By Paul MacDonald
When it came to upgrading the company’s sawmill in Mississippi, Vicksburg Forest Products and its turnkey partner, Timber Automation, reached out for equipment from a few hours down the highway, right through to suppliers in Quebec and British Columbia.
And the proof in going the distance sourcing cutting edge equipment far and wide is now being seen in the successful start-up of the upgraded mill in the town of Vicksburg, near the banks of the Mississippi River. The sawmill, which sits across the river from Louisiana, has seen a substantial increase in lumber production, more than doubling its output, to 180 million board feet.
Vicksburg Forest Products’ involvement in this sawmill dates back to 2018, when it purchased the then-hardwood mill from the Anderson-Tully Lumber Co. Anderson-Tully had an extensive timberlands division, and the one sawmill, in the town of Vicksburg, in western Mississippi.
“We were looking at opportunities to expand, and this was a good fit for us,” explained Tommy Stansell, one of the owners of Vicksburg Forest Products (VFP). VFP also owns a sawmill in Ackerman, Mississippi in partnership with B.C.-based forest company, Tolko Industries. The company is located in the state’s capital, Jackson, Mississippi, about 45 miles east of Vicksburg. Timberland investment company, Claw Forestry Services, which was founded by another VFP co-owner, Billy Vandevender, is also located in Jackson.
There were several factors that led to the company purchasing the operation.
The mill was located in an area that was an “Opportunity Zone”, a federal government program which provides tax incentives for investments in low income and rural communities. “It was one of the first Opportunity Zone projects in the U.S.,” says Stansell.
VFP was familiar with the region, and knew that it had a good softwood basket. “We have no landholdings in that area, but we were familiar with it. I think that was one of the things that gave us a head start over other folks, because Anderson-Tully were trying to sell it as a hardwood mill, and the hardwood markets were pretty down at the time.
“I don’t think many of the softwood guys were thinking to look at the mill, and the area.” William Vandevender Jr., who manages the company’s timberland holdings division and wood procurement for its operations, discovered the opportunity
VFP has extensive timber holdings, but they are in the neighboring state of Alabama. The company does not supply wood to the sawmill from its own landholdings.
The mill also has solid transportation links, with interstate I-20 offering a good road link to the Texas market, one of the company’s largest lumber markets, and the area has good rail links, as well.
Big picture, marketing-wise, VFP had also seen that there would be opportunities opening up in supplying lumber, with market shifts. Canadian lumber producers, principally in British Columbia, have been supplying the southeastern U.S. market for decades. But with a reduction in B.C. lumber production due to the impact of the mountain pine beetle, and loss of land base due to large wildfires, the province has been hit with many sawmill shutdowns—and a drop in production.
All this means that B.C. lumber producers are not able to service markets like the U.S. southeast with all the wood they now require—especially as home construction has taken off in the region. Hence the market opening for companies such as VFP. Canadian forest companies, such as Canfor and West Fraser, have also invested heavily in mill operations in the southeast, both to serve markets, and tap into the very abundant wood basket. Mississippi alone, for example, has an estimated 20 million acres of forestland.
So, all things said, there were a number of positives in making the mill acquisition.
Now, all VFP had to do was convert the sawmill.
“There were definitely some concerns on our part on converting a hardwood sawmill to a softwood sawmill,” says Stansell, candidly. “There are not many conversions like that.”
A feature working in their favour, he says, is that the mill had been built almost like a Southern Yellow Pine operation, in many respects. For example, the mill had an older planer mill, with a large 80-bin sorter. “With a lot of hardwood sawmills, there is no planer mill—period,” said Stansell.
As part of the switchover, they installed a new planer mill from Washington-based Miller Manufacturing, which is part of the B.C.-based BID Group.
The existing equipment included two Corley carriages, two Filer & Stowell headrigs with Lewis Controls, a 10-inch Timber Machine Technologies (TMT) gang, a TMT three-saw edger, and a McDonough 6” vertical resaw, and a 60-bay sling type lumber sorter.
There were two kilns, an Irvington-Moore and Moore International, equipped with Lignomat and SII controls.
“We were able to use all of that,” said Stansell.
“The conversion was definitely a learning curve, but there was a lot of hard work that went into it from our people—they did a great job. The start-up curve was longer than we anticipated, but we kept incrementally increasing our production volume at the mill.”
The successful conversion, and their solid base of people on the mechanical and operations side, actually gave them the confidence that they could do a further production upgrade, says Stansell.
Once they had the mill conversion completed, and started increasing production, VFP management took a step back, and thought they would like to take production to the next level—and add a small log line.
“That was 2019, and we started exploring a further upgrade—a bit before COVID started,” explained Stansell.
The turnkey project was finalized at the beginning of the second quarter of 2020, and work began in August 2020.
