By Paul MacDonald
The construction trucks have been rumbling across the site of the new Mission Forest Products sawmill site in Corinth, Mississippi, for more than a year—but later on this year, the trucks going into the site will be carrying logs in and lumber out, when the U.S. $160 million project is completed, and running.
Mission Forest Products will soon have a fully operating high tech sawmill, having drawn on lumber manufacturing equipment and services from a variety of suppliers. Sourcing from a variety of suppliers has allowed the company to get the biggest bang for its capital spending.
The Mission Forest Products sawmill will have an annual output capacity of 250 million board feet, making it one of the largest producers of dimensional pine lumber in the U.S. South. It will employ approximately 130 people, who will staff two daily shifts when the facility comes online.
The Mississippi facility, one of the northernmost sawmills in the U.S. South, will have easy access to major growth markets like Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Birmingham and the Midwestern states by rail.
Driven by the increase in demand for housing generally in the U.S. over the last several years, the demand for lumber in these markets has also increased. At times, record lumber prices have been the end result, though lumber markets have since cooled off considerably.
Chris Mathis, Managing Director of Corporate Development for Mission Forest Products, says the sawmill is well on its way to being completed; he outlined what the company wanted to achieve with the new facility.
“Our objective is for the Corinth mill to become one of the lowest-cost and most reliable suppliers of high-quality dimensional lumber products in North America,” he said.
“We’re feeling positive about how things are going with construction of the sawmill, and the equipment we’ve selected for the mill. We’re not immune to the challenges everyone else in the industry has had due to COVID and supply chain issues, and we’ve had some delays with getting some equipment in—but, overall, things are going well,” Mathis said.
With sawmill build projects over the past two years, companies and contractors have proven to be resilient, making adjustments along the way in receiving deliveries of mill equipment or construction schedules. And that was the case with the Mission Forest Products project.
Owning a sawmill comes as something new for the company’s parent company, Timberland Investment Resources, LLC (TIR), which is a timberland manager, managing almost 850,000 acres valued at more than $1.75 billion in the U.S. Northeast, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Southeast—including in the Corinth, Mississippi area.
TIR is leading a consortium of current and new investors to build the state-of-the-art, high-capacity sawmill.
“With our timberlands in the region, we noticed that the price of sawlogs and chip ‘n saw timber was quite low,” explained Mathis. “We did some analysis of the growth and demand for trees—we formally discovered what we intuitively knew: that there is a not a lot of sawmill capacity in that market.”
Big picture, Mississippi itself has abundant forestlands—some 20 million acres, state-wide, with ample opportunities for forest industry growth.
“We started looking at how much it would cost to build a sawmill, and how we would run it, and where we would site it—and things came together from there,” he says.
Mathis says Mission Forest Products targeted Corinth for the mill project for several reasons. The city is often described as the intersection of the upper South due to it being a commercial transportation hub, with the rail links (being served by Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern) and efficient trucking routes it offers to growing population centers in the South, and the U.S. Midwest—all areas where lumber demand is high.
“We added it all up and we were pleasantly surprised by the number of housing starts just within a 200-mile radius of the sawmill,” says Mathis.
“We’re excited about the cities we’re close to—within a day’s drive—and are going to serve,” says Mathis, noting that being the northern-most sawmill in the U.S. South also provides opportunities to serve large lumber markets like St. Louis and Chicago.
“With the rail connections, we think that gives us a lot of options to go into the Midwest markets. We’re also close enough to serve Atlanta.” Easy access to the Tennessee river system also will allow shipping lumber by barge should they decide to pursue those markets.
The fact that lumber can be transported in a number of ways is a clear advantage these days, with the shortage of truck drivers and rail cars in North America. “That seems to be an issue everywhere, so having optionality with transportation is a good thing,” says Mathis.
In addition, he said the area surrounding Corinth, which sits where the state lines of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi intersect, is also a prime timber-growing region. However, he said the area as a whole is currently under-served with sawmilling capacity given the plentiful inventory of high-quality timber growing in its vast forestlands, which are owned by local families, private individuals, and institutional investors, such as those TIR represents.
Mathis also said the company was also attracted to the Corinth area because of its skilled forest products workforce—one that includes both field forestry professionals, like loggers, truckers and silvicultural contractors, as well as highly experienced manufacturing workers.
Mathis said the company intends to capitalize on all of the above, and the low-cost, high-efficiency nature of the mill’s design. The mill anticipates purchasing its timber from local suppliers and timberland owners. The company itself, with its landholdings in the area, will supply about three per cent of the mill’s needs for timber.
It will sell production residuals, including wood chips, bark and shavings, to various customers within the region.
Besides Mathis, veteran lumber industry professional Joe Rodgers has overseen the construction and start-up effort with the new mill. Rodgers has more than 30 years of experience with sawmill construction and management having previously held senior level positions leading the lumber business for Temple-Inland, and more recently with Interfor. Prior to joining Mission Forest Products, he worked as an independent consultant on other high-capacity sawmill projects elsewhere in the U.S. South.
In addition to his position with TIR and Mission Forest Products, Mathis also has extensive experience with Temple-Inland.
“Between Joe and I, we felt we understood what we needed in a sawmill to be successful—we had third parties confirm what we knew, that there was a lot of timber, and that it was a good place for a sawmill, and we used that to show to investors,” explained Mathis.
