Upturn Lifts Virginia Logger: Darden Logging Gears Up with Cat Machines as Business Rebounds

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Forest products industry rebounds in the Virginia city of Franklin, and Darden Logging gears up with new Cat equipment.


FRANKLIN, Virginia — Mills are open again, and business is booming for Darden Logging. It was a long, uncomfortable stretch in recent years, observed company owner Phillip Darden. “You didn’t know where your next check was coming from. It’s hard to get up every morning and fight that battle.”

When the housing bubble burst and the economy went into a slump, Phil was forced to down-size the business. He cut back to two employees working with him and sold some equipment.

The rebounding economy allowed him to return to a full crew about two years ago, when he began investing in more equipment. He turned to Caterpillar and its well-known and big Virginia dealer, Carter Machinery, for some new Cat machines.

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Phil, 38, has been in business 10 years and has worked in the industry a few years longer. He grew up in the small city of Franklin in southeast Virginia and continues to live there and has his business office there. The city, with a population less than 10,000 has a rich history in the forest products industry. It is in a rural environ about 35 miles east of the I-95 corridor.

After graduating from high school, Phil worked in logging that summer and then while attending community college for two years. He earned a two-year degree in industrial technology and then worked at the Union Camp mill in Franklin for a couple of years before returning to work in the logging industry.

The mill was later sold to International Paper in 1999. International Paper produced lumber, pulp and paper products, and other chemical by-products. However, the mill closed in 2010, eliminating 1,100 jobs. A few years ago it resumed limited manufacturing, putting about 200 people to work producing fluff pulp, which is used in disposable diapers and women’s hygiene products.

As a boy growing up in a mill town and being around the forest products industry, something else that made a big impression on Phil was the former Franklin Equipment Co., which manufactured skidders. The company’s skidders were frequently seen being transported or driven throughout the area. The big machines made an impression on him as a youngster, recalled Phil.

The logging contractors he worked for “taught me the ropes,” recalled Phil. “I took and ran with it” A contractor who employed him sold him his first logging job.

When he bought that first job, Phil invested in a wheel feller buncher, a skidder, and a loader, and hired three men to work for him. The logger who sold him the job helped him to arrange financing for the equipment. The year was 2006.

“The first couple years were good,” he recalled, and then the market dropped following the bursting bubble of the housing industry and the havoc it wreaked on the economy. With the closing of International Paper and other mills, markets for wood “got very tight,” said Phil, and haul distances increased considerably. Whereas the company previously could work within 20-30 minutes of Franklin, now it was forced to markets and forests much further away. Drive time to job sites increased to about 60-90 minutes, one-way.

However, the industry is rebounding. The nearby Franklin Lumber sawmill re-opened under new ownership, and the new Enviva mill, which makes wood fuel pellets destined for boiler fuel in European markets, is up and running. Those are his primary markets along with International Paper.

Last year was the best of the past nine years, said Phil, although business has started off slow this year due to wet weather.

Phil has been investing in equipment as business has rebounded. He bought a new Cat 535D skidder and new Cat 559C loader the first of the year. Last year he traded some equipment in on the purchase of a new Cat 545D skidder. He does business with Carter Machinery’s dealership in LaCrosse, one of 17 locations in Virginia (and three in West Virginia) and located about 70 miles due west of Franklin.

Caterpillar offers four models in the D Series skidder line-up. They range from the Cat 525D with 203 hp to the 545D with 275 hp. The D Series is equipped with the Cat C7. 1 ACERT engine, which meets U.S. EPA Tier 4 Final emission standards.

The Cat D Series skidders were designed to deliver more power than ever before while still achieving the highest levels of total fluid efficiency, reliability and durability. Features include a six-speed transmission with more gears in the working zone, lock-up torque converter and independent front and rear differentials for more pulling power and control, a high-capacity cooling system and reversing fan, a roomy, quiet and cool operator station, and a tilting cab for servicing.

The company’s other equipment consists of a Cat 563C wheel feller buncher and a Tigercat 822 track harvester, a John Deere 748G3 skidder, and a Cat 559B knuckleboom loader. The company also has a Morbark 30-36 whole tree chipper and a Cat D5H bulldozer for making logging roads.

“Cat is very helpful with the financing,” said Phil, “and they’re very good with their service.” Carter Machinery, with its service technicians dispatched in the field, has done a good job servicing his machines for warranty work or repairs and “getting them back running,” he said.

The Carter Machinery technicians “have been very good to me,” added Phil, providing troubleshooting assistance over the phone or getting to the job site as soon as possible.

Phil has been very pleased with the new Tier 4 Final engines in the Cat D Series skidder line although he noted that new engine technology – in order to comply with federal emissions standards – requires the use of diesel exhaust fluid. The new engines burn less fuel per hour, he noted, which saves money, although diesel exhaust fluid is an added expense.

