Rancher’s Firewood Business Prospers

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Twister Industries wrapping equipment enables California company to keep growing

SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. — Most firewood businesses start small and stay small. Fred Nick also started small. But now, from his base in central California, about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Nick’s Firewood supplies packaged firewood primarily to supermarket chains and campgrounds as far south as San Diego and as far north as Reno.
Fred is a fourth generation cattle rancher, continuing a 1,300-acre business that was started in 1918. When he took over the family business in 1960, he started the firewood business. The reason was, he explained, was that he had to start thinning out some of the timber on the ranch and clearing some woodland to create pastureland for his cattle, which numbered about 30 head at the time.
“It was like a jungle,” Fred recalled. “You couldn’t ride a horse through it. And it was just too expensive to clear the land without a source of income. So we started selling the firewood.”
Fred began cutting, splitting, and delivering the wood to little stores and homeowners. “We would deliver as few as 20 to 25 packages at a time,” he said. “Now we deliver several thousand at a time.”
He started with a little horizontal wood splitter, producing about three or four cords per day. The splitter he has now does more than that in one hour. The firewood is packaged with Twister Industries equipment and loaded onto pallets, which hold about 60 bundles. A forklift loads the pallets onto the trucks, which have dump beds for unloading.
Fred got his first supermarket account in about 1985. Two or three years later
he picked up another one. The chain accounts really started his firewood business growing.
Fred decided to buy the Twister Industries bundling equipment about 10 years ago. It has enabled him to continue growing, he said. “Without the Twister package wrapper, our costs would be too high,” said Fred. “The Twister has kept us in business.”
With the Twister Industries equipment, the firewood is placed into a cradle. The machine, powered by an electric motor, wraps the firewood in plastic, forming a bundle. “The cradle is designed so you can measure the wood exactly,” said Fred. “If it’s not exact, the machine will shut you down.”
The precision is important, he noted, because the state regulates business weights and measurements to make sure consumers are not cheated.
A big advantage of the Twister machine is that it can be operated by just one person, noted Fred. Another benefit is that the wrapping process leaves open both ends or sides of the bundle; if any there is any moisture on the wood, the package can ‘breathe’ and the moisture will evaporate.
The Twister can wrap about 60 bundles an hour, according to Fred. The number can vary considerably depending on if a new, untrained employee is using it or an experienced worker who is accustomed to the process.
The Twister is much more efficient than the way he packaged firewood in the early years of the business. Fred tried virtually everything, from boxes, string, baling wire and inner tubes.
The Twister, made by Twister Industries in Mora, Minn., “is a very easy machine to use, and puts out a uniform product,” Fred said. “I had been looking for a good packaging machine for many years. I’ve looked at several. The Twister is more reliable. And whenever I’ve had a problem, someone from the company jumped on it right away.”
Fred no longer cuts wood on his own property but gets logs from a variety of sources. In some cases he is able to obtain free wood in exchange for removing downed or damaged trees salvaged from forest fires or storms. “We’ve been in business so long that now when the state and various counties and cities need something done, they call us,” Fred said. Government agencies choose him not only because he’s efficient but also because he’ll do it for free — for the wood — while others charge. Fred also clears wood on private property, sometimes for free other times for a fee.
He gets about 50% of his wood for free and pays for 50%. The free wood, he
said, surprisingly may be more costly because it usually is in difficult areas and takes considerable work to get. “There is no free lunch,” Fred said, “and no free wood either.”
At the ranch, the logs are bucked to length with chain saws. Fred sells primarily oak, almond, and ponderosa pine. “The oak and almond are superior for heat,” he said, “and the pine is very easy to light and provides a lot of atmosphere. We also do a lot of barbecue business in the summer with red oak, which is difficult to get.”
He stays away from species such as avocado and sycamore, which “give you a lot of ashes but very little heat.”
Fred was reluctant to describe his volume except to say he produces “several thousand” cords of firewood annually. He has five trucks in his business, and one is going six days a week. Small loads are one to two pallets of bundled firewood while larger loads contain up to 44 pallets at a time.
Fred supplies 50 to 60 locations, supermarket chains and campgrounds. He delivers to warehouse locations for the grocery chains, and they make shipments as required to individual store locations.
Fred has a lot of competition but little from professional, reputable companies that have been around for awhile. “About 30 to 40 people go into business every year, and by the end of the year they are gone,” he said. “Often they’ve been paid to clear some property, so they sell cheap.”
Fred said his larger accounts “have never quit on me. It’s a tough business to stay in. You have to walk a fine line. You can’t sell so cheap you don’t make a profit, and you can’t sell cheap wood. Not many can stay in it, for it’s hard to predict how much wood you’re going to need over the winter. Many have only so much, but in a bad winter when everything freezes, they’re out of wood.”
Knowing how to store firewood so it won’t decay is important, he noted. He is able to store firewood for up to two years, so he always has enough.
Fred, 72, runs both the ranch, now up to 150 head of cattle and moving toward grass-fed beef, and the firewood operations with his son, Norman, and his son-in-law, Dave Hepbum, both in their mid-40s. He has no immediate plans to retire.
There are two reasons why his firewood business has prospered, according to Fred. One is that he always uses only high quality species, and only the best of them. “We throw a lot of wood away,” he said.
The second reason is “we’ve never let a customer down. We’ve never failed in a delivery. Once we had 70 inches of rain, and our normal rainfall is 17-18 inches, but we were able to get our wood delivered on time when a lot of other suppliers did not. We had to use a lot of trucks and work a lot of hours. We lost money on that one but took care of our customers, and they take care of us in the long run.