Southwind Forestry Helps Landowners Extract Value from Acreage Using Ponsse Ergo Harvester

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Reconditioned six-wheel Ponsse harvester, the Ergo, proves just the machine a land-management company in the Green Mountain State needs.

NORTH RUPERT, Vermont — Land rich and cash poor…Having grown up on a dairy farm, Gabe Russo, the owner of Southwind Forestry, LLC, knows the adage well. In fact, Russo took it to heart, resolving to do all he could to make the well-worn saying obsolete.
While he was still studying forestry at University of Vermont (UVM), Russo wrote a business plan. By the time he graduated in December 2000, he had launched Southwind Forestry, which he owns.
“My company is a full service forestry provider,” said Russo. It manages timberland and cuts timber. Approximately 35,000 acres are in the aggregated management portfolio of Southwind Forestry. Individual lots range from 3,500 acres to just tens of acres.
Russo’s company has been fully mechanized since 2008, a date that put him two years ahead of the target he had set for himself. “I had a business plan,” he explained. “I’d be mechanized in 10 years [after starting].” (He estimates only five percent of loggers operating in Vermont use cut to length mechanization, maybe less.)
It was a reconditioned Ponsse harvester that completed the mechanization picture for Russo, who has since upgraded from that original Ponsse harvester twice. The most recent upgrade was in March 2013 when he bought a reconditioned 2004 Ponsse Ergo, a six-wheeled harvester.
Russo credits Pekka Ruuskanen, the president of Ponsse North America, Inc. in Rhinelander, Wis. with facilitating the most recent upgrade of the harvester. “He met with me – understood what I needed,” said Russo. “He went above and beyond.”
The reconditioned 2004 Ponsse Ergo delivered to Southwind this spring has features that Russo very much wanted. “It has a new C4 crane and a new H7 head,” said Russo. The crane was new in 2012 and the 2009 head is reconditioned. Motor rebuild, new hydraulic pumps, new sheet metal and paint, and computer updates were all part of the reconditioning process.
“The [Ponsse] company’s motto is ‘dedicated to excellence,’” said Russo. And the company representatives are, he explained. “Ponsse sent trainer Brad Brown with the delivery of the machine [in March] to train me how to operate it and troubleshoot any start-up issues.”
Russo knows and appreciates that he can depend on quick delivery from Ponsse if he does need a part. Ponsse understands the importance of minimizing downtime, he explained.
The Ponsse harvester sees approximately 1200 hours of service each year, said Russo. So wear parts do have to be readily available. And they are, thanks to prompt response (even overnighting) from Ponsse.
Until Russo purchased his first reconditioned Ponsse harvester in 2008, he relied on a Husqvarna chain saw. “I cut by hand,” he said. “It was me out there alone, cutting. [Initially,] I had a 1981 Tree Farmer C5 [for forwarding].”
The push to become fully mechanized came from two directions. In 2005, Russo added a Rottne Rapid forwarder, which he purchased from Blondin, Inc. in Indiana, Penn. He soon realized he could never do enough cutting with his Husqvarna to use the Rottne forwarder to capacity. So, he hired a cutter. That’s when he was met with a push from the second direction.
With two men cutting with chainsaws, the workers’ compensation premiums for Russo’s company became prohibitive, threatening his balance sheet. Correspondingly, the premiums became a powerful motivator to move ahead and purchase a harvester, which would enhance safety and boost productivity.
Russo did a full year of research before deciding that the Ponsse Ergo was the machine best equipped to meet the requirements of Southwind Forestry. It was time well spent, he said. His research included going to Wisconsin to try out the Ponsse before committing to purchase it.
Even before the year of equipment research, though, he devoted a great deal of time to thinking about cut-to-length. “When I would cruise these woodlots, I would try to assess, ‘will cut to length work?” he said. “The one question – I didn’t know, ‘would it work in hardwood?’”
Once he was persuaded the cut-to-length approach with the Ponsse harvester would work in hardwood stands, he moved quickly to transition to a fully mechanized operation. In doing so, he became part of the small but growing cohort of such loggers in New England.
Russo wanted a harvester on wheels because he believes it minimizes damage to the substrate. Indeed, the Ponsse Ergo is designed to tread as lightly as possible. Low base weight and active suspension system disperse the pressure that reaches the ground. (Ponsse has introduced an eight-wheel harvester, the Ponsse Ergo 8W, which has an even lower surface pressure per unit area in contact with the ground than does the six-wheel Ponsse Ergo.)
