timber Inc acts as a holding company for the firm’s logging and road building equipment. The equipment line-up includes a Caterpillar D8N and John Deere 850 bulldozers, a Cat 320B excavator, two Cat log loaders, a 330LL for tree-length loading and a 320C for short wood, and the Hitachi 270 machine with a Waratah 620H head.
Three company-owned Kenworth tractors-trailers run logs to the Tembec mill in Timmins. While repairs in the field are made by two Timmins-based contractors, welder Simon Caza and mechanic/welder Dan Fleury, the company runs its own shop with a two-person staff headed by forest technician and shop foreman Ted Dunn. Operators fill in the machine hours on their daily time sheets and pump fuel for their machines at the start of every shift, checking in with the shop staff on their way to or from the fuel tanks.
Dunn tracks fleet maintenance on a white board in the shop where every vehicle is logged along with its engine type, serial number, date of last service, hours of last service, and hours for the next service. Detailed logs for each unit are kept in binders behind his desk. “I like this format because it’s right in front of your eyes all the time,” Dunn says, looking over the board. “We’re heavy into preventative maintenance here—we try to make things not happen when you’re two hours away in the bush.” Although Sue says the couple has always been interested in harvesting, it seemed a distant prospect back in 1980 when the two recent forestry graduates decided to create their own jobs. “When we graduated, jobs were hard to come by.
There was hardly anyone looking for one forester, let alone two,” David says. “I liked the idea of starting something on our own, so out of necessity that’s what we did.” The duo was fortunate to get into business at a time when the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was beginning to contract out work. They began winning contracts for surveys, timber cruising, and tree planting, and the work seemed to lead naturally into seedling production. “Tree planting is seasonal, so we were looking for something to fill in the year a little more, and we liked the idea of growing seedlings,” David says.
Beginning in 1982 with a second-hand greenhouse and 250,000 containerized tree seedlings, the operation has grown to six acres of greenhouse producing 13 million seedlings. Species range from pine, spruce, and balsam fir for major forestry companies including Abitibi-Consolidated, Domtar, and Tembec, to ornamentals such as blue spruce and cedars for southern Ontario nurseries, and firs for Christmas tree growers in Ontario and Michigan. Backed by in-house research on genetics fertilization, the Millsons believe they’re producing superior seedlings. The firm took on site preparation in 1984. “Having planted trees for a few years, we could see the need for better site prep. Now most of the areas we scarify we also plant,” David says. In 1996 the company added seed extraction and broke into logging a year later, buying a collection of aging machinery and the rights to about 250,000 cubic metres of wood from the Romeo Malette forest. Aside from the timber rights, the only survivor from that purchase is a venerable John Deere 850 bulldozer piloted by veteran road-builder Camille Faucher. “I think this is the third company he’s worked for on that tractor. He and that machine are one,” David says.
While Faucher sticks to the 850, the Millsons encourage their workers to be as flexible as possible. “We’re trying to get everybody thinking about the whole picture, but it’s a lot easier to get the silviculture people tuned into harvesting than the harvesting people tuned into silviculture,” Sue says. One incentive for the timber crews to move to the greenhouse is the opportunity for work during the spring breakup, when they have the choice of taking a layoff or shifting to the seedling side of the operation. “Once they’re here, just by working with the seedlings, they start learning about the other side of the business,” David says The flexibility means a log hauler can become a seedling shipper, or a road builder a greenhouse hand.
Logging foreman Mark Joron doubles as a tour conductor for public tours of the greenhouses and seed extraction plant. David Millson still holds his licence to drive buses and tractor trailers, so if he needs to, he can. In the bush, the processor operator selects the best white spruce cone trees, and piles the tops together so his wife can collect cones for Millson’s seed extraction plant. The Millsons hope they can inspire the same sort of transition in the companies they work for. “The companies tend to see silviculture as an expense. Harvest-ing is their bread and butter. We felt if we could get into harvesting, feeling the way we do about silviculture, it would ensure silviculture maintains the profile it should have within the harvesting operation,” Sue says. “Diversification has allowed us to keep a lot of high quality people, because they like the variety and the challenge,” continues Sue.
She’s especially proud that eldest daughter Jennifer, a recent graduate of Lakehead’s forestry program, has returned to work at the company. “That’s why our daughter has come back. She couldn’t see anywhere else where she could work and be involved in both harvesting and silviculture.” Offering a full range of services “does give us more security. It’s all dependent on forestry, but more than one aspect,” David says. “We’ve learned in our life as contractors that there’s no job security, and you learn to accept that. But you have to have enough faith in yourself and your organization that if you get up and go to work, work hard and do a good job, you’ll work today, and you’ll work tomorrow.”
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