By Paul MacDonald
One of the most modern softwood sawmills in North America recently started up in the U.S. South, in Louisiana—and it has a strong Canadian connection, both through its ownership and the equipment being used in the sawmill.
Hunt Forest Products of Ruston, Louisiana, teamed up with Tolko Industries of Vernon, B.C., to form LaSalle Lumber Company, which will own and operate the brand new state-of-the-art $115 million (U.S.) sawmill. The mill is located about 270 kilometres northwest of Baton Rouge, in the central Louisiana town of Urania, and start-up operations began in January.
Construction of the new mill began in April 2018, so building the new facility has been on a fast track. The sawmill will employ 110 people when it is operating at its full capacity of 200 million board feet annually. It will take in about 850,000 tons of southern yellow pine from the surrounding region to produce that amount of lumber.
“We’re excited to be bringing a high-tech sawmill, and the skilled jobs it will provide, to central Louisiana, and to provide a local outlet for the massive inventory of southern yellow pine that exists in this region,” said James D. Hunt, co-owner of the mill, and vice-chairman of Hunt Forest Products.
“We believe this is the right project, in the right place, at the right time,” Hunt said. “This will boost the local economy, bring a new generation of sawmill technology to our state, and provide a much-needed outlet for central Louisiana timber. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
As mentioned, the sawmill project is a joint venture between Hunt Forest Products and Tolko Industries, the 60-year-old family-owned British Columbia-based forest company. Tolko produces a wide range of forest products for customers around the world from its six Canadian sawmills. Owned by the Thorlakson Family, Tolko has a 50 percent share in the mill, which will be managed and operated by Hunt Forest Products on a day-to-day basis.
“This is our first venture into the U.S.,” said Brad Thorlakson, Tolko president and CEO, ”and we are thrilled to be in Louisiana with Hunt Forest Products, a family-owned company like ours, and one that has played a vital, reliable role in this state’s forestry industry for more than a century.”
Urania Mayor Terri Corley said LaSalle Lumber Company worked closely with community officials to co-ordinate services for the new mill, and to identify and address potential infrastructure issues. She noted the town’s great forest industry heritage.
“The forest industry is what led Henry Hardtner to establish the town of Urania almost 130 years ago, so we’re very pleased to be working with Hunt Forest Products and Tolko to bring LaSalle Lumber—a new economic engine—to our community,” Corley said.
LaSalle is the name of the parish where the town and the mill are located, and it’s in the heart of Louisiana’s $11 billion forest products industry.
Utility company Entergy Louisiana will support the new facility as an economic development partner, supplying low-cost electricity, adding yet another competitive advantage.
The Canadian sawmill equipment connection comes through the B.C.-based BID Group. Headquartered in Prince George, B.C., the company is one of the largest integrated equipment suppliers to the wood processing industry in North America, and was hired to build the new mill on a turnkey basis.
Richie LeBlanc, president of Hunt Forest Products, explained that the company started planning the new sawmill several years’ back.
“We were watching with interest some of the work the BID Group was doing in the South, specifically in Newton, Mississippi, with Biewer Lumber, and with Two Rivers Lumber in Demopolis, Alabama,” he said. “We had also met with Brian Fehr of the BID Group, and we became even more interested in BID’s turnkey sawmill approach.
“We felt that the turnkey approach with BID was the best option,” explained LeBlanc. “As we continued the conversations with BID, we were put in touch with the Thorlaksons at Tolko, and once they came on board, it all came together fairly quickly.”
Hunt Forest had looked at the timber resource in LaSalle Parish and area, and determined there was adequate raw material for a large scale sawmill—in fact, there was a surplus of raw material.
The owners of Hunt Forest Products, the Hunt Family, own some timberlands in the area, which will be used, in part, to feed the sawmill.
“We own and operate about 80,000 acres of timberlands, but the lion’s share of the timber for the new mill will come from industrial or private timberlands,” LeBlanc said. “Only about 25 to 30 per cent will come from the family lands.”
Importantly, because of the costs involved in transporting timber, LaSalle Lumber is looking at fairly short logging truck hauls, mostly within a 60 mile radius of the mill.
And from the start, the plans called for a large mill—they wanted to achieve significant scale with the facility, and not go with a small or medium-sized sawmill.
“Raw material in the form of timber was key, and we established that there was ample supply and it was sustainable,” said LeBlanc. “We knew that a 200 million annual board foot mill could be sustained—and that size mill is the BID Group turnkey model.
“It was our intent from the get-go to build a world class sawmill at that scale in Urania, Louisiana,” he added.
Hunt Forest Products already operates a plywood plant and sawmill in Louisiana; the sawmill is a hardwood operation, producing 13 million board feet a year.
LeBlanc said they had toured the Biewer and Two Rivers operations, and that reinforced the decision to go with the BID Group turnkey approach.
“The equipment is already prescribed with the turnkey approach,” he said. “It covers pretty much the range of equipment needed to operate a sawmill—it includes everything but the rolling stock.”
