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Strong Enough To Survive: A young pellet mill finds the chip they need. Geneva Wood Turns to Bandit Beast Grinders.

After a century of being the toothpick capital of the world, the plant at Strong, Maine, came back to life in 2009 as a new wood pellet line. Geneva Wood Fuels selected a Bandit 3680 Beast grinder to produce the chip they needed for efficient manufacturing of high quality wood pellets. The ultimate goal is to move to a larger Model 4680 Beast grinder.

By Staff
Date Posted: 4/1/2012

        Situated approximately 50 miles northwest of Augusta, Maine is the quiet, simple, neighborly town of Strong. This humble villa is the epitome of small town life in the upper Northeast, complete with modestly attractive 19th and early-20th century buildings assembled neatly among the rolling hills and picturesque views of Maine’s Western Mountains. Just south of town is the Sandy River, which propelled Strong’s prosperity through the 1800s by supporting rich agriculture and attracting numerous mills to the area. Strong has an official history that dates all the way back to 1801, but like so many other small towns across the country rich with local culture, unless you’re a resident, you’ve probably never heard of the place.

        That is, unless you happen to be a connoisseur of logging and timber trivia, in which case you’ll recognize Strong, Maine as the toothpick capital of the world. Or at least, it was; Charles Forster was one of the entrepreneurs drawn to Strong in the mid-1800s, where he established a toothpick mill that would eventually take Forster Manufacturing and the small town to the top of the global toothpick market. Fueled by abundant timber supplies, daily toothpick production reached well into the millions per day, creating a legacy that would ultimately last more than a century. Cheaper overseas competition finally caught up with Maine’s toothpick industry in the late 20th century until the Forster mill in Strong—the first and last toothpick plant in the state—finally closed down in 2002.

        It wouldn’t stay closed for long.

        “Both of our families have been involved with toothpicks for many years,” said Jeff Allen, mill manager for Geneva Wood Fuels. Jeff and his wife Lucinda purchased the old Forster factory when it closed, and they literally kept the fires burning for a few years by running a woods operation and a small co-gen biomass power facility at the site. And then in 2008 came an opportunity to enter the burgeoning wood pellet market.

        “We sold the mill to a gentleman from Chicago who was going to sell wood pellets,” explained Jeff. “He already had a business model, so basically we brought in equipment and built it. That’s the way she stands today.”

        Jeff and Lucinda stayed with the plant as managers while new owner Jonathan Kahn invested upwards of $13 million dollars into the old factory, turning it into a state-of-the-art pellet mill that went online in 2009. It still looks much the same on the outside as it has for the past 60 years, but inside the red walls are three Andritz Sprout pelletizers, a high-efficiency TSI dryer, an Andritz Sprout stationary hammermill, banks of electronics, and advanced computer monitoring systems that all come together to convert wood chips into pellets. Those pellets are then sent to an automated assembly line where they’re packaged into 40-pound bags, stacked on pallets and taken to the loading dock via forklift. Crews load as many as 10 to 12 trucks each day, shipping pellets to customers and retail outlets throughout New England under the names of Maine’s Choice and Geneva. For bulk deliveries, pellets skip the packaging process and go to a silo where they’re loaded directly into feed trailers for transport.

        “Most of the pellet activity is here in the Northeast,” said Lucinda. “That’s where most people want them so our pellets go to Massachusetts, New York, down into Rhode Island and Connecticut. That’s about the furthest our pellets go.”

        That’s the process on the inside, but before the pelletizers or the assembly lines get a crack at their duties, round wood logs delivered to the plant must be debarked and converted into chips. To make a quality pellet while getting the best efficiency and throughput from the mill, the team at Geneva Wood Fuels uses a very specific wood chip. Getting that chip in the first place wasn’t easy; Jeff said they tried all kinds of machines from numerous manufacturers, but none of the chippers or grinders they tested could produce the right size and style of chip that worked best in the mill. It was actually at a trade show in the southern U.S. that Mr. Kahn came upon Bandit Industries and the Model 3680 Beast, and after considerable research it proved to be the only machine that could ultimately do the job.

        “Nothing else could make that product,” remarked Jeff. “Nobody else has that mill design; you just can’t do it with anything else. The sizing is everything when you put it into the mill. You also have to be careful that you don’t hurt the wood fibers, because they hold the pellet together. You can’t just beat it out; you really have to cut it because grinding just doesn’t work. This all affects how your dryer feeds, because if it balls up when you put it in the dryer, it’s the wrong product and it won’t come out.”

        Beast horizontal grinders use a patented cuttermill designed to process material with more of a cutting action. Geneva Wood Fuels took it a step further on their 3680, using Bandit’s Chipper Knife setup with a four-inch screen to get the specific product they needed. The company started with a 540-horsepower CAT C15 version of the 3680, making the most of its 35 by 60-inch mill opening to process just about anything fed into it. The C15-powered Beast worked eight to nine hours a day for the better part of a year, accumulating close to 2000 hours before Jeff decided an upgrade was in order. The company stayed with the 3680 but switched to a newer model running a 700-horsepower CAT C18, and since August 2011 it’s been working at a similar pace as their previous Beast. According to Jeff, however, there’s still more room to run.