The operator of the Ponsse benefits from a cab that is upright even on uneven terrain. The cab is kept in an upright position with the assist of a patented front axle suspension system.
Russo uses tracks in the snow. In fact, when he spoke to TimberLine in early April he was still running with Clark tracks because there were still pockets of snow.
Clark Tracks Ltd., based in Dumfries Scotland, UK, provides a wide range of forest machinery tracks to suit numerous applications for the worldwide forestry market. All Clark forest machinery tracks are manufactured from special boron alloy steel. A specialized heating induction process maximizes the durability and toughness of Clark Tracks, according to the company. Stewart Kelly, the company director and product manager, told TimberLine that Clark Tracks is currently seeking to establish dealers in the USA for their product line.
“We’re in northern hardwood – beech, birch, maple,” said Russo. There’s some white pine and some plantation wood in the mix. In general, Southwind is cutting 60 percent hardwood species and 40 percent softwood species.
“We look mainly to improve” the land, said Russo. And in meeting that goal, he appreciates the good interaction he has with Ponsse and with Rottne.
“I can’t say enough about Ponsse or Rottne,” said Russo. Good service and fast response to requests for parts characterizes the interaction with Blondin, Inc., the U.S. distributor of Rottne Logging Equipment, as well as with Ponsse, he explained.
Business loyalty is something that Russo values greatly, he explained. When he upgraded to a newer forwarder in 2012, Russo stayed with Rottne.
Russo values his equipment vendors. And he values being a loyal and trusted vendor to those that Southwind Forestry serves with products.
“My pulpwood is shipped to International Paper in Ticonderoga, [New York],” said Russo. “Hemlock goes to Finch Paper in Glen Falls, New York.” Pulpwood accounts for 70 percent or more of the Southwind product roster.
Other products go in many directions: hardwood logs to Dan Wood at Allard Lumber (Pawlet, Vt.), maple veneer to Bill Sargent at Hollow Hill Forestry (Cambridge, N.Y.), white pine logs to Mill River Lumber (Clarendon, Vt.), red pine logs to Commonwealth Plywood (Whitehall, N.Y.), white ash logs to True Temper (Wallingford, Vt.).
Southwind uses Ray Duquette Trucking (Duquette Trucking Forestry Transportation, Inc.) to move its round wood. At this juncture, Southwind Forestry does not chip.
Tim Waite, a logger with 35 years of experience – 20 as an industrial forester and 15 as a logger/sawmill owner – operates the Rottne forwarder at Southwind. Waite is the key person in merchandising wood. Veneer logs are so valuable that they are always sold at the landing – a firm price is arrived at there.
Russo became so busy operating the harvester that he added a forester to his employee roster. Forester Steve Handfield graduated from Paul Smith College (the College of the Adirondacks in Paul Smith, N.Y.).
The pieces of a professional life that Russo had begun to see even before college are fitting together well. “I grew up on a farm,” he said. “I enjoyed working outdoors. I enjoyed working hard.”
Envisioning a path to business ownership, Russo took a minor course of study in business management at UVM, while he concentrated in consulting forestry for his major. “My goal was to come back to Rupert and help farmers,” he said.
Trained as a logger in the Logger Education to Advance Professionalism Program (LEAP), Russo takes his commitment to the industry and the landowners his company serves very seriously. Southwind Forestry is very dedicated to helping Vermont landowners meet the criteria of the state’s Use Value Appraisal (UVA) program. UVA is sometimes called simply Current Use or Land Use.
The thrust of UVA is to allow landowners to be assessed for property tax purposes based on the value of their land for forestry. That typically results in a considerably lower assessment than one for fair market, or development, value. To remain active in the UVA program, landowners must meet requirements for active management of land.
And active management – in all its dimensions from cruising to silviculture to planning – is what Southwind Forestry does. Alignment with helping landowners meet the requirements of UVA is one way that Southwind is able to assist farmers trying to hold land and be profitable. (New York State, where Southwind also works, has a program similar to UVA.)
North Rupert, Vermont, home to Southwind Forestry, is part of Bennington County. It lies in the southwestern part of the state. (By the twin quirks of postal zoning and sparse population, the mailing address for Southwind is actually in the town of Pawlet in Rutland County, which is to the north of North Rupert.)
Self-employment suits Russo. “I enjoy making decisions,” he said. “Each day is always new and different.”
Russo relishes spending all his time away from the business with his wife and children.