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Nechako Valley: A History of the Value-Added Industry

"Looking back to the early days in the Vanderhoof District, that is before the coming of the Railroad and after, on[e] is very con[s]cious of the great changes, that 50 years can bring. It makes one fully aware, that the commonplace things we use today, didn’t exist then, these things being the results of the wonderful invention[s] of the last half century."

Even though these words of William Evans were written in the early sixties, they speak profound truth and quite literally address an industry that began as a byproduct to agriculture and expanded into a key player of lumber products at the global level—namely, the value-added sector.

Resource extraction is one area wherein these "wonderful inventions" have played a key part. Timber harvesting within the Nechako Valley began in the early 1900s. The inevitable "byproducts" of this industry catalyzed a now thriving value-added industry. Milling lumber had begun nearly as soon as European settlers had arrived in the area, creating materials to build homesteads. Essentially, this began in the 1940s and 50s with bushmilling. Settlers were lured to the region with the promise of cheap land. The problem: the land first had to be cleared. This was during the post-war era wherein timber prices had begun to rise. This caused many mills in the area to become active again. However, as prices rose and fell, mills too either amalgamated, grew or folded. In this time Dave Martens & Son begun operations, expanded them, and added a planer. Some time after its creation, the mill site was moved east of Vanderhoof to Engen whereat it still exists in the modern and now unrecognizable form of the Slocan Group, Plateau Division.

Two other mills begun in Vanderhoof at this time. They were Eric Shaede’s mill and the Vanderhoof Lumber Company. Each have since moved to millsites north of the Fort St. James town site termed Canfor and Apollo, respectively.

It was during this time of beginnings that many key players in the Nechako Valley’s value-added sector were introduced. Mike Bond and Mike Manojlovic of L&M Lumber Ltd.; Bob Stewart now in Prince George; and Johnny Martens of the previously mentioned Plateau Mills.

The subsequent generation introduced value-added personnel who are still very active in the industry. Of this second generation of key players in this region, many are still active participants in the value-added sector in the Nechako Valley. Keith Spencer began his work at West Fraser’s operation in Quesnel. In management, he has had experience in Westar, Plateau, and most recently with Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products. One of his business associates, Bid Construction, established in 1983, has often worked alongside Keith as a sawmill, forestry fabricating and installation business. It was this very partnership which created Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products, a re-manufacturing facility, in 1990. VSWP initiators made a conscious decision to create a value-added mill. In addition to VSWP, a First Nations partnership with the Slocan Group’s Plateau Division and VSWP, led to the creation of Dezti Wood Ltd., a joint venture of the two mentioned companies and Ne Duchun Forest Products Ltd. Ne Duchun (meaning "our wood") Forest Products Ltd. is a partnership of Stoney Creek, Nadleh Whut’en and Stellaquo bands.

L&M Lumber Ltd. wet its feet in the value-added industry by creating bedstock materials. New machinery was introduced to create this new and unique material for their business. In addition to bedstock, they introduced barcodes so that their products were ready for the retail market.

In 1998, Forest Renewal BC made the following claim: "Today, more than 700 businesses in British Columbia—from small woodworking shops to large specialty manufacturers—convert unfinished wood into value-added products. By extracting more value from every tree harvested, these woodworkers, artisans and businesses are meeting the challenge of developing a healthy, sustainable forest industry in B.C. By moving the industry from volume to value production, they are building a stronger economic and employment future for the province." The Northern Wood Forum—Touch Wood 2000—is another example of this claim.

 Slocan Group (Plateau Division) For over half a century the mill started by Dave Martens has existed at various locations on the outskirts of Vanderhoof. Its initial form consisted of a single bush mill, five employees, and horses, which transported fallen timber to the mill site. The mill was located on Vanderhoof’s northside, and in 1944 brought in an annual cut of 150,000 board feet. On the northside, the millsite operated under the names of Martens Mills (1944), Dave Martens & Sons (1948), Blue Mountain Sawmills (1949), and finally Plateau Mills in 1967. During the following year, Plateau Mills Ltd. acquired three local mills and eventually moved their operations to Engen in 1971. The government bought out Bills Martens in 1972 and made it a crown corporation. Most recently, the mill was acquired by Slocan in 1993, and the mill’s present moniker—Plateau Division—remains with it till this day. Plateau is boasted as "one of the largest and most efficient producers of dimension lumber in British Columbia." Its nearly three hundred employees manufacture primarily dimension lumber and its main products specifically include J-grade dimension lumber, machine stress rated (MSR) lumber, precision end trimming of studs, and wood chips. They cut in a sixteen hour day with two shifts and produce 350 million board feet per year. The markets exist in Canada, the USA, Asia, and Europe.