The facility will employ state-of-the art log scanning and optimization technology to ensure that each log that passes through its production line is milled to its fullest potential from both a wood utilization and financial standpoint. This will not only ensure that the facility is operating at the lowest possible cost, but that it is also making good and sustainable use of the timber resources it processes, says the company.
Mission Forest Products is working with Arkansas-based Mid-South Engineering on the project and, as noted, is sourcing equipment from a variety of suppliers.
The project is not turnkey: the company bid out the major machine centers for the mill. “We’re doing that work ourselves—Joe has a lot of experience with suppliers though the mills and projects he has worked on,” says Mathis.
Among the equipment selected for the mill was a Fulghum log crane, Endurance Equipment for log processing (plus a Valon Kone dual ring debarker), and Porter Engineering for process controls and optimization from the stem infeed deck through the mill’s canter line. Optimil provided the primary breakdown equipment and USNR provided the edger system, all lumber optimization systems and dry kilns. MillTech provided both the green and dry lumber handling mechanical equipment and the associated controls by collaborating with Iron Code, and Gilbert supplied the planer.
While the new mill will feature state-of-the-art equipment, the focus on equipment at the mill is on the “tried and true.”
“We wanted to take out complexity,” says Mathis. “We’re going to be a new mill with employees who have not run a sawmill before. The project has been managed to help facilitate a smooth start-up. Equipment selection was made with an eye toward proven systems from vendors with a track record of successfully starting those systems up.
“We feel we’re already going to have a competitive advantage on the cost side—we just wanted to have the latest proven technology rather than getting involved in a technology development project. We’ll do well with that.”
Some sawmills opting for so-called “bleeding edge” technology have found that this can easily create production problems, and technology headaches.
As with all sawmill projects going ahead the last while, they had to factor in dealing with COVID-related issues.
“We ran into problems with some of our suppliers, with their employees getting COVID—that was probably the biggest issue with COVID that we had,” says Mathis.
“Joe and Mid-South did a really nice job of stitching that together, doing problem solving, and getting the project built as quickly as we could.
“We did not have any problems on site,” Mathis added. “The vaccines were ready and available when we started work on the project. It was more of a production equipment type issue with suppliers, than an on-site issue.”
If there were equipment delivery delays, as noted, the company and its contractors were adept at pivoting, and switching efforts to another part of the project, if need be.
“A mill build is really a big problem-solving exercise from start to finish,” says Mathis. “You’re addressing issues on a daily basis. You might expect things to go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, but they might go 1, 3, 5. 2. 4,” he says.
The sawmill will have the ability to produce 2” dimensional lumber in 4” through 12” widths, along with 1x4’s and 4x4’s. The mill’s ultimate product mix will reflect log purchasing strategies and meeting the needs of the mill’s customers.
When the trucks start moving on and off the 88-acre site, they should encounter a well-organized set up, says Mathis. They have a long entrance road, at one mile, to the mill site, with lots of storage, and room for trucks.
“We put a lot of thought into that,” he says. “I think the people that will be bringing logs to the mill, and taking lumber from the mill, are going to be pleased with the logistics and the way the site was laid out.”
With the project approaching completion, there is a sense of excitement—and sense of pride, too. Mathis noted that the project is going to create mill jobs, purchase timber from local landowners, and create jobs in the forest. “It’s all good,” he says.
The reception the company has received from the state and county has been very appreciated, says Mathis. “It’s nice to be wanted—and it also reinforces that we have made the right decision for our investors. We’re excited to transition from construction to operating and establishing a great business for the community, our employees and our investors.”
On the Cover:
Adam Williams, owner of A.R. Williams Logging, of Englehart, Ontario, has been learning the ropes on some new, but also familiar, logging equipment, from John Deere, harvesting wood in northeastern Ontario, near the Timmins area. Over the past year, Williams has been demo’ing a John Deere 953MH Tracked Harvester with a Waratah 623C harvester head—and which features John Deere’s latest operator assistance control feature, Intelligent Boom Control (IBC), which the company has introduced for its 900 MH-Series Tracked Harvester. Read all about how IBC is working well for Williams beginning on page 22 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of John Deere).
Mercer moves into mass timber
In an interesting strategic move into the mass wood market, B.C.-based Mercer International has purchased the bankrupt Katerra Mass Timber Plant in neighbouring Washington State—which uses Canadian SPF lumber as feedstock.
On a Mission to build a new sawmill
The new $160 million (U.S.) Mission Forest Products sawmill in Mississippi draws on a wide variety of suppliers for equipment, including a number of Canadian companies.
Forest management: from planning to planting…
Silvacom’s comprehensive Forest Management System software seamlessly covers operations, from planning right through to planting.
Deere’s new Intelligent Boom Control (IBC)-equipped tracked harvester at work in Ontario
Contractor Adam Williams is having solid success working with the new IBC-equipped harvester, working in northern Ontario forests.
PAL Lumber is all fired up…
Ontario’s PAL Lumber is one busy operation these days, producing firewood for everyone from cottagers to large commercial customers, with the solid support of a tough Bells 4000 firewood processor.
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.
The Last Word
B.C.’s Forest Practices Board is keeping tabs on spruce bark beetle harvesting, notes Jim Stirling.