At a landing in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, a loader feeds a chipper, which fills a chip truck destined for a biomass plant. Photo by Ross Caron.
For Laurence and Brenda Taylor, the logging business is truly a family affair. Their company, L.E. Taylor & Sons, based in Porter, Maine, employs twelve family members from three generations, all of them working together in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire.
The couple is joined in the business by their four sons: Gary, Walt, Scott, and Dennis. Gary, the youngest, came onboard after graduating from high school in 1982. At that time, they were using cable skidders and felling and cutting with chainsaws.
As with many logging operations, their equipment mix and logging techniques have evolved over time. When the Taylors made the decision to mechanize the operation, they were one of the first logging crews in the area to do so. They started by purchasing a chipper that allowed them to sell wood chips to feed S.D. Warren’s biomass boiler in Westbrook, Maine, and within a few months they also bought a grapple skidder. They eventually bought a loader, mostly to load logs on trucks, but it came with a bar saw slasher and delimber, and they soon discovered the advantages and higher production potential of bucking out logs and pulpwood with this piece of equipment.
Today, the company operates two mechanized crews, four of their own trucks, plus some hired trucks. Each crew can move up to 40 loads per week, but generally they average between 30 and 35 loads per crew. Current equipment consists of two loaders/slashers, two tracked feller bunchers, four grapple skidders, two chippers, two excavators, and a dozer. With a new skidder running around $285,000 and an industrial logging-grade chipper upwards of $500,000, the Taylors have a sizeable investment in their logging business.
The four brothers are now joined by the third generation of Taylors: Gary’s son Jeff, Dennis’s son Heath and daughter Diana, and Scott’s sons Brad and Bud. Diana’s husband, Milt Seavey, owns his own truck and hauls for the Taylors. Laurence, at 78 years old, is still active in the business, running for parts, sharpening chipper knives, and running a dozer. Other key members of the team include Tylor Libby, Dan Libby, Ryan Mills, and Jason Roy. Tylor is a truck driver and is planning, in the near future, to become an owner and operator with his own truck and center-mount loader and to haul lumber for the Taylors.
I recently visited a job in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where one of the Taylor crews was busy logging a woodlot owned by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Soon after I arrived on the landing, Milt Seavey drove in with his Peterbilt truck pulling a chip box. He quickly turned around in the tight landing and backed up to a big, fairly new Continental Biomass Industries chipper; that company has a manufacturing facility in Newton, New Hampshire. Gary Taylor, operating a TimberKing loader, began feeding the chipper from a tall pile of low-grade stems and tops – a mix of hardwood and softwood. Within 25 minutes, Milt was pulling away with a fully loaded trailer containing 30 tons of chips headed for a biomass plant in Tamworth, New Hampshire. Other products piled up neatly on the landing awaiting trucking included oak, ash, hemlock, and white pine sawlogs, hardwood pulp, and firewood.
After the chip truck left the landing, Taylor shut down and exited the loader, and we sat down on my tailgate to talk about running a family business and the current challenges with low-grade markets.
Taylor thinks that the best years for their logging operation were between 2012 and 2015, when equipment was becoming very efficient and markets were good. Logs, pulpwood, and chips were all in demand and paying good prices, and the Taylors were moving large volumes of product. There were three large buyers of roundwood pulp: Sappi’s chipping plant and Ossipee Chipping, both in Ossipee, New Hampshire, and Verso’s yard in Freedom, New Hampshire. Two of the three chipping plants are no longer in operation, and one is currently buying only small amounts.
The current logging job in Gilmanton is about 50 miles from home base, and the company’s trucks are now traveling well over 100 miles to pulpwood markets in West Paris and Jay, Maine. This raises costs, lowering stumpage prices that can be paid to landowners and requiring greater trucking capacity because of the longer times trucks are on the road. Compounding this challenge is the fact that both hardwood and softwood pulpwood prices are much lower than they were a few years ago, and there are tight quotas on hemlock and spruce/fir pulpwood. Taylor said that pine pulpwood markets are practically nonexistent, and there are no local pellet markets. They are able to move some firewood to local processors, but he said that market is limited because there are so many other loggers looking to sell wood into it. He also pointed out that relatively low heating-oil prices mean a lower demand for firewood and pellets. Taylor noted the irony that low oil prices help logging operations, whose machines and trucks use large quantities of fuel, while at the same time hurting the prices loggers get for some of their products. Taylor thinks that if diesel prices were to rise to four dollars per gallon, at current wood prices, “you’ll see a lot of guys parked.”
Taylor estimates that 90 percent of landowners he deals with prefer chipping jobs mainly because of the aesthetics of the finished logging job, but he has found that “they mostly realize it’s not a big money maker.” In the past year, chip prices at biomass facilities have fallen between seven and eight dollars per ton. At current production levels for the Taylors of between 40,000 and 50,000 tons per year, that drop adds up to a lot of money. Taylor told me most landowners understand stumpage prices will be lower than in the past and that many of the landowners keep a close watch on wood markets. He did say that “some landowners are waiting it out.”
Sawlogs of most species are in demand right now and pay well; Taylor said, “Sawlogs are keeping us going right now.” He would love to see a woodlot cut out at 50 percent sawlogs but said “if you can get 40 percent, you’re doing good;” 30 percent is more typical. Because of this, the Taylors are looking for lots with more logs and becoming more selective about which jobs they take. They also find themselves traveling a little farther from home to find good lots. They used to try to get spring jobs on dry ground with mostly chipper wood, but not anymore because of low market prices.
Taylor’s philosophy is to treat the landowner’s woodlot as he would his own, and he’s proud to say that the company has many repeat clients and has never had to advertise. Taylor told me that what he likes best about the business, and feels most fortunate for, is working with family. They are often together outside of work, too, as the young guys enjoy hunting, fishing, and the outdoors in general. They spend a lot of time in the local woods, and Taylor recently purchased a hunting property in Ohio, where they spend a few weeks at camp every year. He is fairly optimistic about the future of the logging profession in the Northeast and is hopeful that markets will improve. He believes that logging continues to be a good occupation to get into. A fourth generation of Taylors has now entered the world, and Taylor said, “The business has been good to my generation; hopefully it will also be good to the next one.”
Ross Caron lives in northern New Hampshire and works as a procurement forester. He enjoys a variety of outdoor pursuits, reading, working with wood, and managing his family’s woodlots.
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.