Husband and Wife Team with Ponsse In Arkansas Cut-to-Length Logging Operation

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MONTICELLO, Arkansas – John Mark Lasiter has seen the future of logging, and it’s spelled cut-to-length.

            John Mark, who has been self-employed in the forest products industry since before he was 20, transitioned from conventional tree-length logging to cut-to-length logging in 2009. His partner in the logging machinery realm is Ponsse, headquartered in Finland but with operations in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.

            John Mark had been involved in conventional logging for more than 15 years – longer if you considered the time spent working for his father in his teenage years – before deciding to enter the cut-to-length arena. His decision in 2009, when the economy weakened, was mainly financial.

            “I loved conventional (logging), but it was strictly the money issue,” said John Mark. Timber prices were headed down. Quotas were headed down. “We couldn’t obligate to fill a whole crew…I felt the best move was to go to a two-machine operation.”

            There is not much cut-to-length logging in Arkansas, according to John Mark. In fact, there is only one other job he knows off that is cut-to-length. “But in time that’s what I think is going to come.”

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            John Mark’s company, Lasiter Timber Harvesting, is also unusual in that his other employee, who operates one of the two machines, is his wife of 15 years, Mary.

            John Mark, 37, grew up in Monticello, where he and Mary now live with their son, Lucas, 11. Monticello is in southern Arkansas, roughly 50 miles south of Pine Bluff as well as about 50 miles from Louisiana.

            “It’s the home of the pine tree,” said John Mark. “There’re more pine trees in this state than any state I’ve seen.”

            John Mark is a third generation logger and went into business for himself – initially in trucking – right out of high school. His grandfather, Howard Lasiter, now deceased, was a logging contractor, and his father, Charles, 63, is still a logging contractor. His father lives and works in Louisiana and runs several jobs at a time.

            His father helped him when he decided to start his own business, John Mark acknowledged. “He taught me a lot of things I know…He taught me all the ropes, all the little tricks. He’s a big reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

            By the time John Mark graduated from high school, he was well acquainted with the logging industry. He worked for his father as a teenager, starting out operating a skidder; he went on to learn how to operate a cutter and a loader and also drive a logging truck. He worked for his father summers and on weekends during the school year and even if he had a day off from school. He gained experience until he was old enough to be a foreman on a job, and by then he knew he wanted to have his own company. He started out driving a truck, working as a contract hauler to his father’s company.

            After a few years of hauling, John Mark gradually began to invest in equipment, one piece at a time, and adding employees and expanding his services. First he added a skidder and began operating it under contract. His next piece of equipment was a loader and later a cutter. He contracted for conventional logging operations – with his father, Plum Creek Timber Co. (the largest private landowner in the U.S.), and also private landowners.

            When the economy weakened in 2009, John Mark quickly began evaluating the prospect of moving into cut-to-length logging. He and Mary began discussing the benefits of having only two machines and working for themselves with no employees. At the time, his company owned three machines; John Mark worked with three employees while Mary did the company’s office work. He made the move to cut-to-length logging that year.

            Of course, John Mark already was somewhat familiar with cut-to-length logging operations and the equipment. He certainly liked the idea of having two machines to do the work of four. “I liked the fact that you take an average stand of timber and grade it and cut it as you go…whether it’s pine or hardwood,” he said. “That was one of the biggest things about it I liked and that would save a lot of money.”

            In addition, reducing his overhead by transitioning to only two machines and no other employees except Mary would help the business weather the “roller coaster” times of the forest products industry. “The biggest part of it was strictly financial,” he said, being able to reduce overhead.

            In conventional logging, John Mark had to be able to deliver enough loads to justify the cost of his equipment and employees. However, his quota was not sufficient to cover his expenses.

            “It was just really a no-brainer to go to two machines,” he said. Although cut-to-length logging produces less wood per week, his costs have been trimmed significantly.

            John Mark supplies wood for Price Companies, which operates a chip mill and a relatively new lumber mill in Monticello. Price Companies had two Ponsse cut-to-length machines it was looking to sell; it had purchased the equipment for a contract with Plum Creek, but the contract later was not renewed.

            John Mark was familiar with the equipment and conferred with the Price Companies staff, including the mechanics, and decided to buy them. “They were just about brand new,” said John Mark.

            “I knew Ponsse was where we needed to be,” said John Mark. “The machines are durable.”

            John Mark acknowledged he could have considered other manufacturers of cut-to-length logging equipment, but he already was knowledgeable about the qualities of the Ponsse machines through his relationship with Price. “This was here, I looked at it,” he explained.

            John Mark owns a Ponsse Beaver harvester with the H60 double-grip harvester head and a Ponsse Buffalo-King forwarder. He operates the harvester, and Mary runs the forwarder.

            Ponsse, with its U.S. operations based in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, offers four harvester models and six forwarder models.

            The Ponsse Beaver harvester is designed to work in the densest improvement thinning to the heaviest final felling. It has the greatest hydraulic capacity and the strongest crane in its size class, according to Ponsse.

            The chassis structure, based on an extremely short wheelbase and free-floating portal axle, enables the machine to be extremely agile in the demanding conditions of first thinnings. Ground pressure is evenly distributed. Thanks to its strong, extendable crane, damage to the residual timber stand is minimized. It is available with one of several crane options as well as a choice of four harvester heads. It comes standard with the Ponsse OptiControl system and Opti measuring device.

            John Mark has been very pleased with the machines and the support he gets from Ponsse.

            “They are one tough machine,” he said.

            “This cut-to-length logging and Ponsse set-up is the most accurate,” he added. “You can get more out of the tree. We’re using every little old stick down to nothing.” It’s better for the landowner, too, he noted, because there is so little waste.