While its intent is to produce as much hi-grade dimension lumber as possible, a certain volume of its wood is slated for the value-added sector. This includes trim blocks transported to the secondary produces such as Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products and Dezti.

Plateau Division generally exports its materials, which will eventually be transformed to value-added products. Additionally, MSR lumber is termed by Slocan to be a value-added product as it is used in roof trusses. Based on a five year license, VSWP and Dezti receive many of Plateau’s trim blocks in exchange for specialty lumber. The license was part of the Small Business Program (5 year value-added license) intented to start a business. The idea is that a business would eventually operate on its own and hopefully secure other sources of timber. In addition, D and D Sawmills trades Slocan’s lumber for D and D’s kiln strips, which separates lumber for drying; and lath, which separates the lumber that Slocan ships to its customers. And on a much finer scale, wood shavings are used by local farmers to provide bedding for their livestock. At a cost of ten dollars per load of shavings, the money is redistributed into the local community.

Canadian Forest Products Ltd. (Isle Pierre Division) The Isle Pierre Division of Canadian Forest Products Ltd. was originally built in the mid 1960s and owned by the Lloyd Brothers of Prince George. In 1967 Canfor purchased the operation which was launched in 1970. Significant change did not occur until 1997 when "it was converted to a 12 foot mill to produce 12 foot square edge for the big box store, and J-grade for the Asian market." In 1998, Canfor rationalized its north central B.C. operations, which brought about an end for some mills, but a continuation for Isle Pierre. Thirty six million dollars was allocated in Canfor's five year capital plan to rebuild the mill, of which the first phase was completed in December of 1999. The Isle Pierre Division currently employs one hundred and twenty people. As of April first, there are three regular 10 hour shifts Monday to Thursday with three twelve hour shifts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Isle Pierre produces mainly dimension lumber consisting of 10 and 12' 2x4 and 2x6. These materials are shipped to the Home Depot,and Lowes in the US, and to Japan as J-grade lumber. Like Plateau, Isle Pierre supplies farmers in the Vanderhoof area with wood shavings. These shavings are also use in the drying lumber process. A number of product are shipped to value-added producers. Isle Pierre supplies VSWP with one inch materials, Northern Wood Specialties with 2x5 laminated stock and one inch specialty wood, and Dollar Saver with one inch products. It also ships four inch cants to Bridgeside Higa, a value-added re-manufacturing plant in Lillooet, BC.

Nechako Lumber Company Ltd. / L&M Lumber Ltd. Nechako Lumber began in 1969 and L&M in 1973. The mill operations started in the spring of 1973. The Nechako Lumber Company Ltd. employs 150 in the yard alone with an additional 150 contractors. The mill workers work nine and a half hour days for 5 days a week. The mill capacity for lumber is 150 million board feet per year and they are currently at 7 million board feet. They ship to a worldwide market including wholesalers in Richmond, BC. The mill employs a ‘Hog Fuel’ energy system, which uses bark and sawdust to heat the dry kiln. L&M now produces bed frame stock for brokers C.J. Hodder Lumber Company Inc. and Lewis Lumber. This site also makes stakes and J-grade lumber for Japan. The mill anticipates that by the summer, approximately ten new employees will be at the site producing pellets from sawdust and shavings in a pellet mill (‘Premium Pellet’).

West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. (Fraser Lake Sawmills) Fraser Lake Sawmills began in 1978 as a merger of two smaller mills from Fraser Lake and Fort Fraser. In 1979, the mill was purchased by West Fraser, which was established originally in Quesnel as a small lumber planing mill in 1955. Fraser Lake Sawmills was a stud mill in 1979, but in 1980/81 introduced dimension lumber producing sizes 2x3 to 2x10 and lengths of eight to twenty feet. In 1995, the stud mill was torn out and smaller logs were introduced to add smaller logs for dimension lumber. Fraser Lake Sawmills exists essentially in two parts: that which processes smaller logs and that which processes bigger logs. The mill employs 245 people, of which 45 are in administration plus an additional 200 contractors. The mill operates each day in two shifts totaling sixteen hours and the planer operates three shifts five days per week. The main product is dimension lumber of which one million board feet are produced annually. Fraser Lake Sawmills ships its two foot trim blocks in sizes 2x3, 2x4, and 2x6 to West Fraser in Quesnel whereat it is made into finger jointed stud lumber. It also produces pulp and paper. One inch materials (1x4 & 1x6) are sold to re-manufacturers in Kamloops, Pouce Coupe, and Edmonton to make shingles, highway stakes, and a variety of other products. Additional materials are sent to Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products for finger jointing.