The Cat D Series skidders are more stable and agile and provide a smoother ride because the wheelbases and component layout have been optimized. Loggers have a more versatile machine that is highly efficient in sensitive applications, like first thinnings, yet maintains stability for working in tough conditions.

The six-speed transmission with gears more evenly distributed in the working zone maximize efficiency on any terrain and ground conditions. The torque converter allows the machine to ease smoothly into a start when the skidder has a heavy load in the grapple; then the lock-up clutch automatically engages, and the transmission goes into direct drive for high-efficiency hauling and faster travel speeds in the same gear. The D Series is easy to maneuver even in dense woods and slippery or steep conditions. In normal operation, all four wheels move independently; in poor ground conditions, the independent front and rear differential locks can be engaged separately for better pulling and maneuverability. The locks are hydraulically actuated and can be engaged on the go.

The hydraulic system gives the D Series fast multifunctioning capability and greater lift capacity. While steering still has full priority, the hydraulic system allows plenty of flow to continue to the main control valve. Operators can steer, back up, and activate the boom and grapple functions at the same time, so cycle times are faster, increasing production.

Phil described the new machines with one word: “Perfect. Perfect machine.” The engines run noticeably quieter. “The cabs are…as comfortable as you can make a machine as far as operator-friendly.”

His operators like them, too. “It’s a big step,” he added, compared to the older models the company previously owned.

Phil has served on the Caterpillar advisory committee, which is made up of loggers, mechanics, and sales representatives. He participated in meetings at the company’s factory in LaGrange, Georgia last fall to provide feedback on the development of the Cat 559C knuckleboom loader and other models.

Caterpillar C Series trailer-mounted knuckleboom loaders (the Cat 579C and 559C) equip loggers to boost production while saving on fuel. They move more wood and lower their cost per ton.

The C Series knuckleboom loaders feature fuel-efficient engines and powerful hydraulics that provide significantly more lift at full reach. Powered by the Cat C6.6 ACERT 174 hp engine with a package for exceptional cooling ability, the loaders are known for their combination of high swing torque, swing speed, and lift capacity that reduces cycle times. They are fast, smooth, and designed and built for high production while being economical on fuel.

C Series knucklebooms feature multiple operating modes which include economy, run, and power. Economy mode is best suited when production is limited due to quota limited markets while power mode provides maximum production in non-quota markets. Swing torque and lift capacity remain constant regardless of mode. Heavy-duty design and construction make them an excellent choice for high production, high cycle operations, tough pull-through delimbing, and handling big hardwoods.

Phil has six employees, and he normally keeps them working on one job site. Darden Logging does tree-length logging and works in both hardwood and softwood. Phil buys standing timber.

Southeast Virginia is known for its flat lowlands. The region is predominantly pine — Phil estimated about 75 pine forests and 25% hardwood. The company may frequently encounter water and must abide by stream management regulations. Phil seeks to work a little further west, where the terrain is more gently rolling hills.

Franklin Lumber buys mature pine logs. Hardwood pulp logs are supplied to the Enviva mill, and pine pulpwood is supplied to the International Paper mill. Hardwood veneer logs are supplied to mills in Alberta, Va., and Weldon, N.C. The hauls to Alberta and Weldon are about 50-60 miles if the crew is working somewhat west of Franklin.

Chips for boiler fuel, an enterprise that Phil added just two years ago, are supplied to a Virginia Dominion Power plant in Franklin that formerly burned coal for fuel.

Average weekly production is about 60 loads of round wood and 10 loads of chips.

Phil had some knowledge of the chipping side of the business; another company that he worked for in the past also had a Morbark whole tree chipper and supplied chips to International Paper.

Phil’s Morbark 30-36 whole tree chipper, equipped with a self-loader, is mounted on rubber tires and hauled to the job site. The chipping operations have been a valuable addition to the company, he indicated. “It helps us buy timber when you can tell the landowner you’re utilizing all the material,” and the landowner can have a clean job site ready for re-planting.

Mill prices were favorable last year, according to Phil, who said they have plateaued and likely will be flat in 2016. The company benefited from low fuel prices in 2015. “That’s pretty much why last year was one of the best years,” said Phil.

Since then, however, mills have but back on haul rates, which “kind of knocks it back like it was,” he added.

Phil has one semi-tractor and trailer for moving machines but contracts for hauling wood to mills. The company utilizes about five contract trucks.

The company participates in the SHARP Logger Program through Virginia Tech; it provides training in principles of sustainable forestry, environmental protection, and workplace safety.

Phil’s company pays bonuses at Christmas, and employees get a week of paid vacation around the July Fourth holiday.

Phil and family – his wife, Heather, who does administrative work for the business, and three sons ages 4, 7, and 9 — attend Sedley Baptist Church. Any time not spent logging is spent with his family, his number one priority. His boys currently are playing little league baseball, and in the winter they play basketball. He also takes them on an occasional hunting or fishing trip. “My time is consumed with work, and you rush home to be with your family,” he said.