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N.C. Loggers Value Ties with Supplier, Customer

Forest Equipment Company has played important role in evolution of Blue Ridge Tree Service & Logging

By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 2/4/2003

BAKERSVILLE, N.C. — When the owners of timber harvesting companies discuss their success, they almost always stress the help they had along the way. Johnny McKinney and Mike Sparks the owners of Blue Ridge Tree Service & Logging, are as modest as anyone in attributing the success they have enjoyed to the help they received from others.

Asked recently to discuss the factors that have allowed their firm to be successful at a time of challenge for many in the forest products industry, the two pointed to their equipment dealer and to the company that contracts their logging services. Both have had a profound influence and positive impact on their business.

"Our equipment dealer, Forest Equipment Company, has been there for us when some other companies might not have been," said Johnny. "I’m not so sure we’d be where we are without them. We’ve been just as fortunate with our major client, Parton Land and Timber Company. They’ve kept us working, and that’s really important. You can’t keep the equipment you need to do a good job of logging today if you’re not working."

Johnny and Mike have come a long way since they began ‘logging’ for themselves in the early 1990s. They began Blue Ridge Tree Service after each had worked other jobs for a number of years. "Mike and I have been friends since we were in grade school," said Johnny. "We both wanted to work towards owning our own business, so we went in together as a tree service company."

The firm got into ‘logging’ the hard way, recovering saw logs from trees they removed for customers, then rolling them up onto the bed of a truck using log ramps and a peevee. Their hard work and reliability caught the attention of mill owners where they sold their logs. Before long, Johnny and Mike were working at a series of small-scale jobs that allowed them to gain more experience. First they used an old farm tractor equipped with a front end lift and a set of forks, and later they advanced to a four-wheel drive tractor. The work continued to come in and the business continued to grow so.

"Nine years ago this April, we went ahead and made the decision to get into full-fledged harvesting," said Johnny, "and we’ve been going ever since."

Blue Ridge Tree Service & Logging today is a far cry from the business that Johnny and Mike began with so much back-breaking labor more than a decade ago. They operate in the western forests of North Carolina from Bakersville, a small town near Asheville. Blue Ridge harvests trees from the hills and valleys of the region for Parton Land and Timber, a large land holder in the area. Instead of rolling logs up a ramp by hand, now they use modern, mechanized equipment to harvest, process, and haul logs to their destinations.

Parton Land and Timber has encouraged Johnny and Mike as they’ve grown their enterprise. This single customer has supplied a good deal of the work necessary to finance the gradual expansion that Blue Ridge has experienced since its early days.

"These people are real top-flight people to work with," said Johnny. "They appreciate people like Mike and I who are willing to go the extra mile to do a harvest right. They want to make sure their lands are taken care of, so they take care of people who do things the way they’re supposed to be done."

The terrain that Blue Ridge operates in for Parton varies from very steep and hilly to low valley land, according to Johnny, so the company has to be able to work under a broad variety of conditions. "Mostly," he said, "We do pine and poplar, but about 25 percent of the wood we process is oak and other hardwoods."

Johnny and Mike go to great lengths to make sure that harvest parameters are complied with when they work on Parton land. The stability of working for a strong customer with a large supply of timber is very important to a company like Blue Ridge, Johnny noted.

"They’ve never said slow down," Johnny said. "And for our part, we have worked hard to do a job that is good enough that they’ve said we’ll be working as long as they have land to harvest."

On a Blue Ridge Tree Service & Logging job site, once timber specified by the client’s foresters has been felled, it is removed from the woods with a Franklin model 170 skidder equipped with 175-200 feet of cable. The cable is necessary, he said, because the skidder cannot always get to the downed trees in a selective cut; the cable and winch ensures the wood can be retrieved and removed without damaging residual trees.

Once snaked out of the woods, the trees are skidded to an established drop-off point, often at the top of a ridge. As the trees accumulate, they are picked up by a Timberjack 460 grapple skidder and taken to the landing. At the landing, "I get to play with them," Johnny said, laughing.