BID managed the project, but worked with local contractors in areas such as concrete supply, utilities work, building erection and the civil work required. “BID utilized a lot of local contractors in doing the work, but they supplied all of the mill equipment itself. We sign a contract for the sawmill, and they put it all together,” says LeBlanc (see sidebar story on page 27 for other suppliers).
The sawmill features state-of-the-art technologies specifically designed, supplied, and installed by the BID Group, which includes a wide range of equipment supply companies under its corporate umbrella, and it co-ordinated the supply of other equipment.
This extended to the log yard, where the company supplied the Mettler Toledo (Micheli) log scales, and two grapple-equipped Deshazo cranes—one a single-bite grapple, the other a double-bite grapple—for unloading tree length material from the trucks, as well as loading the mill deck.
Pretty much all of the mobile equipment handling the timber is Cat, while Taylor forklifts are handling the lumber, says LeBlanc.
The mill includes sophisticated scanning equipment that ensures the operation gets the most out of each log. “All of the production is determined by that very first scan,” explained mill manager Nick Landi.
The sawmill includes a Comact optimized log bucking system, followed by a Comact 22-inch debarker. PHL supplied chipping equipment with Andritz knives.
The Comact high recovery saw line with profiling systems includes a Comact OLI-CS3 overlength infeeder and a Comact TBL-cant optimizer.
Following with the turnkey approach, the mill turned to U.S. Blades in West Monroe, Louisiana, to handle the sharpening and reconditioning of their cutting tools. Walt Connell, U.S. Blades facility manager, said that the company brings years of saw and knife maintenance experience to the project, and they deliver this service to several other local mills. And like LaSalle Lumber, U.S. Blades made significant capital investments to their facility to deliver world-class cutting tools required by La Salle, he added.
Lumber is dried through three natural-gas powered DelTech DPK dual path continuous kilns. The lumber is then moved to sheds, where the mill then assembles the runs it needs for customers, and runs the lumber through a high speed Miller 830E planer. The planer also includes Comact’s GradExpert 2.0 automated lumber grading system.
“We have a very long deck that feeds into the planer, so we have plenty of room to build up a surge through to the planer,” says Landi. “We’ll have speeds from 1,800 feet a minute up to 3,200 feet per minute. I’m not sure we’ll run the speed up to 3,200 feet, but we are capable of that.”
Comact, DelTech and Miller are part of the BID Group family of companies.
As noted, the mill also includes equipment from other companies. It has Signode and Samuel equipment, as part of a fully-automated lumber handling and stacking system.
Since this is a new line, there has not been a lot of production through the strapping systems as of yet. The mill has enjoyed a smooth start-up and full production running with the new innovations that Signode has developed on its BPX system, says Signode. The company has taken two of the most common troublesome areas on a typical strapper, and developed a unique top edge protector delivery system, and innovative batten delivery system.
These features, along with the true modularity of the strapping head, have proven to help keep the line running at the highest throughput, according to Signode, and were key factors in the decision to purchase the Signode BPX.
The Samuel ink jet grade mark system supplied to LaSalle will apply ink jet grade marks and variable print on both near end and far end trim. The system automatically raises and lowers the print heads based on board thickness. Overheight or on-edge boards will be detected and the ink jet printer will rise to allow the overheight board to pass, and then return to the print position. Print head protection and temperature controlled heating is included with the system.
LeBlanc said there are a number of benefits to taking a turnkey approach to building a sawmill, including dealing with one company vs. dealing with a variety of different suppliers for equipment.
“It simplifies the process tremendously,” he says. “We have a single point of contact with respect to the sawmill and component parts, and the planer mill. When we have a question, we don’t have to go to individual companies—we go to BID as the turnkey operator, and they handle any questions we have.
“The BID Group have the expertise—they have set up lots of sawmills before, and they have been good in terms of any issues we have run into, and what we can do to handle them.”
Hunt Forest Products had their own people on site, to deal with any questions BID had, which was helpful for the inevitable day-to-day issues that come up and require a quick decision.
Hunt also hired engineering firm Hunt Guillot & Associates, as their representatives on the site.
The construction timetable, essentially about nine months, was aggressive, but all parties agreed that it was do-able, said Landi.
“There may have been a day here or there when we struggled—we had some pretty wet weather during construction—but in general, we are right on target and we are going to meet the goals we set.”
Some lumber was produced on a trial basis late in 2018.
“BID has done an excellent job of staying on top of things, and I’d like to think that we’ve done a good job of following through on the things they needed from us,” Landi added. “I think it’s a good partnership, and we will continue to work well together.”
That relationship will continue on the parts and service side, since BID companies have supplied almost all of the mill’s equipment.
With construction complete and the mill going from the construction phase to full operation, Tolko Industries will be stepping in on the marketing side.“Tolko will be handling the majority of lumber sales,” says LeBlanc. “Working with Tolko, we will service regional markets, but we are also looking at serving a national market and, quite possibly, an export market.
