The Norbord facility located in northern Minnesota is owned by the world’s largest manufacturer of Oriented Strand Board (OSB). The company employs more than 2,700 people and has 17 mills located in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Norbord’s only Minnesota facility is in Solway, MN, a small town just west of Bemidji. The Bemidji area has many amenities including Bemidji State University, home of the Beaver’s Division I hockey team, which is a local draw in the area during the winter months. Solway is also located in an area of forests and lakes and offers numerous recreational activities including fishing, biking, and camping. The area provides its residents and visitors to the region the enjoyment of all four seasons of the year.
Norbord OSB being scaled and shipped to market.
Norbord is one of the largest private employers in the region. The Bemidji mill, established in 1981, directly and indirectly supports over 350 jobs. The indirect jobs include the more than 105 logging businesses that supply the mill with wood fiber. The spending activity of mill employees in the community, like going to a Beaver hockey game, support even more jobs.
The facility produces structural 4’ x 8’ OSB panels which are primarily used in the home construction industry. The main markets for the Bemidji mill are the Midwest States and the product is shipped by both rail and truck from the facility.
As part of its manufacturing process, the mill utilizes many of the species that the vast Minnesota forests offer. The primary species used to manufacture OSB is quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). Other species used to make the product include paper birch (Betula papyrifera), maple (Acer spp.), red pine (Pinus resinosa), jack pine (Pinus banksiana), and tamarack (Larix laricina). Using a variety of tree species helps the mill minimize its fiber costs. It also provides opportunities for landowners to manage all tree species that are common in the mixed-forests of northern Minnesota.
The first dollar earned by the Solway mill is proudly displayed at the offices on the product made at the location.
The Bemidji facility is a recession survivor. Like many other OSB facilities, it faced challenges when the housing market crashed in 2008, but it still continued to operate. Some OSB facilities in the U.S. were permanently shut during the housing downturn. In Minnesota, three OSB facilities were shut down. At the time, Norbord as a company temporarily idled mills in Alabama, Texas, and Quebec. Today, the Quebec facility remains curtailed while the mills in Texas and Alabama are operating once again.
When asked how the Bemidji mill survived the tough recession, Cam Lewis, Norbord Mill Manager, simply said: “A strong cost-focused culture was the key. The Bemidji mill had done a great job implementing the right improvements and employing a skilled labor force.”
Jerry Richards, Norbord Fiber Procurement Manager, also credits the mill's survival during this time with having access to a predictable and affordable wood supply and a viable logging force. “The mill is located in an area where we have good fiber and skilled loggers,” said Richards.
Jerry Richards, fiber procurement manager, is responsible for purchasing fiber at the Norbord facility in Solway, MN. Jerry is also responsible for assuring the wood used at the mill comes from well managed forests and meets the standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative®.
As for current challenges, Richards has concerns about the logging workforce. “We are seeing our logging businesses getting older, and not passing on the business to a family member which was common in the past,” said Richards. Richards also added that the cost to enter the logging business is a barrier that discourages younger businesses from entering the market.
In Minnesota, this past winter was good for logging. This is important for Norbord as a majority of wood fiber used by the mill is harvested in the winter months. Having a good wood inventory at the end of the winter logging season helps to bridge the gap between spring thaw and summer harvest. It also helps manage fiber costs at the mill, as limited summer accessible sights can lead to higher fiber costs. Norbord Bemidji recently made an investment to stabilize and increase their wood storage capacity that allows it to store more winter harvested wood at the mill location.
A Minnesota Sustainable Forestry Initiative® project. Tamarack logs procured by Norbord will be used to build bat houses for the federally threatened listed Northern Long-eared bat. The bat species populations are declining due to the white-nosed syndrome.
As we drove through the wood yard, I asked about a lone small pile of saw logs separate from the much larger ranks of wood. “Those are tamarack logs,” said Richards. The logs will be used to create bat boxes. The Minnesota Sustainable Forestry Initiative Implementation Committee has undertaken this project to provide homes for the federally threatened species the Northern Long-eared Bat (NLEB). The bat populations are being negatively impacted by the white-nose syndrome, a fatal disease caused by a fungus that is found in hibernacula and kills the bats during the winter hibernation period. “Although forest habitat is not a factor causing the population decline of the NLEB, anything we can do as forest managers to assist the population in recovery is important,” said Richards.
“After all, that’s what good forest management is all about, making sure our forests are healthy for future generations for rural economies, jobs, and the wildlife that use them.”
Cam Lewis, Norbord Mill Manager
Jerry Richards, Norbord Fiber Procurement Manager
Manager, Government Affairs and Lake States Region.