MADISON, Florida — Jerry Gray has grown the logging company he acquired when his father retired nearly 20 years ago, and he continues to innovate his business and make a contribution to his industry and local community. And his company continues to rely on a mixed fleet of John Deere and Barko forestry machines for timber harvesting.
Gray Logging is based in Madison, a small town about 50 miles east of Tallahassee in rural north Florida. It is less than 30 miles south of Valdosta, Georgia. The company has two crews that together average about 135 loads of wood per week.
Gray Logging has 29 employees, many of them truck drivers. The company hauls its own wood and also hauls logs for other logging contractors. The company has a shop and office on land in an industrial park, and the shop also does service and repair work on forestry machines for other logging contractors.
Gray Logging harvests timber for an affiliated business, Genesis Timber. “We buy 100 percent of what we cut,” said owner Jerry Gray, 59, whose wife, Ginger, works in the Gray Logging office. Genesis Timber also contracts with other loggers to keep six additional crews busy harvesting timber.
Jerry comes from a family with generations of experience in logging, both on his father’s side of the family and his mother’s.
Jerry was 10 when his father started Gray Logging. He was using a chainsaw at age 13 and operating a cable skidder at 15. He began working for his father full-time after graduation from high school, along with an older brother, Jackie, who died in 2001, and became manager of Gray Logging when he was 40. Jerry’s dad, W.C., retired in 2001 yet at age 81 is still active in the business.
Jerry has expanded the business by adding the second crew, and he purchased land and constructed the office and shop. He also added more trucks and began hauling for other loggers. “We’ve done a lot,” he noted.
Why did he expand and start another crew? Jerry answered with one word: “Opportunity.”
Gray Logging has relied on Barko loaders for “many years,” said Jerry, going back to when his father owned the business. They switched briefly to Prentice and John Deere, but began buying Barko loaders again when the dealer resumed representing the manufacturer. The company has bought Barko loaders from Knight Forestry since the mid-70s, shortly after W.C. went into business for himself.
One of Jerry’s crews is equipped with a John Deere 643L feller buncher, two John Deere 648L skidders, and a Barko 595 loader. The other crew is similarly equipped: a new John Deere 643H feller buncher, two John Deere 648H skidders, and a Barko 495 loader. The Barko loaders are trailer-mounted units with CSI pull-through delimbers and ground saws.
The company also has a John Deere 653 track feller buncher that it uses in wet terrain and also a spare Barko 495 loader. A John Deere 650 bulldozer is used to build roads and landings, and a John Deere 544 front end loader with a root rake is used to clean up slash and debris.
For purchasing John Deere forestry equipment, Jerry has dealt with Beard Equipment, which has numerous dealerships throughout Florida and one in Alabama. He has continued a business relationship his father began in the mid-90s.
Jerry invested in a new Barko 495 loader in 2018. Shortly thereafter, Knight Forestry was able to acquire a used Barko 595, and Jerry snapped it up. All of the Barko knuckleboom loaders are equipped with factory grapples. Each trailer-mounted loader is paired with a CSI pull-through delimber and ground saw for processing and merchandising the trees.
Jerry has high praise for the Barko machines. “I think they’re the most logger-friendly loader on the market,” he said. “They’re not complicated.”
“They’re tough,” added Jerry. “The Barko 595 is the strongest loader on the market, I think. It works great. The crew that uses it cuts a lot of hardwood. It just does a great job.”
The Barko 595B knuckleboom loader is powered by a Cummins 173 hp Tier 4 diesel engine with Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) aftertreatment. It features a pilot-operated hydraulic control system; in conjunction with IQAN controls, it provides a ‘natural’ feel for the operator, and it can be configured as necessary. Maintenance can be performed without the need for a specialist. A load sensing system delivers power only when needed, which saves on fuel. The wider, all-welded boom construction with fabricated box type design features engineered sweeping curves for added strength and durability.
For the operator, the vibration-isolated ‘floating cab’ provides a comfortable work environment. Weather sealed, insulated and climate controlled, the cab includes a suspension seat with armrests, foot swing controls and halogen lights. Multi-functional dual joystick controls are eronomically designed for enhanced comfort and productivity, and efficient and precise grapple functions also reduce operator fatigue.
Wisconsin-based Barko Hydraulics has been manufacturing high-quality forestry equipment since 1963. In addition to making various types of log loaders, the company offers track harvesters and feller bunchers, wheel feller bunchers, industrial tractors, and grapples. (For more information about Barko and its equipment visit www.barko.com.)
“They’re easy to operate,” Jerry said of the Barko loaders. “They’re not expensive to operate.”
The loaders are operator friendly because they are “less complicated and the most comfortable loaders on the market, in my opinion.”
“You can see great out of them. The visibility is great.”
Jerry also was very appreciative of the support he has received from Knight Forestry. “Johnny and Jason (Johnny and Jason Knight, brothers and co-owners of Knight Forestry), they bend over backwards to help you. I’ve had some warranty work done, or something happened, and they lent me a loader and never charged me a dime. They’re real good to us.”
Knight Forestry, located in Whigham, Georgia, only about 35 miles north of Tallahassee, has a large inventory of new and used forestry equipment, including a full line of Barko loaders. The company also represents TimberPro, Quadco, Rotobec, CSI, Joneserd, and Pitts and Big John trailers. An affiliated business, Giant Tire Company, offers tires, tubes and wheels for trucks and forestry machines, representing such brands as Good Year, Primex, Samson, and Alliance Forestry. (For more information, visit www.knightforestry.net.)
Each Gray Logging crew normally works on a different job. “We probably cut 70-75 percent pine,” said Jerry, and the rest, hardwood. The hardwoods include red oak and other oaks, cherry, and sweet gum. The terrain is relatively flat, the soil can range from sandy to clay. Swamps and wet holes abound.
