Maine Company Enters Biomass Fuel Market

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W.T. Gardner & Sons Adds Bandit Track Model Whole-Tree Chipper for Tough Wood

LINCOLN, Maine — A lot can be said for knowing early what you want to do in adult life. The self knowledge fosters focused learning, strategic thinking and observation that can be put to good use later. Tom Gardner, vice president of W.T. Gardner & Sons Inc., was a child when he realized he had an affinity for the outdoors, heavy equipment and business. (He affectionately recalled his mother giving him a toy truck to play with in his sandbox when he was a boy.)
Tom was able to tie all his interests together. In 1961, his father, Bill Gardner, started a trucking company with just one truck. That company would ultimately grow and diversify to combine timberland holdings, forestry management, logging, trucking and manufacturing facilities. Tom watched his dad’s business grow as he himself grew up and began working for his father on a part-time basis. He became more involved in the company over the years. After earning a degree in business at Husson College in Bangor, Maine, he joined the company full-time.
Scott Gardner, Tom’s brother, is also a vice president at W.T. Gardner & Sons. Scott handles the entire transportation end of the business.
Bill, 67, is still engaged in the business and is president of the company. He was taking a winter respite in Florida when Tom talked with TimberLine in late February.
The Gardner & Sons operation is a large one. “We are a forest-based company that employs 150 people,” explained Tom. “We own and operate 140,000 acres of timberland and own stumpage on other lands. We market wood to the highest value, right down to boiler fuel.”
The company is based in Lincoln, in east-central Maine; Lincoln is about 50 miles north of Bangor.
Merchandizing wood and getting top price put Tom on a search for a machine that would enable his company to capitalize on the expanding biomass fuel market in northern New England. He wanted a machine that could easily handle the tough job of whole tree chipping.
“We have big, wicked, nasty wood here,” said Tom, and he wanted a machine that could chip the tough wood and keep going. He chose a Bandit Industries model 2400 chipper.
Tom wanted a disc-style chipper on tracks. Finding a match for his specifications, he purchased one of the first Bandit 2400 track machines built.
“I wanted it on tracks, not a trailer mount,” explained Tom. “I did research.” When he first saw the specs for the Bandit 2400, he thought he might be nearing the end of his search. When he watched a demonstration video sent to him by Bandit Industries, he was sure that he had.
The company began running the machine in 2006. “We’re putting it to the test,” said Tom. “It’s in hardwood stands right now. The operator loves it. We’re doing approximately 2,500 tons per week.”
That is 2,500 tons of biomass fuel. “It could make a paper chip,” Tom noted, “but you’d have to put a chain flail in front of it and debark first. We put right up to 22-inch to 24-inch hardwood” into the Bandit 2400, loading it from presorted wood piles with the onboard crane.
The Bandit 2400 is the largest disc-style chipper that Bandit manufactures and is made for high-volume chipping. It takes whole trees up to a 24-inch diameter, while the 1900 (19-inch) and 1850 (18-inch) Bandit disc chippers are suitable for chipping smaller trees. The Bandit 2400 can reduce an 80-foot tree to chips in less than a minute, which adds up quickly to 100 tons per hour of production.
Contributing to the speed of the Bandit 2400 is a five-wheel hydraulic feed. Essentially, there is an extra top wheel that increases contact area with the wood, accelerating the crushing of tops and limbs. Complementing the additional wheel is a wide infeed. At 5 feet, 6 inches, the infeed conveyor can handle brushy, bulky material as well as big stems.
The Bandit 2400 backhoe-style loader is equipped with a continuous rotation grapple. The cab is designed to be comfortable over long hours and sustained operations, so it is particularly spacious.
The discharge spout can be moved through 220 degrees. That amount of swivel ensures that adjustments can be made easily and that trucks will leave with full, topped-off loads.
“The state of Maine has pretty diverse forests,” said Tom. And W.T. Gardner & Sons works in all kinds of stands. “We fluctuate with the markets,” he explained. The company has recently been working mainly in hardwoods. Maine’s forests are about one-third mixed hardwood-softwood stands, one-third predominantly softwood, and one-third predominantly hardwood.
Tom has a great appreciation for Maine’s forests, in part because his responsibilities include buying land and timber for company. From that vantage, he has been able to observe many structural changes in the entire industry.
