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--  Contractor Profile  --

Changing With The TIMES

Ontario logging operator Ear Falls Contracting has evolved to meet the needs of the changing forest industry.

By Paul MacDonald

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Producing high-quality lumber is a priority for the new Ear Falls sawmill, which is reflected in the wood supplied to the mill by contractors such as Ear Falls Contracting. Their slashers have been modified to accommodate the 8", 9", 10" and 16" bolt lengths required by the mill.

Historically, logging has been a fairly straightforward process. But as logging contractors know only too well, the process of logging has become more complex over the years. Logging equipment has become more sophisticated and mill requirements for delivered wood have changed. Contractors must evolve and adapt quickly to keep up with these and other changes.

Ear Falls Contracting Limited, located in the northwestern Ontario community of Ear Falls, north of Dryden, is very familiar with the process of evolution. The company actually started in the construction industry 25 years ago when J K Robinson, who was then division manager for Reed Paper in Dryden, and his two sons, Richard and Victor, decided to strike out on their own. They purchased Ear Falls Contracting Limited, which at that time had a couple of gravel trucks, a loader, a backhoe and a dozer. Sewer and water installation, sand and gravel deliveries and roadbuilding were the main-stays of the business.

Two nearby mines and the forest industry supported the economy of the area and Ear Falls Contracting expanded as new opportunities arose. These opportunities included gravel crushing, ready-mix concrete and road building for Reed Paper and its successor companies, Great Lakes Forest Products, CP Forest Products, Avenor Inc., Bowater, and now Weyerhaeuser Canada.

In 1986, CP Forest Products decided to close out its company-owned cut-and-skid logging operations in the Ear Falls area. Ear Falls Contracting took over the equipment and employees of CPFP and continued conventional logging with skidders and chainsaws, but immediately started on the path to mechanical logging. The operation is now totally mechanical, utilizing three Timberjack feller bunchers, two 618s and one 850, five Timberjack grapple skidders, two 450Cs, two 560s and one 660, three Harricana stroke delimbers mounted on Cat 225 and 320 carriers, four Tanguay one-man slashers and a Peterson 5000 chipper.

Until the fall of 1997, Ear Falls Contracting was delivering 102" wood to the Dryden stud mill, where the wood was sorted by diameter class for cutting into 2X4 and 2X6 studs. Small-diameter wood was kicked off the line and sent directly to the chipper. No wood sorting was done in the bush other than the occasional species sort if a wood trade to another mill was set up. In 1995, Ear Falls Contracting added the chipper to provide poplar chips for the Dryden pulp and paper mill. About half the total wood volume cut by Ear Falls Contracting is presently hauled in chip form to Dryden.

The opening of the new $50-million Ear Falls sawmill (built by Avenor and sold to Weyerhaeuser last September) was certainly a boon to the community. It provides 135 jobs in the mill and breathes life back into a community that had been hit with two mine closures in the late 1980s, with a loss of 400 jobs.

The new sawmill was also good news for Ear Falls Contracting and other local logging contractors because the haul distance has been reduced. "When the pulp market was down, we felt very vulnerable because we were at the far end of the road, which made our haul costs higher," explains Richard Robinson. This is a consideration when forest companies are faced with reducing costs due to poor market conditions.

The Ear Falls operation is a state-of-the- art, small-log dimensional mill with capabilities to produce 8", 9" and 10" lengths. "High-quality products are a priority for the new sawmill," explains Vic Robinson. "They have to meet a demanding market so the wood we’re supplying them has to meet exacting standards." The Ear Falls sawmill is also looking for their contractors to be flexible in the product they deliver. If the market is strong in a particular lumber length, it wants to be able to move quickly into that niche and optimize the margin on its production.

Ear Falls Contracting is utilizing its existing equipment to meet these standards, and intends to continue to do so until other alternatives have been examined and tested. With the present delimbing equipment, the topping diameter has to be estimated by the operator, and multi-stem delimbing becomes difficult unless the tree stems are fairly uniform in length. A noticeable drop in productivity has been experienced in that function compared to pulpwood production.

The slashers have been modified by putting hydraulically operated stop blocks on the butt plate to accommodate 16', 10', 9' and 8' lengths. The slashing process has slowed because of the number of cuts and the operator must pay attention to the minimum diameter allowed for each length. "We are hoping the learning curve will bring production back up," says Vic, "but we know it is not going to where it was before when we were just doing 8' bolts."

Another change that has taken place in the last year concerns Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) regulations, which have resulted in additional responsibilities placed on the logging contractor. Now, after a block is harvested, the logging contractor—rather than the MNR forester or forest company official— signs it off, stating that it is in compliance with all MNR requirements.

Under the new system, all cut blocks are subject to MNR audits. "Clearly there is an incentive to do the job properly. It puts the responsibility exactly where it should be—on the contractor doing the work," says Richard.

Change is on the horizon again as Ear Falls Contracting, like many contractors in northwestern Ontario, is starting to look at cut-to-length systems.

"We’ve tried a couple of different CTL machines, but the production numbers have been disappointing," says Vic. "We want to continue to evolve our harvesting systems and stay on the leading edge."

The change to CTL is not going to happen overnight and Vic Robinson does not expect it to be an all-out switch. "It’s not going to be a situation where we have just one system in use in this area," he says. "It’s an expensive system, the production has to be there and up-time is critical. Some of the timber on the limit is just too small for CTL to be cost effective."

When assessing systems and equipment, safety will also be a big consideration. The company is celebrating its third year without a lost-time injury and its second year injury free. Richard and Victor are justifiably proud of their employees. "They are a dedicated group and have made safe work practices a part of their lives," says Vic. "But we don’t take it for granted. To us, there are no small injuries. A mishap that results in a cut finger has the potential to be a serious injury."

What lies down the road for Ear Falls Contracting? With the opening of the Ear Falls sawmill, there is a more secure future, but the challenges will still be there—just as they’ve always been for Vic and Richard Robinson and their employees.

"There will be changes in the future, but we’ll adapt to those changes," says Richard. "In this business, things don’t stay the same for long."

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