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Caught in a squeeze

Ontario contractor Fern Pelletier is only too typical among logging operators right now, finding himself caught in a tight squeeze between rising business costs and falling prices for the wood he hauls in.

By Dave Lammers

Mary-Jane Brown will never forget how she got her first job working in the bush. The 37-year-old skidder operator, from Ear Falls, Ontario, was working in a restaurant when she spotted local contractor Fern Pelletier at one of the tables. “I was serving him lunch and I asked him for a job,” Brown recalls with a laugh. “I don’t think he took me seriously the first time, and I asked him a second time. I told him I’d go train myself. I’d go in the evening when the day shift was done and just get in a few hours.”

 Lower lumber prices at the sawmill have resulted in cost pressures right through the wood supply chain, including contractors.

That was five-and-a-half years ago. Now Brown works the day shift, operating a Timberjack 660 skidder, and is the lone woman on a crew of 17 who make up Pelletier Logging. “She’s a good worker,” says Pelletier. “I wanted to give her a chance and it worked out.” Brown says that, in spite of the obvious differences between her old and new job, the transition from short order cook to logging equipment operator was made easier by Pelletier and his employees. “I’ve got good guys I work with,” she says. “And they treat me like one of the guys too.” “I’ve always been a tomboy,” she adds. “So it was nothing for me to try it. I’d been on equipment before—not a grapple or anything—but tractors.”

Her husband, Greg Meek, also works in the logging business and together they have purchased a delimber. “It’s just learning the controls,” says Brown. “Once you do that, you’ve got to get into how to skid it out so you’re saving time and bringing in money.” However, bringing in enough money has been the challenge for Pelletier Logging in the last few years, though it is cutting approximately 250,000 cubic metres of spruce and pine annually in the Ear Falls area—100 kilometres northwest of Dryden, Ontario.

Pelletier Logging operates as part of a third party agreement with Kenora-based Devlin Timber which supplies wood to Weyerhaeuser’s stud mill in Ear Falls. Over the last four years, Pelletier has seen his own costs rise while the price per cord of wood has fallen to $29 from $34. “Everything is getting too expensive and the companies are cutting back,” Pelletier says. “So you’re being hit in both directions. The wages go up, the fuel goes up, the price of parts goes up—and the price of your wood goes down.

So the flow of money is just not there.” Pelletier says he can’t hire people like Brown any more, people with initiative who are looking to make a start in the business, but require training. The result, he says, is fewer young people in the bush as contractors can’t afford to hire someone who doesn’t produce right away. The youngest employee on Pelletier’s crew is around 30 years old and has been with the company more than 10 years. Pelletier also vows he won’t purchase any more equipment until the business takes a turn for the better. In 2000, he bought a new Timberjack 660 skidder and a new John Deere 230 delimber.

 Lower Canadian loggers continue to face a lot of curves in the road with rising costs for fuel and equipment. And sawmills, faced with low lumber prices and high US duties, have had to lower their costs, putting further pressure on logging contractors.

He also has two John Deere 748 skidders, a 1994 and a 1998, and a 1999 John Deere 230 delimber. Rounding out the list is a delimber run by an owner-operator. Pelletier also has two 1995 618 Timberjack feller bunchers and a 1998 Tigercat buncher. “If I could afford it, I would like to run newer equipment,” he says. “But the way logging is going, the money is just not there.” It’s been a long haul for the 53-year-old Pelletier, who started cutting wood on the family farm in New Brunswick when he was 12 years old.

By the time he was 15, he was operating a skidder for the well-known Irving family. He established Fern Pelletier Logging in 1970 and moved to Flin Flon, Manitoba where he operated two skidders for four years before moving to northwestern Ontario. He made stops in Sioux Lookout as well as Fort Frances, where he worked for 11 years before landing in Ear Falls in 1995. These days Pelletier doesn’t make as many trips up and down the famed Red Lake Road, a narrow winding highway that heads due north to the remote region of northern Ontario that includes Ear Falls, from Vermilion Bay, located west of Dryden.

Pelletier mainly stays at the shop in Ear Falls and manages a crew of 14 in the bush—plus two maintenance personnel, a parts person and an office employee. He’s watched other area contractors struggle lately and has seen a few go out of business. Pelletier blames “big companies” for cutting into the profits of small contractors and says for things to improve, the price per cord has to increase to at least $35. “They have to start looking at the guy at the stump, the guy who’s making all the money for them. I can last as long as anybody, but it’s going to have to change or there isn’t going to be anyone out there to cut wood.” He’s bluntly pessimistic about industry conditions. At the current rate, Pelletier figures he’ll be out of business in under four years. “If it doesn’t change, I’ll kind of go down slowly and get rid of everything slowly.”

Though, when asked what else he might do, he says there isn’t anything he’d rather be doing than logging. “That’s probably the only reason I’m hanging around. Logging, it’s like a fever. You do it a long time not because you make money, but because you love it.”


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