Foster Bros. Wood Products Supplies Biofuel to University of Missouri-Columbia Power Plant

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TimberPro harvester with Risley Rolly II head added to fell wood for biofuel venture.

AUXVASSE, Missouri – Exploiting a new niche often demands new tools. For Foster Bros. Wood Products, Inc. (FBWP), winning a six-year contract to supply wood fiber to the new, eco-friendly power plant at the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC) meant adding a harvester, a forwarder and a whole tree chipper.
Steve Foster, president of Missouri Fiber Corp. (MFC), took the lead in doing the research for the mechanical felling equipment. He and his brother, Jay Foster, the president of Foster Brothers Wood Products, Inc. (FBWP), have purchased a great many machines, systems, trucks and trailers across the years they have owned FBWP (where Steve is vice president) and MFC (where Jay is vice president).
Due diligence defines the approach of Steve and Jay in matters of equipment – and business. “I looked at a lot of equipment in the field,” said Steve, assessing how different harvesters performed. Ultimately, the TimberPro 735 paired with a Risley Rolly II head got the nod because of “the durability factor.” Steve commented regarding the TimberPro equipment that he really appreciated the “Made in the USA” quality.
Steve visited Pat Crawford, and Pat’s sons, Lee and Ken Crawford, in Shawano, Wis. “I …liked the idea that the man that designed TimberPro, did it himself – he had actually been a logger, and Ken and Mike Crawford are still logging,” explained Steve. “You can tell they run the machines they build.”
Ultimately, Steve purchased the TimberPro 735 with Risley Rolly II head from Roland Machinery, working with Matt Hanson in Escanaba, Michigan, and Dan Christensen out of the Cape Girardeau, Missouri branch. A TimberPro TF830 forwarder was paired with the 735 harvester… and for on-site chipping, Steve chose a Morbark 40/36 whole tree track machine.
Roland, headquartered in Springfield, Illinois, represents a number of equipment manufacturers to the forest products industry, and has offices in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The TimberPro equipment will be serviced out of their Columbia, Missouri location.
Three MFC employees work in the mechanical felling team. Jay’s son Justin runs the harvester, David Smith operates the forwarder, and Don Fraga hand fells trees bigger than a 23-inch diameter. “We make use of both Husqvarna and Stihl chainsaws,” said Steve. The first site being harvested is “a fairly large farm” in the central part of the Show Me State that’s owned by Steve and Jay. As the UMC contract matures, standing timber will be purchased.
In-wood chips supplied to UMC for biofuel must meet best management practices (BMP’s) and be harvested from standing timber marked for felling by trained foresters. Moreover, all members of the team working at harvesting must have completed the Professional Timber Harvester Training (PTHT) program run by the Missouri Forest Products Association. (UMC wants to ensure that the green fuel – wood chips – is garnered in an environmentally sustainable way.)
But not all timber being harvested by FBWP is being used for biofuel. Pulpwood and sawlogs are harvested together. The forwarder operator, David Smith, later separates the higher grade logs marked by the forester, from the pulpwood. Steve prefers log buyers to come to his site to view and purchase logs, and they visit in order of log value. A veneer buyer comes first, then the stave buyer, then a sawlog buyer, and eventually a buyer or two looking for blocking or pallet quality logs.
The TimberPro TF830 forwarder has shown to be an extremely useful piece of machinery. Able to carry a 20 ton load, all logs are forwarded out of the woods in 21 ft. lengths. Log buyers choose their logs and mark their preferred lengths. Because the forwarder is equipped with a Hultdins grapple saw, the forwarder operator is able to buck and separate logs on site. Steve said that this onsite log purchasing process enables him to maximize the value of each log.
Both MFC and FBWP are headquartered in Auxvasse, Mo., in Callaway County, which is 20 miles east of Columbia, Missouri. The town has approximately 1,000 residents.
