MANISTEE, Michigan — Business hasn’t been booming for the forest products industry on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in recent years, but Dave Gentz, owner of Gentz Forest Products, notes that markets are starting to pick up. Plus, construction of a new mill is under way.
Business has been tough in recent years, and one thing that has helped Dave get through it is his Tigercat forestry equipment. His company relies heavily on the Tigercat brand, and the durability and low maintenance costs of the machines have helped him keep operating in the tough economic times.
“Sometimes I wonder if we would still be in business,” said Dave.
Dave purchased two Tigercat 630D grapple skidders in 2012. The machines now have more than 9,000 hours. “They have just been unbelievable quality,” he said.
Although Dave has been a Tigercat customer for five years and since has invested in more Tigercat machines, he has been making a transition of sorts. Previously he has dealt directly with Tigercat personnel in southern Ontario, where Tigercat is based. However, Tigercat named a new dealer to the Great Lakes in October 2016, Woodland Equipment, located in Iron River. The addition of Woodland Equipment to the Tigercat dealership network strengthens Tigercat’s presence in the Great Lakes, adding to an already established dealer network elsewhere in the U.S.
Dave’s home is in Manistee, on the western side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula; it is on the edge of Lake Michigan and, on the other side, the edge of Huron-Manistee National Forest. It is roughly 120 miles north and west of Grand Rapids. The company’s office and shop are in a new building Dave had built in Brethren, about 18 miles further inland, in 2010.
Dave, 47, grew up in the Manistee area. After graduating from high school, he worked for a logging company for a couple of years, then went to work in his father’s trucking business in 1990. After a year, he and his father, Robert, began logging, and they worked together for more than 15 years. Dave and his wife, Melissa, bought the business from Robert — now retired — and three other family members in 2006.
Gentz Forest Products currently employs 11 full-time workers. That is the lowest number of employees in 20 years. “The last two years, nothing in Michigan’s been good,” observed Dave. At one time the company employed 35 people.
He put the blame on the elimination of tariffs on imported Canadian softwood lumber. “It all started when the tariffs came off,” he said. “All of our markets have been completely sluggish,” flooded with Canadian lumber. The U.S.-Canadian Softwood Lumber agreement expired in October 2015, along with tariffs on Canadian lumber. The expiration gave Canadian producers of softwood lumber unfettered access to U.S. markets.
“Our pine markets got really bad,” said Dave. “Once the pine market was flooded, it trickled over to everything else.”
“I’ve never seen in almost 30 years now where all of our markets were so flooded at the same time,” said Dave.
In addition, Michigan has lost major markets for wood in the past 10-15 years as various mills — mainly paper mills — have closed, notably Sappi, Georgia-Pacific, and Menasha.
“Most of our products, we are getting paid less today than we were 20 years ago,” said Dave. Meanwhile, costs of doing business have increased — equipment, labor, and other expenses. It’s a “sad” state of affairs, he acknowledged.
“For 25 years, we just focused on producing more wood…now, instead of trying to produce more wood, we’re trying to produce less at a better price.”
Dave’s company relies mainly on Tigercat equipment for its logging operations. After his positive experience with the first Tigercat grapple skidder, he purchased the second, then began adding more Tigercat machines. The company is equipped with a Tigercat 724 wheel feller buncher for felling timber. Two track harvesters are used for processing the trees, a Tigercat 822 equipped with a Tigercat 575 harvester head and a John Deere 753 matched with a Waratah 623 attachment. A Cat 564 forwarder gets the logs to a landing where they can be loaded onto trucks. The company also has a Morbark 5048 trailer-mounted drum chipper for processing material into chips.
The region supports abundant hardwood and softwood trees in a landscape that can change quickly from relatively flat terrain to steep slopes. “We have a combination of everything,” said Dave, a mix of timber and terrain. Locally there is a lot of oak and good hard maple, and aspen and pine.
“This summer…I have probably cut more off-species than I’ve been able to move in the past two years,” said Dave. “Normally, red pine is the one species that moves.” By off-species he referred to jack pine, white pine, and scotch pine.
Dave buys standing timber, and he also contracts to produce wood for three companies: Weyerhaeuser, Northwest Hardwoods, and Packaging Corp. of America. Weyerhaeuser operates a mill that produces oriented strand board in Grayling, about 90 miles away, and Northwest Hardwoods has a sawmill in Lewiston, about 120 miles; Packaging Corp. of America’s mill for making corrugated in Filer City is only 10 miles. About half the company’s production is from standing timber it purchases, and the remainder is contract logging.
