Michigan Father-Son Loggers Turn to Nortrax and John Deere, Friends and Family
GLADSTONE, Michigan – LaFleur Forest Products LLC is one of those unique family-owned and family-operated businesses that treats all of its clients as if they are part of that family group.
“We treat the land we work on as if it’s our own land,” said David LaFleur, 32, who owns the business with his father, Joey. “Before we begin a new job, we always ask ourselves if this was our land, how would we go about doing this job, so that once we are finished, the land looks respectable for the ecosystem.”
This work ethic has proved well by the company that established its stellar reputation through the pristine nature of its completed jobs in the region. “We get all of our work, especially work on private land, by word of mouth, and we don’t have to do any marketing,” said David.
Worked Double Duty
Joey likes to work. He was looking forward to retiring at the end of August, not to have more leisure time, but because he will have more time to work in the woods.
Joey worked at the New Page (formerly Mead) paper mill in Escanaba for 38 years. While working at the mill, he also worked part-time in logging, sub-contracting to other loggers. He planned to return to logging full-time when he retired from New Page. “I will head back into the woods at the tender age of 59,” he said with a chuckle.
Joey grew up on a dairy farm. “I always wanted to work in the forest,” he recalled, “and on weekends during high school in the mid-1960s, I would go into the woods and pile wood for my brother-in-law.” After graduating from high school in 1967, Joey worked as a sawyer in a sawmill until 1970. Then he got the job at Mead, where he began his long career there working in the block pile, grinding wood that would be processed into pulp.
He later went to work in Mead’s steam plant, where he became the boiler operator, a position he held until he retired. “We burned the by-product — black liquor made during the pulping process — and used that for fuel in the boiler to make steam to run the turbines that ran all the equipment in the mill,” Joey explained.
While working for Mead, Joey sub-contracted to a logger on his days off. He cut over-size trees, felling them by hand with a chainsaw, cutting off the limbs and bucking the logs. “They would leave all the big log trees standing, and I would follow them and cut down the trees and then cut them for hardwood saw logs and aspen bolts,” he said. He cut primarily hardwoods, such as hard maple, white birch and aspen, using a John Deere trawler tractor with a wheel dray to get around in the woods.
In the mid-1980s, Joey decided to start his own logging business. He wanted the flexibility to be his own boss, and he also had friends who were interested in working for him.
“We started by piece-cutting,” he said. “The guys would cut trees with a chainsaw and then pile them up. Then I would come through with a skidder and pull the pieces to the landing, where a truck picked them up to deliver them to the paper mills and post yards in the area.”
David worked with his father during junior high school, peeling poplar logs and piling the wood. When he began working with Joey and his crew in 1996, the company purchased its first mechanized cutter – a Bobcat six-wheel feller-buncher. The crew still used chainsaws to remove limbs and buck the logs to length.
Nortrax, John Deere
Today, LaFleur Forest Products employs seven members of the family and close friends. It boasts a lot more equipment than it had when Joey first decided to take to the woods.
The company is based in Gladstone, which is on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and on the shore of Lake Michigan. It is less than 10 miles north of Escanaba, which hosts the Lake States Logging Congress in alternating years with Green Bay, Wisconsin.
In recent years the company has come to rely heavily on Nortrax Equipment Co., a dealer for John Deere forestry equipment. The LaFleurs now have six John Deere machines.
The company is equipped with three machines for cutting: a Fabtek 153 double-grip harvester, a Timberjack (now John Deere) 1270D single-grip harvester, and a John Deere 703G harvester with a Waratah head. It also has two forwarders, a John Deere 1010B double-bunk forwarder and a John Deere 1010D, and a John Deere 548 grapple skidder. Other equipment includes a John Deere 750B bulldozer, Peterbilt and Kenworth semi-tractors with log trailers, and a low-boy trailer for moving equipment. The truck drivers are Tommy Harris, a close friend of the family, and Jason Potvin, a cousin of the LaFleurs.
The John Deere 703G is a track harvester. Powered by a 181 hp engine, this compact machine features a powerful boom with almost zero tail-swing over the back for maneuverability in select cuts. It has the power and hydraulic capacity to handle big bunches of small stems or big timber.
The John Deere 1010D forwarder is powered by a 115 hp engine and is rated for a 10 ton payload. It is available in four-wheel and six-wheel versions with a choice of three boom configurations and two deck lengths.
The John Deere 548G grapple skidder is powered by a 117 hp engine, and features include inboard, heavy-duty planetary axles, and hydraulic-locking, operated on-the-go differentials.
Their first experience with cut-to-length harvesters was not a good one. “We were down more than we were running,” said David. “In fact, we were to the point where we had to grab our chainsaws to go back in and cut because our harvester was broken. I told my dad that if I was going to keep doing this work full-time, I couldn’t be doing all of that manual cutting.”
They had purchased the harvester in used condition. “The life was out of it, and whoever owned it before us never really maintained it right, and the hydraulics and wiring were all bad,” said David. “So we were using our chainsaws and trying to keep the wolf away from our doors to make our payments.”
They traded in the machine and bought a Valmet 546 harvester from Roland Machine in Escanaba in 2000. “This was a good machine for us because it was newer and had a new harvesting head,” David said. “We ran that until 2003, when we took the big step and bought our very first brand-new harvester,” the Timberjack 1270D.”
David and Ron Kleiman, Joey’s son-in-law, approached Joey one day and told him it was time to consider getting a new harvester. “David and Ron had been looking at them, and they never told me anything about it, so it surprised me when they told me they had already been looking at new harvesters,” Joey said.
Representatives of dealers for three logging equipment manufacturers visited the company jobs and offered to let them use demonstrator models. “We were impressed with the Timberjack and decided to buy it, and that is how we got started with our relationship with John Deere,” David explained. (John Deere later acquired Timberjack.)
The parallel boom on the Timberjack was advantageous compared to the telescoping boom on other harvesters, noted David. “This makes it easier to maneuver around trees in select cuts, and it has a lot more power than other booms. Another thing I like about it is the cab rotates and levels with the boom. The motor is a John Deere, and you really can’t beat a John Deere motor.”
The Timberjack harvester head also was of a better design, according to David. It cradled the tree better for more flexibility. “It’s a lot better, compared to other heads we used to run…This head offers a lot more stability holding the stem in the head.”
Joey has worked over the years with Nortrax representatives Ken Knauf and Brad Jackson. They have helped him select the best machine for his application and company budget.
Service and support from Nortrax are exemplary, David reported. “The people at Nortrax are very dependable…If we are out in the woods and something happens to one of the machines, we can call Nortrax for support.” They can confer with the Nortrax staff via cell phone to trouble-shoot the problem, and then correct it themselves. “Nortrax product support has really been great,” he added. “They work hard at keeping us up and running.”
David and Joey worked alone until 2000, when they added David’s brother-in-law, Ron Kleiman. Ron operated the harvester, Joey ran the skidder and David drove the truck. Ron’s brother, Larry, joined the company in 2006 and began operating the Fabtek. The company sub-contracted for other truckers as needed.
One of the truckers, John Keynon, began to run a second shift on Fabtek in 2007, but soon the company had too much wood on the ground. “That is when we bought another forwarder, and we hired Tommy Harris, another close family friend, to drive the Kenworth truck I used to drive,” explained David.
The seven men work well together and know they can count on each other to get the job done. “We don’t have to baby-sit,” said David. “A friend told me how much baby-sitting he has to do with his crew, but we have no complaining or whining here. Everyone just does his own job, and they know what to do without anyone having to tell them. It’s nice to work with them. We are all here at 5 in the morning, ready to start out for work.”
The crew cuts pulp wood and saw logs anywhere from 4 inches to 30 inches and 40 inches in diameter. Pulp wood is normally bucked to 8-foot lengths and sold to the Verso and New Page paper mills. Bolts and saw logs are sold to Escanaba Lumber.
Occasionally the company gets a contract to cut red pine plantations for specialty telephone poles supplied to HydroLake, the regional electric utility. “We delimb the trees and run them through the harvester,” explained David. “Then we use our grapple skidder to get them to the landing, and a log truck comes in with a loader to pick them up. They de-bark them at the plant.” The poles are pressure treated and sold to the utility.
The logging slash is processed into fuel chips by Ron’s brother, Mark, who sub-contracts. “We pile the tops in bunches for him after we get done harvesting the trees,” David explained. “Then he comes behind on one of two of his John Deere 1010B double-bunk forwarders. He also has a Morbark 3036 chipper, four chip vans and two trucks. So after we take out the round wood, he comes behind us to chip the tops.” Ron has another brother, Brian, who drives the chip trucks. The chips are supplied to New Page for boiler fuel.
About 75% of the company’s production is pulp wood and the other 25%, saw logs. “We produce upwards of 16,000 to 20,000 cords of wood a year with our three harvesters,” said David.
About 80% of the company’s work is done on state lands, and the remaining 20% is for private landowners. The company does select cuts in hardwood and clear-cuts in aspen.
“About 35 percent of the wood we cut is aspen, 10 percent pine, 30 percent a mix of hardwoods and 25 percent a mix of softwoods,” David said. The crew travels within about 120 miles of Gladstone.
“In the spring, before the load restrictions go into effect, we haul our equipment in to do all our own maintenance,” Joey said. The crew is down for up to two months during the spring thaw.
For steel fabrication and repairs, the LaFleurs rely on JL Repair in Escanaba. “Jay Lambert, another one of my best friends, owns the company,” said David.
Joey has enjoyed working with David the past 10 years. “It’s nice to be able to work with my son because I never really had the chance to spend a lot of time with any of my kids when I was working shift work at the mill all these years,” he said. Joey and his wife, Carol, have been married 41 years and also have two daughters, Kim and Nicole. Kim and Ron live in Gladstone while Nicole and her husband, Todd, live in Novi in Lower Michigan.
The LaFleurs are members of the Michigan Timbermen’s Association. Joey coached high school football for 10 years although he has no current pastimes. David, who is single, enjoys riding motorcycles and deer hunting.
The LaFleurs are exactly where they planned to be in their business. “Our game plan was to get to this point, and this is exactly where we want to be with three harvesters, two forwarders, and two log trucks,” said Joey.
“One of the biggest reasons we got to this point so quickly in the last six years has to do with the work ethics of all our employees,” he added. “If it wasn’t for them, we would never be at this point today. They are all mechanically inclined, and they really made our business for us. David and I can’t stress enough how great they are as workers, operators, and friends.”