‘Playing’ with the trees means using a Prentice 384 loader with a trailer-mounted CTR delimber unit supported by a Forest Equipment Company (FEC) Log-Pro slasher for bucking. Johnny chose the Prentice 384 because it is capable of handling a broad range of stems. Unlike cutting trees on a plantation, Blue Ridge harvests everything from thinnings to select cuts to salvage timber. The bulk of the timber is pine, but Johnny and Mike also cut and process a considerable amount of hardwood.

"I needed something that could handle almost everything," Johnny said. The Prentice 384 is an excavator-style machine customized for high production logging, including the additional stress that pull-through delimbing puts on a machine. The loader has a lift capacity of 22,683 pounds at 15 feet of extension and a swing torque of more than 42,000 pounds. "Sometimes you need every bit of that and more," Johnny said.

The stems are delimbed — the slash is returned by the skidder to the woods when practical — and then swung over to the slasher. The Log-Pro slasher is mounted on an extended frame so Johnny can measure and cut to length easily and quickly. Logs are then either merchandise to wait for transport or loaded directly onto waiting trucks.

Production varies since Johnny and Mike work under such a wide range of conditions. The company may do eight or nine loads one day but only four the next. They average five or six loads per day.

Compared to the mechanized equipment that Blue Ridge Tree Service & Logging uses today, the work that Johnny and Mike used to do was primitive, but the gains they made did not come overnight. The company has gradually evolved. Forest Equipment Company played an important part in that evolution.

Johnny and Mike realized early on that they would have to work towards improving their business with mechanized logging methods if they wanted to achieve significant levels of production and also help conserve forest resources. "Land owners are very progressive today," said Johnny. "They are environmentally on top of things, and they are concerned about the generation that will manage the land next. They want someone with the ability and the equipment needed to harvest with a light touch on the land. I think if you want to be that kind of company, you have to keep your equipment up to date."

At first Johnny and Mike expanded with one piece of equipment at a time, investing in a small Cat dozer and then a loader. When that loader began to wear out, they went to Forest Equipment Co. to see about a replacement and bought a Barko 160-B loader. That decision made them realize how important an equipment dealer could be to their business and also was their first experience with Forest Equipment Co. machinery.

The Barko loader was a used machine, so Johnny and Mike faced some maintenance challenges with it. "Even though the machine was used, they stuck behind it," Johnny recalled. "We bought parts from them, and they took care of the labor costs on some work. We thought to ourselves, ‘They’re some pretty good fellows. You can trust them.’ "

Not long afterwards, they had an opportunity to purchase another used loader and a used skidder at a "killer price" in a distress sale. Johnny and Mike decided to seize the opportunity and expand further. The additions, a Prentice 180 loader and a Franklin skidder, allowed the two men to develop their business further.

Under the tough logging conditions, the skidder eventually began to cost more than Blue Ridge wanted to invest in order to keep it running. "That’s when the relationship with FEC really began," Johnny said.

Their next investment in a skidder began a series of upgrades. The purchase stretched the finances of Blue Ridge, but Forest Equipment Company stretched with Johnny and Mike. The dealer worked with them on price and financing and followed up with extraordinary service. "Through all of that, they showed us that they aren’t just good salespeople up there," said Johnny. "They’re good people."

"They’ve come out at almost a moment’s notice when we’re down and done everything they can to make sure we’re up and running quick," he continued. "We needed new chains once but just couldn’t get in to pick them up. Tony Holland loaded them up in his own vehicle and brought them by, then helped us put them on. You have to value people like that, and we do."

Today, Blue Ridge Tree Service & Logging continues to grow and is looking forward to the future. Last year was tough, though, as bad weather limited time in the woods. Johnny and Mike gained even more appreciation for the support they receive from FEC and Parton Lands.

"It really shows that we’re all together in this," said Johnny. "We couldn’t survive without the support they’ve given us, and we repay them, we hope, by doing the best harvest possible for our landowner. That means we’re going to continue needing new machinery, and that’s good for FEC. It ends up we all help each other, and we all come out better because of it."


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