“It was more than a bit scary,” said Stansell, with lumber prices cratering over fears that home construction would fall big-time. “That was in March 2020,” he says.
“We were in uncharted waters,” he says. “But we were still optimistic that housing construction numbers were going to stay where they were, or improve some. And there was that market shift in the replacement of B.C. lumber with lumber from the south. And we wanted to maximize what we had with the sawmill.” The company’s new CFO, Aaron Samuels, got a “baptism in fire” during this time, added Stansell
The lumber market fell for a while, but then started climbing—and climbing. Lumber futures proceeded to top out at around $1,700 U.S., a thousand board feet.
As mentioned, the region and state has a good wood basket. Much of the land in the region is owned by Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) and individual landowners, who supply the mill with timber. So timber supply was good for the expansion.
The company also has solid financing, with private equity firm Blue Wolf Capital Partners LLC providing investment funding. Charlie Miller and James Shovlin, who are partners in Blue Wolf Capital, have a track record of investing in rural sawmills in the U.S. South, including doing two upgrades on mills that they later sold to B.C.-based Conifex.
With what turned out to be a $40 million (U.S.) upgrade, VFP looked for a good construction partner, and met with a few different firms that it felt could handle the project, including B.C.’s BID Group. “The BID Group was definitely in the hunt,” says Stansell.
They decided to go with Arkansas-based Timber Automation, just a few hours down the highway, in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
While there are a number of companies that can ably take on such turnkey projects, VFP felt a good fit with Timber Automation, both in terms of the size of the upgrade, and their knowledge of the mill. Timber Automation had previously been involved in supplying the mill with equipment—one of their trimmers was already in the mill. “They were already familiar with the mill, and some of the challenges and opportunities we had. For this size project, it was a straightforward decision.”
They put together a small team consisting of folks from the mill itself, from Timber Automation, from VFP, and Tinsley Consulting, also out of Arkansas, that developed the layout of the upgraded mill operation, including a new high-speed chip-n-saw line, two new continuous dry kilns and a variety of other infrastructure projects.
“We all worked closely on the project, looking at every piece of equipment that could go into the upgrade, and travelling to mill operations to see this equipment in action at other mills.”
Some of the new equipment came from Timber Automation, which quoted the upgrade on a turnkey basis. “They put the whole package together, and then presented it to us,” says Stansell. “They handled the entire project, from construction to commissioning of the sawmill.” Timber Automation provided a combination of its own manufactured equipment, and equipment sourced from third party suppliers.
Equipment from Timber Automation (TA) for the upgrade included the log handling side, with a LogPro log merchandizing line, which is a TA company. The merchandizer is capable of feeding the new line, and the existing large log line.
As mentioned, Timber Automation and VFP sourced equipment North American-wide. Some of their equipment came from the southeast region: the primary breakdown, canter line, and the secondary breakdown equipment is from Cone Machinery, out of Georgia.
But they also looked to the north. The 27” dual ring debarker came from VK, in Washington State. From British Columbia, they used Iron Code Engineering, of Kamloops, B.C. to do controls coding. Quebec-based VAB, which is now owned by Timber Automation, provided optimization controls and a grading system for the mill.
In the planer mill, key equipment included a high speed tilt hoist with automatic stick recovery, a VAB lineal grading machine, SmartMill servo lug loader, a line shift trimmer, dual arm package maker, two Samuel automatic strappers and a Western Pneumatics planer mill shavings system.
They added two continuous NOREV dual path kilns, each with 80 million board feet of annual drying capacity.
On the hog fuel side, they have a Rawlings PXZ vertical wood hog, which was manufactured at the Edmonton, Alberta, plant of Weldco-Beales Mfg.
In the log yard, which can hold about 50,000 green tons of logs, they have left space for future expansion, such as a portal crane.
Having suppliers from all over the map might have been an issue in the past, when a mill needed to have supplier staff come to the operation to do servicing or trouble-shoot equipment.
“But these days, if we have issues and need support, we can call the suppliers and they can ‘remote-in’—they might be in Arkansas, British Columbia or Quebec. They can get online, and troubleshoot the problems,” says Stansell.
“It really is amazing how technology continues to change the industry,” he says.
That ability to “remote-in” came in very handy during the upgrade, when COVID regulations and protocols kicked in.
“We’re really proud of the team and how all the equipment providers found ways to travel when they could, or be available to troubleshoot remotely. There were definitely a lot of hurdles we had to deal with when doing the upgrade during COVID, but we were able to do it, and keep our employees healthy and safe.”
Carrying out mill construction during COVID added a whole other level of complexity to the project, including supply chain issues. For example, steel prices starting going up, says Stansell—and have stayed up.
“Getting the right equipment or the right inputs to build equipment—every day brought a different challenge. But looking back on it, it went pretty seamlessly, which is a testament to everyone’s hard work.”