The forest products industry has been relatively stable in recent decades until the past few years, Tom noted. It’s one of the reasons his father started a trucking firm to support the industry. The stability changed to unpredictability over time, however. In response, with the insight gleaned from a combination of real-world experience and formal education, Tom settled on the path toward diversification to sustain the company.
In addition to its trucking and logging functions, W.T. Gardner & Sons also builds roads for construction. “We do all our own road building, bridge building,” said Tom. “We do rough level grade work for development. We do a lot of gravel work for other developers, too.”
Most work the company does is within a 50-mile radius of Lincoln, Maine. The 5,500 residents of Lincoln know W.T. Gardner & Sons well. The company donated site work to Mattanawcook Academy, building a new practice field for the football team. Both Tom and Scott are alumni of the school.
Mattanawcook (with earlier, alternative spellings) was the name of Lincoln until it was changed on incorporation in 1829. Lincoln is named for Enoch Lincoln, the sixth governor of Maine. The economic activity of the town has been bolstered by the timber industry for two centuries. There is plenty of granite in the region, too; for several decades beginning in the 1880s, granite quarrying was a strong industry in Lincoln.
Community interaction takes many forms for W.T. Gardner & Sons. In the summer of 2006, Tom and Bill served as resource professionals for the Maine Tree Foundation Teacher’s Tour. Tom has been a volunteer assistant football coach at his high school alma mater while Scott has served on the board of directors that oversees the athletic facility associated with school and in support of the entire town.
The logging activities of W.T. Gardner & Sons depend on a mix of employees and contractors. The in-house crew uses a Tim­berjack 608 feller, four ProPac stroke delimbers and John Deere skidders. The company relies on carriages from Link-Belt and John Deere.
Contractors cutting for W.T. Gardner & Sons deploy a full range of harvesting methods, including hand felling with chain saws and mechanized harvesting equipment.
The logging portion of the company really got going when Tom graduated from college in 1982 and began his full-time commitment.
W.T. Gardner does a great deal of work for private landowners; two foresters are on staff to provide a broad range of consulting services. The company also has mill operations with 75 of the employees working at its three chip mills and sawmill.
The first mill was built in the mid-1990s. The sawmill produces dimension lumber, standard 2×4 and 2×6 lumber, and landscape timbers, all of which is sold green. Three chip mills are divided between two that accept hardwood and one that chips softwood.
Tom has never worked in a mill, but he has worked in just about every other part of the business. “I started out driving trucks,” he said. “I’ve run knuckle-booms — we have 36 different knuckle-boom loaders in service.”
Does he have a favorite piece of equipment? “I really liked running the bulldozers over the years,” Tom said, adding that “backhoes have now taken over” most of that work. Building logging roads and construction roads is something he really enjoyed.
Tom is happy with his current role in the business because of the variety. “I can be in the office one day, and in the field another,” he said. “I’m an outdoors person.”
W.T. Gardner & Sons belongs to the Maine Forest Products Council, the Forest Products Association and the Maine Better Transportation Corporation. Belonging to trade organizations is important in negotiating a fast-changing terrain, including regulations, explained Tom. “We’re a very, very heavily regulated state with very high taxes,” he said. “It’s difficult doing business in Maine” from that perspective.
From another perspective, though, doing business in the state is made a pleasure. “The people have a strong work ethic,” said Tom. “Our business would not be as big and respected without our employees.”
Tom’s company does business with all the major forest products companies in Maine. “Not counting what the mills do, we move 150,000 to 200,000 tons per year,” he said. That’s a hefty amount of wood. The three chip mills produce a combined 750,000 tons of chips annually for the open market.
Productivity is the goal, but it is always tempered by the philosophy that guides W.T. Gardner & Sons. “Treat other people like you want to be treated,” said Tom. “Get up every day and work hard and good things will happen.”
Tom has high expectations for everyone. He bought the Bandit 2400 whole tree chipper because he was persuaded it would do all that it promised, and it has. There was a learning curve with the new machine as well as some modifications that W.T. Gardner & Sons wanted at the beginning. Bandit Industries responded quickly to all requests for assistance, said Tom.
The association with Bandit Industries that began just last year has been a positive one, said Tom. “Product support …has been very good. They are very good people.”