Holli Forest Products Leans Heavily on John Deere for Cut-to-Length Machines
ISHPEMING, Michigan — How does a young man who has a passion for music – he plays drums in dance, jazz, marching band and orchestra and goes to college to study music education – end up working in the forest products industry?
Meet Dave Holli, president of Holli Forest Products. Dave told how it came about with two stories. Here’s the first.
“I had an older friend who had to attend a meeting at Michigan Technological University, about 80 miles away, and he asked me to drive him because he wasn’t feeling well,” Dave recalled. “When we were driving through the campus, I noticed they had a forestry school. I didn’t know that, even though it was only 80 miles away. I had a whole day to kill, so I decided to see what it was all about. I looked at some of the displays and pictures. Something in my head clicked, and said, ‘This is where I belong.’ It was almost like going home again.
“I knocked on the secretary’s door and asked how to enroll, what I had to do. She said it was orientation week, and she didn’t know if I could enroll that late. She told me to talk to the registrar. I had to wait. It was a busy week for them. Finally, I got to see the guy and told him I was interested in enrolling in forestry school. He said my request was very irregular, that normally they didn’t enroll anyone this late, but if I came back the next morning by 8 he would enroll me. I was already enrolled at Northern Michigan University to start my third year. When I got home that evening I packed my bags and told my mother I was enrolling in forestry at Michigan Tech the next morning.”
The second story fills out the first and makes it a little more understandable. Dave’s grandfather, Matt Holli, emigrated from Finland in 1904 from a long line of ancestors who worked in the woods. “My family had a long-time working relationship with logging,” Dave said. His grandfather ran a small logging business with a partner. His father, Walfred, also was a logger, though eventually he went into the construction industry and became an iron worker.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of choices,” David recalled. “If your parents and grandparents said work in the woods, that’s what you did. I was conscripted labor working in the woods when I was 12 or 13. Often I wasn’t able to play ball or go swimming like the other kids. When I got to high school I was tired of it and wanted to do something different. That’s why I took up music, played in a lot of bands, and decided to become a music teacher.”
While he was studying music education at Northern Michigan University, Dave still stayed connected to the forest products industry. He spent some weekends running a skidder for a friend. As this friend got sicker, Dave provided more help.
Immersed in music and at college, Dave had broken free of his family home, where he felt forced to work in the woods. When he entered the forestry school at Michigan Tech for the first time, Dave realized that was what he really wanted to do. In that sense it felt like “going home again.”
Since music education credits do not transfer very well into a forestry degree, it took Dave three more years to earn
his bachelor’s degree in forestry, finishing in 1961.
He went to work immediately for the U.S. Forest Service in Nicolet National Forest, north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He worked his way up from a forester trainee for one year and then assistant ranger. After 16 months, however, Dave resigned from the Forest Service.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said. “I worked with a lot of fine people and truly enjoyed my job. But I just wanted to get back into the production side of the forestry business.”
Dave decided he wanted to live in central-upper Michigan and took a part-time job working for a timber broker, Wayne Williams. “It was quite a controversial decision for my family,” he recalled, “for I took a 50 percent cut in pay.” At the same time he also started doing consulting work for several pipeline companies on right-of-way issues and for timber estimating and evaluation.
While he was still doing consulting work, Dave purchased his first piece of equipment in 1965, a John Deere front-end loader with a pulpwood grapple for moving, handling and loading wood. Four years later he gave up the consulting work and began logging full-time.
At that time the industry still relied heavily on manual labor, Dave recalled. From felling trees to removing the limbs and bucking them, most of the work was done by men on the ground with chain saws. “Some mechanization was just beginning with feller-bunchers, grapple skidders, and slashers,” he recalled.
Dave purchased his first forwarder, a Pettibone Master-6, for picking up the cut wood and carrying it out of the woods to be stacked in piles or loaded directly onto a logging truck.
Early cut-to-length equipment was designed for working primarily in softwoods, Dave noted. “But right about that time, quite a bit of work was done on mechanically processing all species. Shortly after 1970 I bought a Hahn harvester to handle mainly softwoods. This was a big move for us. We could delimb the whole tree, both hardwood and softwood. The early Hahn harvester could be run by one man, and I ran it myself for several years.”
Later he added a John Deere 544 feller-buncher, a Tree Farm skidder and a Barko loader and S&L slasher. “Generally we used a fairly low value highway truck with a loader and auxiliary engine with a 353 diesel on the slasher.” Next came a Denis stroke delimber for both hardwood and softwood. Dave moved to track
feller-bunchers over wheeled machines because they were more stable on hilly terrain and worked better on rough ground and deep snow.
“We gradually switched to all John Deer grapple skidders,” Dave said. “We were having good results with Tree Farmer skidders, but Deere was making more advances with engineering and technology, was providing better service, and they had better heating and cooling and other comfort factors for the operator.”
Dave has long been visiting Finland about every other year. “I’d usually end up in the forest at one time or another during my visits. Most of my acquaintances there still work in the forests. During the late 1970s and early 1980, I noticed the mechanization of single-grip and double-grip cut-to-length harvesters. Each time I looked at their harvesters, it seemed to me that they might work fairly well in Northern Michigan.
There were differences between the forests and the industries, however. In Scandinavia and Europe, there is greater emphasis on cultivated forests. In the U.S., naturally-growing forests result in trees with more irregularities.
“Nevertheless, we thought it might work over here,” Dave said. “So in 1987 we purchased the first complete Valmet system, comprised of a 901 harvester with a 965 head and 862 forwarder. But the timber is a little more rugged here. We had a fair amount of failure. There were structural integrity issues that indicated the machines were not yet ready for North America.”