Dave used to buy timberland, but for many years now has been buying only the stumpage. Most tracts average about 40 acres, roughly the same size as the tracts he contracts to harvest for Weyerhaeuser, Packaging Corp. of America, and Northwest Hardwoods.
In a good week, Gentz Forest Products produces about 20-25 loads of round wood and 20 loads of chips. It supplies short length pulpwood (100 inches) to Weyerhaeuser and Packing Corp. of America. Northwest Hardwoods buys hardwood saw logs.
Dave has a few other markets for wood products. He supplies hardwood bolts and some aspen and pine to two mills that make pallet cut stock; one of the mills is owned by Acme Pallet.
He invested in the Morbark chipper more than two years ago when he still had good markets for fuel chips. In the past the company conducted high production chipping operations to supply Packing Corp. of America, but this year the mill stopped buying whole tree chips.
Currently, the company’s only customer for chips is Cadillac Renewable Energy, which buys fuel chips for a power plant it operates almost 60 miles due east in Cadillac. The plant has been a customer for nearly 25 years. “They’ve still been very loyal to us,” said Dave.
However, the Cadillac plant, which sells electricity to a power company when it’s needed, has been idle recently as the power company has been able to tap natural gas for fuel. The past two years Dave’s company has only been producing about 20 loads of chips per week.
Dave recalled working a four-day holiday week years ago and producing 100 loads of chips. Now the company doesn’t have the markets to supply 100 loads in a month. “The markets are gone… everybody’s flooded.”
Dave has been converting his business to better merchandising of wood products since he purchased his first harvester 10 years ago. Gentz Forest Products has operated one crew the past three years. The Tigercat feller buncher drops the trees, and the two harvesters generally follow and process the trees in the woods. The harvesters group the logs together, and the skidders are used both to move the wood closer to the landing and to drag the tops to the chipper. The forwarder finishes the job of getting the wood out and loading trucks.
“The Morbark 5048 does a great job of cleaning up small diameter brush and chipping oversize material that cannot be marketed for anything else,” said Dave. The whole-tree chipper is self-loading with its own knuckleboom.
Dave described his experience with Tigercat as “excellent.”
“One thing I tell people about Tigercat,” said Dave, “after 30 years in the business, the only thing better than the equipment are the people behind it. They have really treated us well.”
For a number of years he dealt directly with Tigercat personnel at the company’s facilities and offices in southern Ontario, less than seven hours away. With the appointment of Woodland Equipment, Dave now has a Tigercat dealer who services him. Woodland Equipment, led by owner Ron Beauchamp, serves loggers in northern Wisconsin and both Michigan peninsulas.
During the period that Dave dealt directly with Tigercat personnel in Ontario, company officials were quick to respond to his requests for service, he indicated. A regional sales representative was available any time Dave needed, and the factory staff who helped with troubleshooting and maintenance were “always one phone call away.”
Ron made his first trip to visit Dave about two months prior to his appointment as a Tigercat dealer. They have met in person at least once a month since, and talk about once a week. “I think Tigercat made a very good choice in selecting him to be a dealer,” said Dave
Dave has been transitioning over to Woodland Equipment for parts and service, and he also has made himself available to let other loggers see and try his Tigercat equipment.
(For more information about Woodland Equipment, visit the company’s website at www.woodlandequipment.com.)
When asked if there were any particular features on the Tigercat machines that he wanted to single out, Dave replied, “Overall, it’s been the quality, the reliability, the low maintenance costs, the longer life…It has been night and day different from any other brand of equipment, and I think we’ve tried all of them.”
His wife, Melissa, runs the office for the company, which is a member of the Michigan Association of Timbermen.
Dave offers a full package of benefits to employees — paid holidays, paid vacation, insurance, and retirement plans. “That has been one good thing that has helped us through the years,” he said, the longevity of employees. Most employees have been with the company at least 10-15 years.
Dave enjoys fishing when he can. He likes fishing on Lake Michigan and small lakes. “We started going to Lake Erie this spring for walleye…We’re going to try to make it an annual event” for his family.
He expressed optimism for the future, with good reasons.
For example, a Brazilian company, Arauco, broke ground this spring for a $400 million particleboard plant it is building in Grayling. After it begins operating in late 2018, it will need about 1.2 million tons of wood annually, the company has indicated. The mill will process about 60-70% pine and the rest hardwood.
Since new tariffs were put on imported Canadian softwood lumber in April, they have slowed the movement of softwood into the U.S. The slowdown in the flow of Canadian lumber has begun to affect Dave’s markets for the better. The Trump administration, he noted, is pushing to make the tariffs permanent in September.
“We’re starting to see some pine move again,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ve turned the corner.”
(For more information on Tigercat, visit the company’s website at www.tigercat.com.)