Michigan Cut-to-Length Logger Still Evolving

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Gudwer Forest Products

Rubber-Tired Machines Latest Step for Gudwer Forest Products; Company Relies on Valmet Harvester, Forwarder

GLADSTONE, Mich. — “I thrive on stress and diversity,” said Jeff Gudwer, the owner of Gudwer Forest Products Inc., a cut-to-length logging business in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With a couple of other business interests in addition to logging, Jeff gets plenty of challenges.

The cut-to-length logging operation was not mechanized when Jeff first launched it in 1980. “I started with chain saws,” he said. “In ’85, I switched to a forwarder with piece cutters, then (added) a harvester…and then (went) to two harvesters and two forwarders.”

Two years ago Jeff made an even bigger change, converting to one forwarder and one harvester. A Valmet 911 harvester and a Valmet 840 forwarder now are the company’s only machines. “I eliminated four people when I went to two machines,” he said.

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Another change soon followed. Last year when Jeff’s long-time driver retired, he could not find a replacement. He sold his truck and now contracts for all hauling with Sundberg Trucking out of Rapid City, Mich.

The reconfigurations of Gudwer Forest Products, rapid at times, made good sense to Jeff at each juncture. When assessing the needs of his logging business, “profitability” must be a major consideration, he noted. However, forestry best management practices also have influenced the way he has structured the business.

Before Jeff began running his Valmet 911 and Valmet 840, he used machines that moved on tracks. “I wanted to get away from tracks…to tires,” he said. The low-lying ground in the Upper Peninsula where he works is subject to rutting, and he was confident that machines mounted on rubber tires would minimize ground disturbance.

The Valmet 840 forwarder replaced an older Valmet model. When Jeff was looking for a new forwarder, he traveled far to evaluate another brand, but he decided he could get what he wanted right in his own backyard. Partek Forest in Finland makes Valmet brand equipment, and the company’s U.S. factory is in Gladstone, Mich., a town of about 4,500.

Jeff bought the Valmet machines from Bark River Culvert and Equipment Inc. in Escanaba, Mich. “The dealership has always treated me well,” said Jeff — another reason he decided to stay close to home.

Jeff owns the first 8-wheel drive Valmet 840 forwarder that was built at the Gladstone plant. “It gives me added flotation,” he said. Jeff also admires the durability of the Valmet equipment, especially since he works with it 12 months each year.

Matt Hanson, the branch manager at Bark River Culvert and Equipment, said that Gudwer Forest Products exemplifies the direction the forest products industry has taken in the past 10 years. With “the big issue…environmental concern,” there has been “a move toward…rubber tires,” he said.

Valmet has kept pace not only with environmental demands but also with the realities of logging. When days are shorter, working early and late requires artificial illumination; the Valmet 911 harvester is equipped with halogen lights as standard equipment. To meet the needs of loggers at high latitudes, the harvester has a pre-heating system for its hydraulics.

The amenities on the harvester get high marks from Jeff, but he has been most impressed with the quick work it makes of felling and with the full-circle slue. “It takes a 28-inch tree at the stump,” said Jeff. “I particularly like the cab mounting. It turns with the machine so you are always looking at your work. You don’t have to turn your head.”

When Jeff occasionally needs a chain saw, he continues to deploy the brand on which he has always relied, Husqvarna, which he described as “virtually trouble free.”

The company’s production is about 40 cords of wood per day. The men have a 10-hour day — eight hours for work, one for maintenance and a one-hour break.

“I’m the floater,” Jeff said, explaining the way he and his two full-time employees share their duties. He runs the harvester from 6 a.m. to noon and said he enjoys every minute of it. An employee operates the harvester from noon to 8 p.m., and the other employee runs the forwarder full-time.

Jeff sometimes thinks about what it might be like to use the Valmet 911 in a plantation stand instead of a forest. “In a pine plantation,” he said, “I wouldn’t be afraid to say (one could get) 80 cords” in an eight-hour period.

He was quick to add that production must always be balanced against stumpage costs. Right now, buying timber on state or federal lands in the region is cost-prohibitive; the governments charge about three times what private landowners get for their timber.

Becoming proficient at operating the Valmet harvester took some time. “I found there’s a learning curve,” said Jeff. Two other things also slowed production initially. One was “self-inflicted breakdowns.” The other was learning to position the harvester optimally. The highly automated harvester required a whole new approach. Gudwer Forest Products had previously used other harvesting heads, and Jeff had grown used to them.