Dave and his company experimented with different harvesting and processing heads on carriers used for excavators. “We worked with some of the finest hydraulic technology available. We worked a lot with John Deere, putting various processing heads onto the John Deere base excavator machines. As the machines were improved, taking a strong hold in North America, we continued to experiment with different processing heads.”
In the mid to late 1990s, Dave continued, cut-to-length processors made great strides in improvement. “I’m of the opinion that early on this machinery had questionable integrity, but the new generation has developed three major brands, which are all good machines — Valmet, Ponsse, and Timberjack, which is now owned by Deere. As time went on, we tended to favor John Deere because of our long-standing relationship.” Dave buys his John Deere equipment from Nortrax in Escanaba.
During a trip to Finland in the mid-1980s, Dave said, “I noticed that they had found a way to process small diameter wood. They used curved sawing technology to cut parallel with the grain so that the wood tended to dry straight as opposed to twisted. Having been to many sawmills, I thought this system could work with small diameter wood here.”
Dave and a partner, Ed Nagel, began researching and studying the feasibility of starting a sawmill in 1994. They built a mill three years later. “We were buying 900,000 cubic meters of wood per year and were a large producer of softwood chips,” said Dave. “Our mill had the capability of processing the entire tree that grew here. Our whole theory was that this type of mill would allow us the capability of maximizing the utilization of forestry resources.”
The partners sold the mill in 2000. “We went back full-time into the forestry and logging business,” Dave said. “We log and do a lot of site preparation for planting and scarification for natural regeneration, primarily in pine forests. We also do a fair amount of vegetative management on rights-of-way. Our systems discourage sprouting and work to reduce the use of chemicals. We do some maintenance work, too.”
Today Dave’s company employs about 30 workers. Holli Forest Products works in the open market, buying stumpage and marketing the wood to about six mills in the region, both sawmills and pulp and paper mills. “We do some limited contracting at times,” Dave added. About 90% of the volume of wood produced is by cut-to-length methods. (One crew does tree-length logging.) Large trees that will produce high grade saw logs normally are manually felled and bucked.
As president of Holli Forest Products, Dave works closely with the forestry staff on forest logging activities, clearing and site preparation work.
The company is equipped with logging equipment from five manufacturers, but Holli Forest Products relies heavily on John Deere for machinery. The company has the following John Deere machines: three cut-to-length harvesters, three forwarders, six skidders, three dozers and a front-end loader. Dave has machines equipped with Cleanfix reversible fans, which can blow out dirt and debris from radiator and cooling systems.
Referring to the number of John Deere machines he has, Dave said, “I think it says that we have a pretty good working relationship with John Deere. We certainly believe in the quality of their equipment,” and that is why the company has so many John Deere machines.
The other brands “are really good equipment,” Dave was quick to add. Those other brands include a Cat skidder, dozer and grader; a Komatsu feller-buncher, two forwarders and three harvesters; a Logman harvester; and a Linkbelt harvester.
Dave has been very active in the forest products industry. He has served on the board of the Wisconsin-Michigan Timber Association for about 20 years and has been president for two years. Dave served on the state Natural Resources Commission for six years in the early 1990s.
Being at home in two different countries, Dave was asked to compare Finland and the U.S. “All of Europe is much more socialistic in terms of public policy,” he said. “They had forest practices acts starting in the early 1900s. But we’re a much freer, much more open society. This is not a criticism. That’s just the way it is.”
As for the differences in the forest products industry, Dave said, “The forests are managed much more intensely over there than here. The Finns are proving themselves as some of the better forest managers. I’d never say the best. There is no such thing as the best.”
Dave, 69, noted the forest products industry in the Great Lakes faces challenges. “The main challenge to the Lake States is the declining market,” he said, “with the closing of three mills and the curtailment of production. In Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, the market has declined about 1 million cords over the past one and one-half years.”
Dave attributed much of the downturn to large, private landholding companies that have acquired forest lands in the past three years. “These purchases have been made by private investors who are divorced from timberland,” Dave said. “They are able to make changes very quickly in terms of species requirement, but when these changes happen so suddenly, the timber sales don’t match the market. At the same time we have surplus capacity to produce and process wood, which has led to significantly declining prices. This has changed the complexion of the marketplace. In my opinion, those who work in the open market find themselves, relatively speaking, worse off in terms of price, volume and species opportunities. So, all in all, working in the open market today I find extremely challenging.”
When asked whether it might be time to return to his music career, Dave replied, “I do my singing in the sauna.”
Dave lives in the little town Ishpeming, population 7,000. (Ishpeming is an Indian name for heaven.) He has served on the city council and was mayor for four years.
Dave and his wife, Pat, have two children. Their daughter, Julie, works in Dave’s office, and their son, Jim works on a cut-to-length crew for Holli Forest Products; Jim runs a system and provides technical support for another. Jim also has visited Finland and has adapted many of the forestry techniques there to the company.
David is an avid skier and skis most weekends during the winter. He is chairman of the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of fame. (The National Ski Association was started in Ishpeming in 1905.)
Dave has been on the board of directors of a local bank for about 20 years and served on the small business advisory board of the 9th Federal Reserve District for a number of years.
He also has been active in his community by leading fund-raising drives for charitable causes and other projects, and donating to them. For example, he gives away up to 150% of his annual salary, he said. He led a campaign for major gifts for the local hospital; now under construction, a new hospital wing will be called the Holli Imaging Center in honor of his efforts.
Dave was injured in an automobile accident four years ago and had difficulty recovering. Eventually, doctors determined that he was allergic to surgical sutures that were embedded in his body. As the result, he has to go through a 45-minute stretching and light weight-lifting routine every morning to maintain good health. “If I didn’t do it, I would become very inactive very quickly,” he said.
“If I have to stay active, why don’t I do what I enjoy? I enjoy working in the woods.”