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Central Iowa Firewood Growing Fast, Adds Second Kiln-direct MiniQuick Firewood Drying Kiln
Owner of Squiers Logging starts a second company thatís focused on firewood.
By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 1/6/2017
TAMA, Iowa – Imagine increasing production 15-fold in a single year. That’s exactly what Central Iowa Firewood was on target to do when we talked with Luke Squiers, owner of the company, in mid-December.
Luke started Central Iowa Firewood (CIF) in 2014. In 2015, the company produced 100 cords. The year 2016 will register some 1500 cords.
Ninety percent of the firewood sold by CIF is kiln-dried and packaged. Brisk sales require a steady supply of product to meet demand. To keep pace, Luke just added a second MiniQuick firewood kiln. Like the first, it is from Kiln-direct in Burgaw, N.C.
“I chose Kiln-direct because I knew others who had them,” said Luke, explaining that he received good reviews. He also did his own research.
Each Kiln-direct MiniQuick firewood kiln has a six-cord capacity. Both use natural gas.
The first kiln Luke purchased used propane as a fuel source, but Luke decided to switch it to natural gas (from the grid). With natural gas prices being fairly low and relatively stable, it made sense. “Liquid propane can fluctuate in price and it must be delivered,” said Luke.
Not only did the team at Kiln-direct convert Luke’s first kiln to natural gas heat, but it also updated it to incorporate all the improvements made to its MiniQuick firewood kilns in the two years between Luke’s purchases. The improvements include software enhancements, burner upgrades, higher average drying temperature, and email notifications.
The email notifications enable Luke to receive updates on kiln activity to his smartphone regarding when a load is finished or if there is an error in the drying cycle that must be addressed. Such mobile alerts are important to all busy company owners.
And Luke is an exemplar of a busy owner. He not only owns CIF, but he also owns Squiers Logging. In fact, it was his work at Squiers Logging that got him thinking about firewood as a product. “I hated to see so much being left,” he explained, citing the raw material that was not suitable for mills.
To launch CIF, Luke purchased a Blockbuster firewood processor. The Blockbuster model 18-20 has a 30-inch bar. It handles logs to 20 feet long and to 24 inches in diameter. Blockbuster is manufactured in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
The basic Blockbuster model 18-20 puts the operator safely behind a Plexiglas panel. The same machine can be purchased with an optional all-weather operator’s cab.
One year after buying the processor, Luke went back to Blockbuster for a tumbler. “A tumbler is a must-have for bundling – to clean the wood before kiln drying,” he explained. Clean wood is good for kilns and good for customers.
For large diameter logs, Luke relies on a skid-steer mounted splitter from TM Manufacturing. The company’s “Skidsplitters” are available in 9 different models, 3 different strokes and 3 different cylinder sizes. The Pro 2 SkidSplitters have a combination of three different wedges, single split, 4-way and 6-way, in addition to optional custom-made wedges, that can be interchanged quickly without tools.
Based on research and comments from others using the system, Luke chose a Wood-PAKer, shrink-wrapping machine from B&B Manufacturing in Olean, N.Y. The models in the Wood-PAKer line are designed for optimal utilization of employees. In addition to shrink-wrap packaging equipment for firewood, B&B offers packaging systems to accommodate slabs and edging.
CIF has six employees and they will soon be working in a new setting. “I just bought a 20,000 square-foot facility with a loading dock,” said Luke. The building had been owned by John Deere.
The new structure will allow packaging and shipping to be streamlined. That’s significant given the breadth of the expanding firewood operation.
“We are currently serving nine state – through vendors,” said Luke. “Some of the vendors will do their own pickup and trucking.” Shipment to others is via CRST International, headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
All the firewood is from hardwood species. Some specialty orders are completed. “I’ll sell wood to barbecue places – oak or hickory or even cherry,” said Luke. And oak is sold to pizza establishments.
Wood from Squiers Logging that does not head to mills becomes the raw material for CIF. The four-employee team at Squiers Logging does all hand cutting and relies on Jonsered chain saws to fell and three John Deere skidders to move lengths. A Western Star fitted with a Rotobec loader and a Mack with a Prentice 120E loader are used to load, forward and transport logs.
“We cut down large trees,” said Luke. Most of the work on private land comes from referrals.