With the learning curve behind him, however, Jeff is in synch with the Valmet machine. “I love running the harvester,” he said. “The machine keeps up with you.”

In the afternoons Jeff spends time at one of his other businesses, a Quick Lube, or looking for stumpage or marketing his company. He also helps his father; together they own a 400-acre farm with nearly 300 beef cattle. Jeff experimented with growing cabbage a couple of years; using migrant workers from Mexico, he grew about 100,000 cabbages each year but found there was not sufficient profit margin in the enterprise.

Running three businesses — his other one is a self-storage business — would not be possible without the full commitment of his wife, Katherine, Jeff noted. “It takes two people,” he said. “She is the backbone as much as I am. You have to have a spouse who understands. She puts in as much time as I do.” Katherine does the bookkeeping for all three businesses. She also jumps in as needed. When the Quick Lube manager recently quit and Jeff was unable to hire an immediate replacement, Katherine stepped in and ran the business for three months.

Jeff and Katherine married when he was still studying to be a law enforcement officer. Although Jeff grew up in a logging family — his paternal grandfather and his father were loggers — he decided to study to become a law enforcement officer. After high school he enrolled in Suomi College (Finlandia University) in Hancock, Mich. By the second year of college he had a job as an officer on the local police force. He worked full-time and studied full-time for the next three years. Soon after graduation, however, Jeff decided to make a change. He realized he would have limited opportunities in law enforcement to increase his income. “I wanted more for my wife and future family,” he said. Jeff went into over-the-road trucking, and he and Katherine lived in a truck for three months, but the trucking company he worked for went bankrupt. His father was still logging and offered him a job. “My dad said, ‘Come home and haul pulpwood for me until you decide what you’re going to do,’ ” recalled Jeff. Re-immersed in logging, Jeff soon realized how much he liked it, and he established Gudwer Forest Products.

Jeff is extensively involved in the forest products industry. He is the chairman of the Michigan-Wisconsin Timber Producers Association as well as one of the founders and a current board member of the fledgling Michigan Professional Loggers Council (MPLC).

“To be a professional logger, you have to meet high standards,” said Jeff. The MPLC asks its members to voluntarily “agree to abide by all rules” and adopt a “code of ethics.” The concept is “to bring everyone up” through motivation and example.

Satisfying his customers is always Jeff’s first goal. “I try to really please the landowners,” he said. “When I leave (a job), I want a good reputation.” Most of his work comes from “word of mouth, referrals” and a completed job has the way of “snowballing” into more work from surrounding landowners. “I do an honest job. They can trust me.”

No matter whom Jeff is cutting for, one thing is a given: diverse stands of timber. A real mix of hardwood and softwood, pulpwood and saw timber confronts Jeff at every site.

When Jeff buys timber, he usually contracts for everything from harvesting to marketing. He sells to some big companies, including Meade Paper Co., Consolidated Paper, and Louisiana Pacific.

Besides the Valmet machines, Jeff owns a variety of equipment he uses in road-building and snow removal, including a Caterpillar dozer, a John Deere 690 excavator and a Case 580 backhoe. He also has a grader and a mobile parts trailer. The array of equipment allows Jeff to tailor outcomes to the needs of customers. For example, he can make openings in the forest so landowners can plant vegetation to attract and support deer and other wildlife. Road building is also a necessary part of some logging jobs. “This winter I was on a site five and one-half miles in, and I built the last three-quarter mile,” he said.

Jeff keeps in contact with his contract hauler by cell phone. He tries to consolidate pick-ups and makes certain the trucks have enough space to turn around.

Men whose sole income comes from logging must put in long days, said Jeff — “20-hour days to make a living,” he said. Yet their generosity is noteworthy. Jeff organized a Log-A-Load fund-raising event a year ago for the Children’s Miracle Network. In three days, Jeff and other loggers from the Upper Peninsula and neighboring Wisconsin raised $28,000 for the charitable cause. He recalled “the great camaraderie” of the others who helped stage the event. Jeff is particularly proud that his father, now 73 and retired from logging, was an integral part of the effort.

Jeff considers himself lucky. Although luck might be part of the equation, industriousness is, too. He relishes the complexity of running three businesses simultaneously and enjoys the rejuvenation of Sundays, which he takes off as family days.