Jerry enjoys good markets for wood, and prices are excellent. “Prices are crazy,” he said. “Crazy good. It is a seller’s market right now.” Prices for chip and saw logs and saw logs “are outstanding right now,” he added, because of the strong demand for lumber.
Pine pulp is supplied to Packaging Corp. of America’s paper mill in Valdosta, Georgia. Pine saw logs go to the Langdale Forest Products sawmill, also in Valdosta. Pine chip and saw logs are supplied to two mills — Hood Industries in Metcalf, Georgia, and West Fraser in Perry, Florida. Hardwood pulp logs go to the Rayonier chip mill in Quitman, Georgia, and hardwood saw logs are supplied to Beasley Lumber in Hazlehurst, Georgia.
The average haul to those mills is only about 50 miles. “The longest haul is Hazlehurst,” noted Jerry, about 100 miles away, but the company does not produce a large volume of hardwood saw logs.
Jerry has two customers for pine pole logs — Robbins Manufacturing Co. in Lake City, Florida, and Balfour Pole Co. in Baconton, Georgia, another haul of about 100 miles.
Gray Logging also hauls pine saw timber from other loggers to two Canfor mills in Georgia, Moultrie and Thomasville.
Wood prices may be good, but diesel fuel prices are on the rise, observed Jerry. “They’ve been coming up ever since the inauguration….That’s a concern of mine.” The last week former President Donald Trump was in office, off-road diesel was $1.68 per gallon, and on-road diesel fuel was $2.48. The week Jerry talked with TimberLine, the price of off-road had jumped to $2.15, and on-road diesel was $2.69. “That’s fast, and it’s going to get higher, too,” predicted Jerry.
At the time Jerry was interviewed for this article, one crew was harvesting a 28-year-old loblolly pine plantation that Jerry had thinned just four years ago. “The market got so good now we’re clear-cutting,” he said. The other crew was cutting on a 30-year-old slash pine tract — with some scattered hardwoods — that Jerry thinned 10 years ago. Both tracts were approximately 100-110 acres.
The region does not support good markets to chip logging slash into biofuel. Jerry’s crews grapple the slash at the end of the delimber and topping saw and arrange it in windrows for the landowner. “It’s easier to burn when it dries out a little,” explained Jerry.
Genesis Timber is a partnership with Jerry’s son-in-law, Matt Webb. His other son-in-law, Joshua Light, works for Genesis Timber as the crew supervisor and technician, making sure tracts are set up properly for timber harvest operations. Genesis Timber has five employees — two full-time foresters, a crew supervisor, a full-time secretary and a part-time secretary.
Genesis Timber offers various forestry services, including timber management planning, timber cruising to determine the value of a forest tract, thinning and select cuts, clear-cutting, and overseeing forestry operations. The company purchased a drone that is used to fly over tracts and look for insect infestation and other tasks.
Jerry offers another service to landowners, particularly those that are having a tract of timber clear-cut that has been thinned in the past. That type of forest typically has a lot of small, unmerchantable trees, not even enough fiber to warrant chipping. Jerry uses a spare John Deere cutter to hit those trees with the saw and drop them. The front wheel loader with the root rake can follow later to collect the material and pile it to be burned. In the case of undesirable hardwoods that have been removed, if they sprout from the stump they can be controlled with a herbicide. The service, which Jerry calls ‘pay cut,’ is attractive to owners of pine plantations.
“I get out of the box with the root raking crew and other business like pay cut for plantations,” said Jerry. “We do a little extra. You have to do stuff like that to keep cash flowing in.”
Although Genesis Timber will buy as few as 10 acres of timber, a typical tract for Gray Logging is 50 acres or more. Genesis Timber buys timber within about 80 miles of Gray’s Lumber office.
Gray Logging has a fleet of 15 semi-tractors (eight Mack, six Western Star, and one Freightliner) and 17 log trailers — most of them Pitts — and a pair of low-boys. In addition to the Pitts trailers the company has one Big John and one Magnolia log trailer.
Because it has been difficult to hire qualified drivers, Jerry and some other businessmen helped to launch a CDL driver school program at a local college, North Florida College. There has been a shortage of experienced drivers in the region, and Jerry is reluctant to hire them away from other contractors. He was an advocate for the program for a few years before it was launched, and he helped obtain grant funding to get it off the ground. “I brought everyone to the table,” he recalled, representatives of the college, other contractors and businesses, and insurance companies.
The CDL school now has been operating for several years. “I go and speak to the class before they start each school,” said Jerry, who already has hired a graduate of the program. “He’s one of my best drivers. He hauls for me every day.”
Gray Logging offers employees health insurance, an IRA plan, disability insurance, paid vacation and sick days, and uniforms. “We offer great benefits,” said Jerry, who has a very stable team of employees. “I’m very proud of the fact that we don’t have any turnover,” he said.
The company also is very attentive to safety. Josh Ensminger and Richard Hunter conduct monthly safety meetings with employees, and the company also has a training program. Josh also is responsible for truck maintenance and regulatory compliance and supervises the shop.
Jerry is involved in the Florida Forestry Association, the Southeastern Wood Producers Association (he’s vice president), and American Loggers Council. He was named Logger of the Year for 2020 by the Florida Forestry Association.
Jerry leaves home about 6 a.m. and puts in 80-hour weeks. “I go, go, go, but I love what I do.” In his free time he likes to be with his four grandchildren, and hunts deer, turkey, and ducks. He fishes in an 8-acre man-made lake in his backyard for bass and bream.
“We are honest as the day is long,” said Jerry. “I take pride in our work and our jobs. You’re only as good as your last logging job. We really stress that with our employees, and they take it to heart. I think we have the best logging crews in the southeastern United States, but I am biased.”