MFC was purchased in 2003 from Canal Corp., which built the facility in 1998. FBWP has a long root that dates to 1934 when Wilbur S. Foster, the grandfather of Steve and Jay, started a successful wood products business based on supplying sawdust to A.P. Green Fire Brick Company. These fire bricks came into great demand during the 1940’s, being utilized by many industrial manufacturers, and also used to line the boilers in war ships during World War II. “Those same fire bricks were also used in the launch pad at Cape Canaveral,” commented Jay.
Back at that time, sawdust could be had from mills free for the hauling away, explained Steve. Yet his grandfather told him that he always believed in paying something, although he never paid more than one dollar for a trailer load. Loading sawdust was done by hand with heavy, cast iron shovels until the advent of aluminum ones in the early 1950s. This seemingly small change to a lighter shovel was not so small to Steve’s grandfather, who often said, “We thought we had died and gone to heaven.”
From 1965 until 1976, Steve’s father owned FBWP. In 1976, Jay and Steve bought FBWP from their dad. Residuals from saw mills continue to fuel production at FBWP, but there have been many changes since the core product was sawdust.
“It was probably at the right time when we got into the mulch business in the early 1970s,” said Jay. “Now, we kind of see where wood chips and biofuel are outgrowing mulch. We’ve always sold a lot of different products. The market just shifts.”
There has been a big shift in consumer preference to colored mulch, particularly red in the late 90’s, for a time, said Jay. And FBWP does color lots of mulch, using three colorizing systems from Becker Underwood. “Now, dark brown is coming on strong,” said Jay, noting the need to keep reassessing and responding to customer wants.
Steve said that in the 1940s, there was some small participation by his grandfather in what would have been an early mulch market. For instance, some sawdust was supplied to nurseries for potting mixtures and “oak toe,” or the curl remnants from saws that produced barrel staves was sold to nurseries for potting seedlings. In an effort to preserve saw blades, sawmills began to add debarkers in the 1950s. The resulting bark piles were the impetus for the first big push into mulch, said Steve.
With the acquisition of MFC, Jay and Steve started taking in pulpwood in addition to residual material from mills. Today, the mix is about 20 percent pulpwood and 80 percent sawdust, bark, slabs, etc. from mills.
MFC produces chips for paper and pulp mills and mulch. FBWP focuses on supplying wood fuel, landscaping products, and playground surfacing. There is some overlap between the products of the two companies and some equipment works for both MFC and FBWP. Products are delivered to customers throughout the Midwest via tractor trailer, or barge transport on the Mississippi River. Barges are used to make deliveries to the Chicago area and to paper mills in the U.S. At one time chips were sent to the Port of New Orleans by both MFC and FBWP. The chips then headed to Japan and Korea via ship.
Both have extensive equipment rosters. Purchases are quite methodical. “We’ve always researched the equipment we buy,” said Jay. “We study and look at a lot of equipment before we buy.” A fleet of 30 tractors – mostly Freightliner with some Kenworth, are teamed with about 70 chip trailers to move products overland. Things have changed dramatically since the day when FBWP loaded trailers manually, said Steve. Sawdust was once shoveled into trailers via a line of side doors until it flowed out. Then, the doors were shut and it was shoveled over the top. Today, wood fiber can be moved quickly and efficiently, when systems provided by companies like KNL Holdings, LLC (Peerless Trailers), are implemented. Chip vans, trailer dumpers, live floor trailers make unloading fast and simple. Currently, at MFC & FBWP, 20 Peerless chip vans are in operation. These vans can be loaded quickly using front end loaders supplied by CAT and John Deere, and can be unloaded just as fast using a Peerless semi-portable trailer dumper. Transporting product with the light weight and high volume trailers that Peerless offers helps conserve fuel. In addition, 25 IMCO trailers with Hallco live floors are also in operation at MFC & FBWP. Today, technology moves product, backs and shovels are no longer required. In regard to getting wood chips onto the barges, a Wagner chip dozer is dedicated to that task. The chips from MFC that head by barge to pulp and paper companies are screened at the mill with 20×10-ft. screens from BM&M Mfg.