            “Ponsse has helped me more than I can imagine,” said John Mark, who gets next-day service on parts from a distributor in nearby Louisiana. “Their technicians are really out of this world.”

            He does most of the maintenance and service work and gets telephone troubleshooting service from Ponsse technicians. “With a touch of the phone, they can pretty much lead me to what I need to do,” he said.

            He commended the company for its technical support. “If there’s something wrong….they know their stuff up there,” he said.

            The machines have performed well and held up well. “Heat is the biggest thing we deal with,” said John Mark. “One-hundred-degree days are pretty common every day of the summer. That’s one machine that will hold up with the heat.”

            In fact, initially he was somewhat skeptical about how well the machines would endure the heat since the Ponsse machines are made in Finland and are commonly used in northern states.

            John Mark’s two Ponsse machines are powered by Mercedes diesel engines. “They have performed (well),” he said. “As long as you keep the radiators cleaned out and washed out, there are no problems with overheating…I thought maybe we would.”

            “They’re done real well,” he added. “We come into some pretty bad ground around here,” he said, flat and swampy terrain.

            In fact, the Ponsse cut-to-length machines also enable him to run more, noted John Mark, because of their ‘soft’ footprint. In wet conditions, particularly in winter, he can keep working. “I can’t think of a day when we have been off,” said John Mark, because of wet or muddy conditions since the change-over to the Ponsse cut-to-length machines. Conventional logging operations experience a considerable amount of down time during wet conditions, he noted.

            John Mark got the Price Companies staff to train him on the machines. In addition, he was trained on a Ponsse simulator that is available at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

            There is more to learning how to operate a cut-to-length harvester than another machine, John Mark acknowledged. As familiar as he was with logging equipment, having run machines since he was a teen, he thought he would be able to master the harvester in a couple of days. “I was wrong,” he said. When he started, he could only produce about two loads of wood per day, but he learned more and improved his productivity.

            John Mark has worked mainly in pine over the years. About 80 percent of what he cuts is pine, he estimated. And of the work he does in pine, about 80 percent is plantation pine, either long leaf pine or loblolly pine.

            In plantation pines, John Mark generally is contracted to do a first thin in stands that are about 14-15 years old although he has worked in some as young as 10-12 years old. Second thins are performed about five or six years later, depending on growing conditions, fertilization, and other factors. About half his work is first thins and the other half, second thins. He also does a few small clear-cuts for private landowners who are clearing land to build a home or to convert it to pasture land.

            The wood produced from first thins is mostly pulp wood, John Mark noted. “We cut a lot of small logs” for the sawmill he said; for the sawmill, John Mark cuts everything to 21 feet and down to 4-1/2-5 inches in diameter.

            The Price Companies is focused on contract wood chipping. It operates 19 facilities from Maine to Florida under contract for many of the most respected manufacturing companies in America – including International Paper, Rayonier, Graphic Packaging, and Georgia Pacific.

            Its chip mill has been operating in Monticello about 30 years, John Mark estimated, while the sawmill was added about 2006-7. The sawmill produces mainly 2×4 and other framing lumber.

            John Mark also owns a small bulldozer, and a few months ago he added a used Hydro-Axe 411EX cutter that he uses sparingly. “The hot saw is mainly used for natural stands where we have a lot of blow-in and a lot of brush in it,” explained John Mark. He may run the Hydro-Axe four or five hours in a week and some weeks not at all.

            “For clean timber, just running the harvester is all you need,” added John Mark.

            In wet conditions, per Plum Creek requirements, he puts bogey tracks on the front four wheels of the harvester and chains on the back two wheels. The forwarder is equipped with bogey tracks for all eight wheels.

            In operating the harvester, he sorts out the pulp and saw logs and bunches the same type of wood in piles. When Mary comes behind him, she fills the forwarder with one kind, either pulp or saw logs. “It makes it a lot easier to load her,” said John Mark.

            When she gets out of the woods to the landing, a truck is usually waiting for her, and she loads the wood directly onto the waiting truck. It takes two loads of the forwarder to fill a log truck.

            Mary grew up on a farm and ran tractors and farm equipment. She worked with John Mark and operated machines when he had a conventional logging operation. He trained her on the forwarder and also is beginning to operate the harvester.

            She’s a skillful machine operator, he said. “I’ve seen a lot of men run the buggy and the harvester, but she can be right there with them,” he said, doing the job equally well. Mary also picks up parts and does the company book work and paper work.

            Their son helps out, too. Lucas runs a pressure water to clean out the machines and also helps his father grease them. “He does everything that an 11-year-old can do,” said John Mark.

            Most maintenance and service work is done on the machines on the job in the woods. If needed, John Mark has access to a Price shop to make repairs.

            John Mark and Mary are members of Rose Hill Free Will Baptist Church, and he also coaches youth football. In addition to that, they try to be as active and involved as possible with their son’s schooling. Having only two pieces of equipment allows them a little more freedom to do that.

            The Lasiters are members of The Arkansas Timber Producers Association and have participated in its Pro Logger education program. They participate in ‘Log-a-Load for Kids’ and other charitable efforts. “Any charity we can help out…we’re all about the kids,” said John Mark.

            The business climate for the forest products industry is still a difficult one, John Mark noted. “I’ve seen some pretty tough times,” said John Mark. “This is about the toughest I’ve seen with the pine market.” Mills in the region are full of wood, in part because conditions have been dry. “It’s tough getting rid of wood right now.”

            John Mark does not envision a return to conventional logging in the future. “I kind of feel like I’ve found my home,” he said. “I enjoy doing it this way. It’s a lot less headache,” which stands to reason with less equipment and fewer employees. “When I retire, I hope I’m doing the same thing I’m doing right now.”