There have been some start-up challenges, which is normal after an upgrade, but production is definitely continuing to move up.
“Many of our employees have up to now only seen the technology running in other sawmills and now they are working with it in our sawmill, so there is a learning curve. It takes time, but they are really starting to excel, and are doing a great job.” Suppliers have assisted with both on-site, socially distanced training, and virtual training, says Stansell.
As the North American economy works its way out of the COVID pandemic, and moves into more normal times, many industries, including the forest industry, are facing issues around hiring qualified people.
Though it has a solid and very valued employee base, Stansell says part of VFP’s thinking with the upgrade was to make the sawmill as automated and modern as possible.
“The sawmill industry has changed dramatically,” he notes. “We’ve seen it go from being a heavy human capital, people-involved business to being more automated.
“We wanted to be able to compete for the long term, and that’s why we made this investment—we wanted to invest in the latest technology, and automate as much as we could.”
The new line was completed this past October. “We’re in the start-up stage now, but we’re starting to progress pretty quickly,” says Stansell. “Plant Manager Larry Barrett and his management team are excelling.”
Previously, the mill was running at around 72 million board feet annually. “We wanted to get a run rate of 180 million board feet—though our mill capacity is probably 230 or 240 million board feet, on a two-shift basis.”
They modeled the run rate at the 180 million board feet, single-shift hybrid schedule level to incorporate a reasonable amount of time to carry out mill maintenance.
The changes have allowed the mill to broaden out production.
“From a production standpoint, we’ve gone to being a wider, more flexible sawmill, going from 2x10 and 2x12 to making more 2x4 and 2x6, and some timbers, 4x4 and 4x6.
“We talked to our customers, to see what their needs were—that’s why we put the machinery in that we did. The high-speed canter line with quad profiling, for example, allows us to make a lot more 2x4s and 2x6s.”
In addition to meeting the needs of their large customers in Texas, they are also starting to ship more lumber, by rail, into the U.S. Midwest, which is, again, a historically large market for B.C. lumber producers.
“We’re starting to see customers switching from SPF to Southern Yellow Pine,” says Stansell.
Not to get ahead of themselves, but VFP is thinking about a further round of changes. They have been talking with Virginia-based Real Performance Machinery (RPM) about taking out their existing 10” gang, and putting in a double arbour, profiling 12” gang.
“We are where we want to be, for the moment,” says Stansell. “But we have not taken our eye off the future. We’re constantly trying to improve.”
On the Cover:
Moggie Valley Timber, located in southwestern Ontario, is a sawmill that sells to lumber wholesalers and retailers, and has been in business for nearly a quarter-of-a-century. Moggie Valley Timber also carries out logging, cutting about 10 million board feet per year. On the logging side, in order to harvest the larger trees that Moggie Valley Timber comes across on woodlots in this part of Ontario, the company has invested in an Eco Log 590F harvester. Read all about how the Eco Log 590F is working out for Moggie Valley in this issue, beginning on page 34. (Cover photo and story photos courtesy of Moggie Valley Timber).
B.C.’s ILA show leading the pack …
B.C.’s Interior Logging Association is leading the pack when it comes to the re-start of forest industry events, with its equipment show and AGM coming up in May.
Cutting edge equipment—from cutting edge suppliers
A mill upgrade for Vicksburg Forest Products led to the company sourcing cutting edge equipment from a variety of suppliers—including from B.C. and Quebec.
Northland moves to partial processing—at the mill
Facing narrow log delivery windows, Alberta sawmill Northland Forest Products has decided to move to partial millyard processing, with two TreeKing processors.
Another successful convention expected for BC Saw Filer’s
The B.C. forest industry is facing challenges, but this year’s BC Saw Filer’s Convention & AGM—being held May 27 to 28 in Kamloops, B.C.—is expected to be just as big and successful as it was pre-COVID.
Iron investment handles bigger timber
Moggie Valley Timber has invested in an Eco Log 590F harvester to handle the larger trees that it comes across on woodlots in southwestern Ontario.
Canada’s Top Lumber Producers: West Fraser and Canfor on top!
Logging and Sawmilling Journal’s authoritative listing of Canada’s Top Lumber Producers—produced in association with leading forest industry consultants FEA—shows that West Fraser and Canfor are still the top lumber producers in the country.
New and Noted at the Oregon Logging Conference
The Oregon Logging Conference in February kicked off with great expectation following two years of in-person restrictions due to COVID. The OLC is widely known for its extensive, state-of-the-art equipment display—and we take a look at what was new at the show.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
From power upgrades to production improvements, read all about what’s new in small scale logging equipment in this issue’s Tech Update.
The Last Word
Forest giant Canfor is applying sustainability across its entire culture in a bid to prosper in a post-pandemic world.