At the MFC chip mill, tractor trailers arriving with pulpwood are offloaded by a Le Tourneau jib crane with a Mack grapple. Once wood is offloaded, and if mill line is running, the pulp logs are placed into an infeed hopper that feeds them into a 100 ft. x 12 ft. diameter Price LogPro drum debarker. If mill line is not running then pulpwood is stacked in radius around the crane. After being debarked, the wood is fed to a 112-inch Carthage chipper with 15 knives. The conveyor feed system at MFC is also from Price LogPro, LLC, a company based in Hot Springs, AR, which supplies a variety of log merchandising equipment to the forest products industry. As necessary, chips are resized before being shipped. A Morbark 58-inch, drop-feed rechipper helps with that task. Bark is also processed into marketable material at the mill by two Jeffrey (Rader) WB hammermills. “In the winter, a single grind will usually suffice, but in warmer weather, we normally run bark through a second grind to meet customer specs,” said Steve. The chip mill is managed by Tim Hart, and according to Steve, “Tim knows everything there is to know about this mill, has a great attitude, and does a tremendous job.” In regard to those supporting Tim at the mill, Steve continued, “Boy, we’ve got great people. I’m very thankful for our people.”
“The [original Canal Corp.] mill could take pulpwood only,” said Steve. “Since we were into sawmill residuals, we [changed some equipment] to handle [them]. We do all of it now. We added the second Jeffrey hog, the tractor trailer truck dump. We put in Price LogPro bark and chip reclaims so we could integrate [our businesses].” Now the mill can process incoming pulp logs, or be set up to process sawmill residual materials. Price LogPro was instrumental in the restructuring of the mill, giving a greater utilization of the facility to help meet the various product demands of our customers.
There are approximately 10 loaders in service at any time between the MFC plant and the five FBWP plants. The loaders include 950 Caterpillars and 644 John Deere models. “We just bought a new 824 John Deere, which will be utilized in the MFC plant,” said Steve.
“We’re new to harvesting and in-woods chipping,” said Steve. “I can see we’re probably going to have to procure another knuckle boom – a Prentice or something. We do have a 953 CAT dozer for road building. We’re trying to do it right.” Two Prentice loaders are already in service at MFC.
Total production combined for MFC and FBWP runs between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of products (all products) per year, said Steve.
The raw material that comes in from sawmills varies. “Oak is dominant – 60 to 70 percent, 20 percent hickory, 10 percent mixed – soft maple, sycamore, basswood, elm, some walnut and ash,” said Steve. There is some variation mill to mill because some mills saw only walnut and barrel mills use only white oak.
In reflecting upon the success of their companies, both Steve & Jay communicated sincere appreciation for the people that work at FBWP and MFC. MFC has eight employees, and FBWP has 45 employees. “Many of our employees have been with us for 20 or more years,” said Steve. “They are behind our success, there is no question. From facility managers to dispatchers, and shop foreman to drivers, machinery operators to mechanical technicians, our employees are our most valuable asset. We are blessed to have them.”
Steve spent one year when he was near age 20 traveling around the world. He took a freighter through the Panama Canal and went from there to Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Australia and more. Steve indicated that his year of travel helped him much in understanding people, and negotiating in business. Jay studied business in college for a few years before deciding to get right to work with his ideas.
Jay said that soon after joining FBWP, he told his father about changes he wanted to make. His father suggested he buy the business, something he was not ready to do alone. He got Steve, the older brother, to join him. By buying FBWP, the sons freed the father, who was a commodities broker – grain, livestock, and gold – on the Mercantile Exchange, to devote himself to that profession.
In his free time, Steve enjoys collecting guns, particularly from World War II and Vietnam, and artifacts such as spear points and arrowheads. Both Steve and Jay relish being engaged in the wood products industry through both the 75-year-old Foster Brothers Wood Products and the newer Missouri Fiber Corp.
“It’s what you put into it,” said Jay. Working long hours and knowing the workings intimately – from purchase of equipment to negotiation of new contracts – allows for the making of “better decisions.”