        “Right now, the pellet mill is nowhere near capacity,” he explained. “For power reasons we’re only running off-peak, nine hours a night. We can save $25,000 a month in power costs because it’s so much cheaper to run at night. We can do about 4000 to 5000 tons a month on this off-peak deal, but as the demand increases we’ll go away from that. There’s a Catch-22 so-to-speak, because once we cross that bridge we’re going to lose the $25,000 savings right away, so we’ll need to sell quite a bit extra to make the added production worth it. We could probably make 7000 or 8000 tons a month; the Beast would be working overtime out there!”

        Some might say their Beast is already working overtime, but in addition to being the only machine able to produce the chip they need, it’s also proven to be a machine that can take the daily use with very little drama.

        “If that machine doesn’t run, the plant doesn’t run, and I wouldn’t have bought another one if I wasn’t happy with it,” said Jeff. “You have to keep an eye on any kind of machine like this, and there’s a learning curve too—you have to know what to keep an eye on. We did all the upgrades on our old one, they’re easy to work on and so far they’ve just been quite good. You’re always going to have minor hiccups but if you do your preventative maintenance and take care of it, it will take care of you.”

        Extra overtime for the crews at Geneva Wood Fuels might come sooner rather than later. Global demand for wood pellets is rising thanks to skyrocketing use throughout Europe, where federally established renewable energy requirements are more aggressive. Many sources believe worldwide pellet consumption will increase by a factor of six before the year 2020; whether or not that kind of increase takes place in the United States is uncertain, but increased demand will never the less be felt globally. Local demand is already rising; pellets from the plant are used by area and neighboring school districts, nearby companies, and the town of Strong has installed a wood pellet boiler to heat offices and the library.

        “The pellet market actually took a dive in 2010,” said Jeff. “2011 was a good market, and I think fossil fuel costs were a part of that. We also had a better sales force, and I think more people are looking at renewable resources. We’re doing much better than a year ago.”

        Geneva Wood Fuels is prepared to handle increasing demand. Jeff feels their 3680 can turn out more chips, but moving to a Model 4680 Beast with 1200 horsepower is the ultimate goal. To realize the full production capability of the plant, Jeff envisions a Model 4680 back-to-back with their drum debarker, taking material directly from the machine instead of using a separate loader to feed the Beast.

        “We may have the 4680 here within the next few years,” he replied. “And it sounds crazy, but the fuel economy actually got better when we went with the bigger engine on the 3680. We’re getting more tons per horsepower out of this one, about a 15 to 20 percent improvement over the C15. The power curve doesn’t die off as fast with the bigger engine; it spends less time processing more material. And when we get to the 4680 we can really have some fun!”

        As the pellet market expands, so do the prospects for the region. Like many small towns based around manufacturing, Strong has suffered in the wake of mill closings and the ripple effect goes throughout the area. Geneva Wood Fuels employs 20 people directly, but the plant creates its own ripple effect by supporting 45 loggers, 35 trucking companies and approximately 10 contractors, with the vast majority of these located in Strong or the surrounding areas. The plant uses wood sourced within a 50-mile radius and their busiest time of the year is winter, further boosting the local economy at a time when business typically slows. For a rural town like Strong with a population of roughly 1200, that’s not an insignificant contribution.

        “When the ground freezes, all the swamps and everything freeze over and the wood just flies,” said Jeff. “We have spring and fall mud; the spring is much worse and we’re usually down for 30 to 60 days so we really have to make hay in the winter, take in as much wood as we can get into the yard. Winter is definitely our best time of year.”

        Invigorated by new machinery and a new mission, the old toothpick factory is proving to be as resilient as the town in which it resides. Originally constructed by Forster in the late 1800s, it was rebuilt in 1952 after a fire and reborn as Geneva Wood Fuels in early 2009. A large explosion six months into the pellet operation threatened to permanently close the site, but repairs brought the factory roaring back to life in 2010, better than ever.

        “We’re still growing,” said Jeff. “We’d just started rolling before the explosion; it took a year to rebuild but we’ve been slowly tweaking things. We just might break that off-peak power wall, run full-time just to see what the plant will do. We’ve got a good sales force, my local dealer Hammond Tractor has been real good too, and I’ve got guys at Bandit I can call for whatever I need on the Beast.”

        With the history of Strong so closely tied to the timber industry, there’s a sense that Geneva Wood Fuels isn’t just a business in the community, but rather an institution of the community, with generations of residents invested in its future. Ask just about anyone who calls the area around Strong their home and they will say that, after a century of toothpick production, it’s nice to see the lights back on at the old Forster place—a place where Geneva Wood Fuels is now laying the foundation for a new local legacy. Whether or not the business can last a century like its predecessor remains to be seen, but with an abundance of local material, the support of a tight-knit community, rising demand in the product and a bevy of modern equipment to keep it flowing, don’t be surprised to see those lights burning for a long, long time to come.


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