Large trees and Iowa might not seem like a match to our readers who have not been to Iowa and know the state for its rich and generally flat farmland. Yet with so many tributaries of the Missouri and Mississippi, Iowa also has a richness of small forests along the banks of those rivers. In the northwest part of the state, which has the highest elevation, there are many hills and many areas of hardwoods dominated by oak species. Moreover, the drop along many of the rivers is steep enough to produce gorgeous falls and hydro-power.
Tama, Iowa, the home to both CIF and Squiers Logging, lies along the Iowa River. It is part of Tama County, which is situated just a bit east of the center of the state. There are approximately 2,900 residents in Tama.
(The origin of the place name Tama does generate some disagreement. Does it derive from the name of a Native American chief or the wife of a chief – and even so, which one? Here’s the short list of contenders: Taimah, Fox Indian Chief; Taomah, wife of the Fox Indian chief Poweshiek; chief Pottama.)
“We log mostly in Iowa and Nebraska,” said Luke. Illinois is sometimes a destination. “Everything is 100 percent hardwood.”
All species of wood except basswood and elm are tapped for firewood. Some customers who burn firewood to heat their homes receive loose loads from CIF and account for the 10 percent of firewood that is not kiln-dried.
For all the perception that the Hawkeye State is one defined by prairie, farmland – and to be honest, lots of corn, it also contributes vital trees to the wood products industry and beyond. The cultigen from which the now at least 50 cultivars of red delicious apple derived was developed in Madison County, Iowa in 1880. The Iowa Nut Growers Association in Story City, Iowa is just one of many groups indicative of the variety of trees and tree products coming from the state.
Then, too, there are the bits of history tied to trees. In 1839, a border dispute involving a tiny bit of land between Iowa and Missouri neared (but evaded) a serious conflict. The tension started when Missouri claimed the area and wanted to collect taxes from land owners who claimed an anchor in Iowa. Show-me Sate tax collectors then went and cut down coveted trees favored by bees, thus giving the near altercation the moniker of Honey War.
Luke began a full-time commitment to the wood products industry when he was 18 years old. “My father was in the logging business, but he stopped logging to do engine repair,” he explained. At that juncture Luke had to find something else to do. It was a good thing in giving him experience on the saw mill side of the industry. After working with his father, he worked at a mill operating a log loader for a time, and then decided to start his own business.
When we first spoke with Luke, Ben Kemp, the Service/Install manager at Kiln-direct, was at his site working on the installation of the second MiniQuick firewood kiln. “I have really enjoyed working with Kiln-direct,” said Luke. “Their support system is very good.” He added there are really “very few problems” to resolve with the kiln.
Simplifying the process of drying for the customer is important. “Kiln-direct Quick firewood kilns operate at higher temperatures than most other firewood kilns available, shortening the drying cycle,” explained Niels Jorgensen, owner of Kiln-direct. The MiniQuick meets the 160F sterilizing requirement for wood.
Kiln-direct brings deep knowledge of kiln drying to its firewood kilns. The company is the leading producer of pallet kilns in the United States, and offers a wide range of heat-treatment and lumber-drying kilns. Kiln-direct is committed to offering quality and performance to customers; but believes in the importance of sustainable service for all their customers to insure continued support and upgrade to existing customers and their equipment.
Customers also want to dry in the most cost-efficient way, which may change depending on economic fluxes. “Gas-heated firewood kilns represent 80 to 90 percent of kiln sales due to very low gas costs,” said Niels. “New wood waste – mulch, chips, sawdust – heated firewood kilns are available, but probably will not be widely sold until gas prices go up.”
In all his endeavors, including operating Central Iowa Firewood and Squiers Logging, Luke follows a clear path. “My main philosophy is running on biblical principles,” he said. “We honor and glorify God in all we do.”
Summing up the three most important components of his businesses, Luke said: “Our goal is to honor God, to respect our workers, [and to ensure the] quality of our work and products.”
Kiln-direct and Niels Jorgensen operate on the same faith principles as Luke and his company, which is one of many reason they work well together.
Luke enjoys his work, as well as one great advantage it affords. “I love being outdoors,” he said.
The father of four children ages five and under, Luke values being with his family. He also enjoys doing some hunting – when time permits.
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