John Swaan: a forest industry trail blazer, and the godfather of the Canadian wood pellet industry

by | Jun 27, 2024 | 2024, Biomass, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, May/June 2024, The Last Word

Prince George was once known as the western white spruce capital of the world. The city is at the epicentre of British Columbia and was at the creative hub of around 22 per cent of Canada’s softwood lumber production.

Prince George’s economic foundation at the geographic heart of an expanding and vibrant forest industry proved a powerful magnet for people, too. The type of people who recognized the opportunities offered by the rough-edged community and its abundant forests. They were willing to invest their time and hard work which, with a dash of good fortune, could and did yield rich results. Their ideas were to define the futures of the logging and sawmilling sectors far beyond central British Columbia.

A core of the pioneering opportunists fled from the northern parts of the Prairie Provinces fearing quite wrongly a surge of communist sympathies at home. The idea of a wide open, free enterprise Valhalla in the B.C. Interior appealed. They were some of the people who founded enduring sawmills around Prince George which collectively created and refined a new lifestyle for their employees. They also set high standards, the results of which are rooted in today’s highly sophisticated electronic array of log breakdown machines.

A similar standard of evolution happened in the bush. The development of mechanical shears for falling trees is an example. The concept—and its challenges —stirred the creative juices of loggers. Individuals and backstreet machine shops throughout the region mulled the opportunities and challenges offered from coming up with a feller buncher head that would perform more efficiently and be less wasteful of valuable butt timber. The ideas began with a scrawl on the back of envelopes containing unpaid bills. They emerged from late night and early morning brainstorming sessions fueled by cigarette smoke and cheap rye whisky.

Cumulatively, the creative concoction coalesced into today’s sleek harvesting and processing heads.

A more progressive attitude toward the forest land base itself began a hesitant step forward in the region. The provincial Ministry of Forest’s Prince George region began pioneering work on its folio system for forest land use planning. The concept was condemned by many at the time as a waste of money: a costly intrusion into the job of cutting down trees and making money. But the idea survived the criticisms and gradually matured aided by the public’s growing awareness that a forest was more than 2 x 4s in storage.

Harvesting and processing prime quality timber created growing volumes of wood waste. Dealing with the expanding mountains of the stuff became an increasingly urgent challenge. Sawmills used increasing volumes to create energy and the province’s pulp mills had a voluminous appetite for the right quality byproduct. A provincial ban on incinerating wood waste in beehive burners meant an answer was needed and soon. John Swaan had one.

John and his brothers, Jim and Rob, were farming stock and operated a dairy operation south of Quesnel in the 1980s. John Swaan had a question: could pelletizing wood for fuel be made as feasible as pelletizing livestock food? It could but not easily. The quest took over the next 30 years or so for Swaan. Along the way, the journey took more twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

One of the early assists in the development came from a deal offered by Carrier Lumber in Prince George to build a standalone wood pellet mill.

It was a fitting arrangement. Bill Kordyban Senior was one of those entrepreneurs who left the northern Prairies for the promise of Prince George’s forests. Kordyban began Carrier Lumber in 1951 at Wansa Lake, a few miles east of Prince George. Kordyban was a mechanical whiz who developed new sawmill equipment. He introduced fine kerf sawing and high wood utilization into portable salvage locations like those caused by the rising waters behind the Bennett Dam in B.C.’s northeast, and forest fire salvage sites.

Swaan’s first wood pellet mill proved successful and a new industry was born. For a series of reasons, Swaan was forced to look overseas for a sustainable wood pellet market to replace the burning of coal for power production. He managed to secure a market in Sweden for his wood pellets. That achievement was followed by others in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom. Japan followed in 1989.

Swaan’s persistence was supported by his wife, Trudy. She was also the glue that held together Forest Expo and its earlier incarnations, helping steer the Prince George event to becoming Canada’s leading logging show.

This past October, John Swaan’s contributions were officially recognized by his peers at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC), an organization he helped form in 2006. He received a lifetime achievement award and was dubbed the “Godfather” of the Canadian wood pellet industry.

The timing was appropriate. The year 2023 marked the 25th anniversary of the first bulk shipment of Canadian wood pellet exports from B.C. to Europe. Swaan was blazing his own trail. No one else had established a template. Swaan later told an interviewer: “I’m sure a lot people thought I was crazy but it was just one challenge after another, and I needed to do what I had to in order to get it done.” Spoken like a true pioneer. It’s the type of talk that goes down really well in the western white spruce capital of the world.

Jim Stirling

Author

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