Dezti Wood Ltd. In 1990 the Stony Creek, Nadleh Whut’en and Stellaquo people formed Ne Duchun Forest Products Ltd. The intention was to obtain a wood supply and build a value-added wood products plant, and to create meaningful and long term employment opportunities for native people. Dezti Wood Ltd. is a joint venture company formed by Ne Duchun Forest Products, Plateau Forest Products Ltd. and Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products.
Ownership: Ne Duchun Forest Products Ltd. 51.0%
    • Stony Creek
    • Nadleh Whut’en
    • Stellaquo
  Plateau Forest Products Ltd./Slocan Group 24.5%
  Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products 24.5%

D&D Resawing Fourteen years ago, brothers David and Darren Wruth began D&D resawing. Today D&D Resawing employs twenty four full-time workers who work nine and a half hour shifts five days a week. Each day thirty five to forty thousand board feet are processed.

Their lumber supply comes entirely from Slocan Group’s Plateau Division as a low grade planed lumber as no drying facilities exist on site. The lumber is evaluated by the employees for appropriate use, then it is marked and cut accordingly. The wood is then passed on to be manually sorted and piled. Currently D&D Resawing has no plans for expansion. Approximately eighty percent of the webstock goes to Winnipeg and other products are shipped to various wholesalers, one of which is in Richmond.

There is a sense that the success of the value-added operations is due largely to the relationships with people at Plateau. However, David also recognizes that mills are producing less and less low grade lumber. Furthermore, as with VSWP, D and D Resawing has filled a value-added niche.

D and D supplies palettes for Endako Mines, studs, seven foot J-grade lengths, and strips. They also produce webstock of which eighty percent goes to Winnipeg. D and D supplies Canfor’s operation in Moricetown with finger jointing blocks to make finger jointed lumber.

Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Products was incorporated August 3,1990 with 12 people as a joint partnership of Keith Spencer and BID Construction. Ten years later it has grown significantly and employs 221 people. This growth is attributed to remanufacturing local species and low grade wood to create higher value and higher quality. The problem, however, is that there is very little fiber available The current process is to take wood waste and low grade lumber and sort, dry, chop, re-sort, and glue, which makes wood longer and wider for the marketplace. Vanderhoof Specialty Wood Product’s current operations are to run the mill twenty four hours a day. Its success is marked by good relationships with Plateau, L&M Lumber, and Isle Pierre who supply them with lumber supply. Keith Spencer notes, "The important thing is to have good relationships and for a company to utilize anything that is an asset." VSWP products are shipped to the USA and Japan. Of the over one hundred different product, value is added by adding moisture content, sorting and chopping of high grades, gluing, finger jointing and edge or face gluing. The VSWP main plant presently produces finger jointed and solid Japanese housing components, which include finger jointed and solid studs. In the moulder and paint shop, such items as include stakes, markers, finger joint blocks, and others. Shavings used to fire kilns and to provide heat.

L. Ward Johnson writes that "we expect our production costs will be lower, our lumber recovery will improve, and we will get more grade recovery from the logs we process." This is a similar goal of the wood processing industry whether it is primary (manufacturing) or secondary (re-manufacturing). The "inventions" Williams Evans wrote about in 1962 are "wonderful"; however, the success of the primary may be the downfall of the secondary.

But we have seen that the value-added industry survives by filling niches, something it is sure to do. So how then is this industry to survive with fewer materials on hand? Ron Stephen suggests increased marketing and commercialization. He also shares the notion of many that finding a wood supply is crucial. Keith Spencer suggests a better utilization of that which has been traditionally termed "low grade" and "wood waste."

Not only does there need to be an adequate supply of wood, the value-added industry also needs to focus on the social environment. Players in the industry comment that good relations are key as is a cooperative spirit. Spencer adds to this stating there "needs to be more public involvement in influencing economic direction of north."

Interestingly, Canfor’s Quesnel Division was the 1997 of the Forest Excellence Award: Value-Added, saving 120 jobs by developing a market for specialty wood products in Japan.

Additional notes: Comments/Suggestions: