Roger Liimatta Logging is a 3rd and 4th generation logging operation specializing in the cut-to-length method with the use of the Timbco 415 EX and the Log Max 7000 head. Through the struggle the current economy, Roger Liimatta Logging has found a way to survive through the use of this up-graded equipment.
WOLF LAKE, Minn.—In the Liimatta home is an aged photograph of Grandpa Ole sharpening his axe against a steel wheel. The photo, taken in the winter of 1910, was one of the few that displayed the life of the hardworking logger during his days at the logging camps. Little did he realize that he would begin the legacy of family forestry workers that would be passed on for generations.
“My father and grandfather logged,” said Roger Liimatta of Roger Liimatta Logging. “Logging used to be just a winter thing because it was just too difficult to get the logs out of the woods. Horses used to pull the sleigh loaded with logs across the snow which was much easier.”
“But now the work is all year round cause we have to pay the bills,” Brandon Liimatta said chuckling.
Roger and his son, Brandon, are third and fourth generation loggers in West Central, MN, specifically Wolf Lake, between Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes and just 70 miles east of Fargo, ND. Roger, who’s never been afraid of hard work, started cutting and handling pulp by hand, alongside his dad, when he was about nine or ten years old. His dad’s primary occupation, however, was as a dairy farmer. And being a farmer’s son meant that Roger got to milk the cows as well, which started when he was just six years old. At that time, cutting wood was a useful means for subsidizing the family’s farm.
In 1972, Roger started his own logging business as there was little work in their remote area. Originally, Roger logged by hand with his chainsaw. And just like Roger, Brandon began working when he was ten years old by running stick for his dad. The process included a 4-ft. long stick with notches marked at the 2ft. mark so that 10 to 12ft. logs could be measured out. By the time Brandon was fifteen years old, he began working full-time in the summers and part-time on the weekends until he finished high school. He went from running stick to operating his dad’s Bell Feller-buncher, a Hood Slasher, and two forwarders.
Brandon is 31 years old now and he has seen the family business move from tree-length to cut-to-length logging. In 1998, Roger Liimatta Logging was one of the first companies in the area to implement the cut-to-length method. Over the years they implemented one crew on each of the methods – tree-length and cut-to-length. But as the market began changing for the worst, Roger started downsizing to compensate.
Roger and his wife, Peggy have two other children, a daughter who is a lawyer and another son who is a computer programmer. Brandon is the only one who is a logger.
“Now, I’m the one who’s thinking that I should have gone to school,” stated Brandon. “Cause when the (logging) market’s slow, the prices are low. And the fixed costs stay fixed. It’s a tough market nowadays.”
The Plight of the Logging Market
According to Brandon, fuel costs, stumpage, equipment, and labor costs radically impact their business. At one point the fuel costs were close to $5 per gallon making it extremely difficult to make any profit.
“Everything’s changed. From about 2000-2006, for six to seven years there was great demand for wood,” stated Roger. “But it changed overnight about three years ago due to the housing collapse. We saw it earlier than the rest of the business industries.”
“Yeah, the overblown housing market, then over-bloated loggers, and over capacity on loggers with newer equipment, and then (on top of that) the market went down and went cut-throat with prices dropping drastically,” recalled Brandon.
Even the Liimatta’s timber purchasing has had to adjust over the last few years. Previously, they acquired their timber from more private sales, but now their focus is on state auctions. The biggest issue with the timber is anticipating what’s going to be selling in the next season. According to Brandon, there are no guarantees that the money invested initially in a timber purchase will be retrievable when the timber is sold. In fact, the price that the loggers’ receive could be much less than that of the original investment.
“The markets fell severely. What we were paying for wood then was considerably higher,” Brandon recalled. “People want the same prices as they were before and now they are reluctant to sell for lower. Mills are telling people to keep their wood because they can’t pay for it. Stumpage is our biggest expense, about 35% to 40% of our fixed costs.”
So How Does Roger Liimatta Logging Stay in Business?
Roger Liimatta Logging does “everything to stay in business.” Roger believes in keeping his options open for whatever logging possibilities may come his way. That is how he has operated for over 20 years. Roger owns a small shop in Menahga that currently stores some of their supplies and equipment; however, most of their operations are done directly from home, with their equipment, a Timbco 415EX with a Log Max 7000 head, a Serco loader and Lemco loader remaining in the woods. Brandon and Tim Usher, who operates the 840.2 Valmet Forwarder, have been working together for nearly 8 years. Roger and another employee haul the logs with Freightliner trucks and Savage log trailers. Peggy is the company book keeper and office manager.
Living within 70 to 100 miles of the nearest mills in their area, they focus on serving seven small family-run mills which primarily buy hardwood or pulpwood. Timber ranges from up to 30-inch diameter red oaks down to 6-inch plantation pine. According to Roger, aspen used to be in high demand, but that has tapered off. Oak, ash and other hardwoods, first and second cut high grade, goes to a few of the family mills that they service, while low grade is purchased by the Amish mills.
“We’ve kinda been working with one mill primarily these days,” stated Brandon. “Markets can be hit or miss, getting full and then shutting you off. That’s why we keep our foot in the door in everything we do, with every grade of wood.”
“This was the slowest market that I’ve ever seen this summer,” Roger stated. “But we found that plantation pine was good to work in the summer because there’s lots of it. It was the only species that we could sell on a continuing basis in this market.”
Roger admitted that plantation pine wasn’t his strong suit but that he needed to work where the demand was. By comparison he’s used to cutting higher grade logs with a greater volume at the end of the day and now his crew cuts all day long for only two to three truck loads.
In the company’s prime, using both cut-to-length and tree-length crews, Roger Liimatta Logging produced an average of 15,000 cords per year (about 35,000 tons). Within the last few years, with just one crew of cut-to-length equipment, the company averaged 10,000 cords per year (about 23,000 tons). About 8,000 cords (approximately 18,000 tons) for this year’s average is from plantation pine.
Roger also cuts fence posts, pulls, and even firewood to stay busy. Cutting firewood is easy marketing for the company because word-of-mouth travels fast in their community. Usually folks just call the Liimattas and come for pick up. Liimatta Logging sells between 50 and 70 loads of 8-foot firewood logs (about 600-700 cords) in a season.
Updating Equipment — A Promising Purchase
Nearly four years ago, Roger and Brandon made the decision to purchase the Timbco 415 EX and the Log Max 7000 head just before the bottom fell out on the market. Brandon is confident that this was the right decision for their company. The Log Max 7000 head has been much more efficient and versatile than their previously owned Fabtek head.
“The Fabtek head was good and dependable,” stated Brandon, who operates the Timbco and Log Max head. “But it didn’t have the capacity, speed or power to cut the range of wood that we deal with. And it could not cut roll the bigger trees.”
With the use of the Timbco and Log Max combination, Roger and Brandon have cut their labor needs in half and they have gained a set-up in which they can cut anything from little posts to hardwoods. Though they would rather be cutting hardwoods, they are grateful that it works for most anything. The equipment combination was so effective that within six months of acquisition Roger began running one crew and discontinued their tree-length equipment operations all together.
Roger and Brandon attribute their choice of the Log Max 7000 to Todd Christensen, a sales representative for Road Machinery & Supplies Co. (RMS) in Minneapolis, MN. Todd even encouraged the Liimattas to drive to Wisconsin to see the Log Max in action.
“Todd knew what we were trying to do here in our market,” said Brandon. “He thought Log Max would be a good fit and it certainly was.”
Todd and Roger have been working together for nearly 15 years. When their new equipment was purchased, Todd worked alongside Brandon to ensure that he knew how to operate it properly. Whenever the family needs further assistance, he comes directly to the field, but that hasn’t been too often.
“Todd comes out right away just to check pressures and to fine tune things,” said Brandon. “There’s a lot of computer options that you need to know how to run, and he made sure that I learned how to use the machine right from the very beginning.”
“RMS is a customer service oriented company that has been around since 1926, for over 80 years,” stated John Ruud, the servicing dealer for RMS. “We don’t have a standard procedure for how we service folks. Some folks need training on the new equipment and some jump right on it and pick it up really quickly… We see every deal as different and unique.”
Dependability of the Log Max 7000
Log Max Inc., a Swedish-based company which has been manufacturing logging equipment since 1980, specializes in single-grip harvesting heads for cut-to-length logging. Log Max offers an assortment of harvesters to meet the requirements of varied applications. The Log Max 7000 (or 7000B) is the most popular model of the company’s wide variety of heads. It was first manufactured in late 2000-2001 as the 7000 model, but with a few minute hydraulic adjustments, the model became known as the 7000B.
“The 7000 size is the most popular of all the Log Max heads because ninety percent of the time it fits our customers’ applications,” stated Greg Porter of the Log Max North American subsidiary, based in Vancouver, Washington. “It is a 22-inch to 23-inch head and it’s quite versatile because it cuts 18-inch, 20-inch trees and below.”
The Log Max 7000 has variable displacement feed roller motors that provide fast speed in smaller wood. With its computer electronics, the head automatically regulates to provide more power in tougher limbed trees. Internal components are protected from damage by well-placed guards and heavy covers. Saw hydraulics provide full flowing action to the bottom saw that provides fast sure cuts for all sized timber. The use of the Log Max 7000 provides increased log quality and outstanding stem coverage due to a unique compound curve delimbing knife profile that also increases productivity by reducing feed friction.
Roger and Brandon are pleased with their purchase of the Log Max 7000. They have rarely had a problem.
“We’ve only replaced a few hoses. That’s all in 6,500 hours of use. That’s great!” exclaimed Brandon. “And once you cut down the tree, then the head does its thing, pretty much by itself with the press of a few buttons. It keeps track of the sticks and measures in cubit meters. My computer says I’m at 900,000 sticks. That’s almost a million sticks so far.”
To say that Brandon is excited about his Log Max head is an understatement. Many people have now come to watch Brandon cut when they’re considering Log Max equipment for their cut-to-length operations.
“Critics of the Log Max head said that you couldn’t be rough with this machine,” said Brandon. “But I found that the operator is where the breakdown occurs. There’s not much to mess up on a traditional machine. But with a lot of computer options, you do need to learn how the run this equipment to use it to its maximum potential.”
Greg of Log Max agreed with Brandon’s estimation.
“Sometimes the hydraulic-driven saw bar gets bent when a first-time operator tries to back up on the machine during use,” said Greg. “We have had to rush to the rescue to help guys out in the field. One thing we pride ourselves on is our service. We do all that we can to make ourselves available.”
Looking at the Past and into the Future
Roger’s love for the forest has kept him in the logging business. His plan from the start was to create a business that he could pass onto his son.
“I suppose we’re optimists or we wouldn’t have tried so hard to make it when the market has been so bad,” he said. “We just decided to work through it and continue on as best as we could.”
Roger misses running his chainsaw but recognizes that it’s a thing of the past. He’s not into the buttons or joysticks or triggers that the Log Max 7000 offers, but Brandon sure enjoys the newest technology. For Roger, it takes skills that he doesn’t feel compelled to learn. He simply liked the hard work of felling a tree by hand much like his Grandpa Ollie did so many years ago.