“Tolko already has a lumber distribution chain in place, and has a significant presence in the softwood lumber market globally. We want to capture the synergies there, with the southern yellow pine we are producing at LaSalle Lumber.”
Throughout the construction process, Tolko was also involved, he added. They bring the experience of having built and operated large scale sawmills.
“Tolko bring a skillset and expertise from their own sawmills—they know the equipment, they know where the levers are, and what to watch out for. All of those inputs have been extremely beneficial and will continue to be. They are knowledgeable and helpful, and will continue to be an active partner.”
The new mill builds on a tradition the Hunt Family has had in forest products for more than a century in the southern U.S.—and a great tradition of the forest industry in this part of Louisiana.
“They know logging and they know sawmilling here,” says Landi.
And both Landi and LeBlanc, with decades of sawmilling experience between them, are fired up about the new mill.
“It’s very exciting to see all this built from the ground up, all the high technology equipment, and that it is all designed to work together in a truly modern sawmill,” says Landi.
“What this mill brings to the lumber business in terms of technology is unbelievable,” added LeBlanc. “There is not a person who touches a stick of lumber until a forklift person picks it up. It’s incredible what BID and other companies have done to enhance the sawmilling business—and make it a lot safer, too.”
And the benefits of the new mill go well beyond the company, says LeBlanc.
“We think we are going to do well with the sawmill, but it’s also good for the community,” he says.
Especially local landowners, who have had a lot of excess timber—and have had nowhere to move it, economically.
“By having the mill at this location, there is quite a bit of timber that is very accessible, and landowners can save a lot of money in terms of transportation costs, with our mill.”
And LaSalle may be using even more of that timber in the future.
Even though the LaSalle sawmill is designed to produce 200 million board feet of lumber, it may not stay at that level.
LeBlanc noted that Biewer Lumber has announced that it will be taking its fairly new, similarly designed, 200-million-board-foot sawmill in Mississippi up to 300 million board feet.
“I’m not saying that is what we’re going to do, but there are options out there. With the raw material supply that is available, that’s certainly something that we’ll be taking a look at.”
The fit between Canadian forest company Tolko Industries, owned by the Thorlakson Family, and Louisiana’s Hunt Forest Products was clear from the first conference call between the companies, a call which would lead to building one of the most modern sawmills in North America, LaSalle Lumber Company.
“It was evident from that first phone call that we have a lot in common with our overall company cultures,” said Richie LeBlanc, president of Hunt Forest Products.
“We both want to be viewed as an employer of choice, and treat our people fairly—from our approaches to safety through to the excellence in our production facilities. It all fit.”
The focus on employees, and employee retention, is an important factor at a time when U.S. unemployment is at a record low, and demand for skilled trades people is high.
Related to that, the Louisiana Department of Economic Development used the state’s nationally recognized LED FastStart workforce development program, in co-ordination with Central Louisiana Technical Community College, to build and train the local skilled workforce the new mill needed.
Under this program, the company received funding to build a new office and training facility on the site that will offer classroom and online training for employees.
In terms of educating the workforce on the new high-tech sawmill equipment, the BID Group offered training, and Hunt is augmenting that with its own training.
“BID has helped us with training, and some other training, such as safety and grading, we’re doing ourselves,” says LeBlanc.
Mill manager Nick Landi and his team went to a BID Group facility in St. George, South Carolina, for training, as well.
As noted, BID Group used a number of local and regional suppliers. Among these were: Central Industrial Supply LLC; Construction Safety Products; Energy Hydraulics; ESP Valve; Forestry Suppliers Inc; Grainger Inc.; Industrial Electronic Supply; Ouachita Electric; R&S Supply; Rawson LP; Rexel; Ruston Industrial Supplies (Division of Motion Industries); Smith Companies Inc.; Sol’s Pipe and Steel; U.S. Blades; and Welder’s Equipment.
The new LaSalle Lumber sawmill is located on approximately 125 acres of a former 285-acre Louisiana Pacific sawmill site in central Louisiana.
Drax Biomass now occupies the other 160 acres of that site, and the new sawmill is planning to supply residuals and wood fibre to Drax for use in manufacturing wood pellets.
“We’re excited about this partnership with Hunt Forest Products and being able to leverage the innovative approach of having a sawmill located next to our newest sustainable wood pellet facility, LaSalle Bioenergy,” said Pete Madden, president and CEO of Drax Biomass. “This makes perfect sense for our business model, lowers our carbon footprint, and is an incredibly efficient, cost-effective way to capitalize on wood residuals.”
The new sawmill is located in LaSalle Parish, hence the name. In Louisiana, parishes are like counties, and date back to when the region was first settled by the French. Much of present-day Louisiana was acquired by the U.S. from France in the famous Louisiana Purchase. In hindsight, this represents a fantastic land deal as the Louisiana territory covered 828,000 square miles, much of it forestlands, that was acquired by the United States from France in 1803.
Forests now cover 48 per cent of the state’s land area and forestry is the second largest manufacturing employer
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