In Baudette, MN, the winters are long and cold. Baudette, known as the walleye capital of the world, is located along the Minnesota – Ontario border where the Rainy River divides the United States from Canada. In this part of the border country, it is not uncommon for temperatures to remain below zero degrees Fahrenheit for the entire month of January.
Located just south of Baudette is a landmark of the region, a forest products business established nearly a half-century ago. Although the Erickson family began logging in the 1930s, Erickson Timber Products was established in 1975 by Gerald Erickson and his two sons Dale and Wayne (Gib). The business is now owned and operated by Dale Erickson and his two sons Cameron and Grant, who run the day-to-day operations.
I was fortunate to spend the day with Dale Erickson traveling the Minnesota north country somewhere between Baudette and Warroad, talking about his business history and changes in the forest products industry over his career.
Erickson Timber Products was first established as a logging and sawmilling business. The business in recent times, however, has found its way back to its roots and now primarily focuses on logging and trucking.
In the border country, the colder weather freezes water and creates access to timberlands that cannot be reached during non-frozen conditions. Roads are built across swamps on ice. Snow, often referred to as “sand from heaven” by loggers and foresters in the area, provides the base material needed to build and maintain “smooth” winter roads.
During the three to four-month winter harvest period, maximizing production is the key to success. More than 60 percent of the timber is harvested during the winter months. This means long workdays and workweeks that extend into the weekends.
Erickson Timber Products operates three logging crews. Two of the logging crews are conventional systems that consist of a feller-buncher, grapple skidders, and a stroke delimber. The company also operates ten trucks used to transport the harvested timber from the woods to the mills. Additionally, during peak winter harvest, trucks are contracted to meet the increased demand for pulpwood. Over the last several years, trucking availability has become less, and it is more difficult to find drivers than in the recent past.
Several years ago, Erickson Timber Products added a cut-to-length (CTL) harvester and forwarder to their fleet to expand the timber harvest season. The CTL harvest system has allowed them to operate across varying land conditions and soil types to access timber. They purchased the CTL system primarily due to the number of pine plantations in the region that were reaching an age where they needed to be thinned. The investment seems to be paying off, as I saw when I visited a timber harvest site located within a state park being harvested by Dale’s son Cameron. “We would have never been able to get this timber sale if we didn’t have a cut-to-length system,” explained Dale.
The forests within the park were breaking up. As we drove through the harvest operation, it was apparent the forests were over-mature with dead, downed material scattered along the forest floor. The timber harvest improved the appearance of the forestlands and generated revenue for the park that can be used to improve the facilities and experiences for users. “The forestry staff working with the park management really made this timber harvest possible,” said Erickson.
The success of Erickson Timber Products is market diversification. The business supplies harvested timber to five different outlets and operates a consumer scale and a wood yard. The wood yard serves as temporary storage for pulpwood that is rehauled during the spring to consuming mills. This provides loggers with a shorter haul distance that allows trucks to maximize limited trucking capacity during the winter harvest season.
The business employs 15-20 people, depending on the season of operation. Erickson Timber Products offers health care, vacation, and retirement benefits to their employees. Many of the company’s employees have been working for them for more than 20 years. “An experienced crew is important; it allows me to oversee the business without worrying about my staff getting the job done efficiently and correctly,” said Erickson.
Erickson Timber Products maintains a stumpage inventory of two years. This allows them to meet species demands of consuming mills and provides the flexibility to move to drier sites during inclement weather. The company controls about 75 percent of their timber rights and contracts for harvest operations the remaining 25 percent of the volume they harvest each year. The company relies on public agencies for its timber supply, as 95 percent of the timber they harvest is from public timberlands.
Dale Erickson is an advocate for the forest products industry. He believes that you must be involved beyond your own business to benefit the industry and your own business. “What’s good for one sector benefits us all,” said Erickson.
An active participant is the best way to describe Dale Erickson. Erickson Timber Products has been a long-standing member of the Minnesota Timber Producers Association (TPA). Dale has held terms as the president of TPA and the executive committee. He currently serves on the TPA board of directors. Dale also served on the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (MFRC) to represent logging interests. The MFRC is a gubernatorial appointed council created in 1995 by the state legislature. The MFRC advises the sitting Governor on forest policy and management in the state. Erickson Timber Products is a member of FRA, and Dale serves on the FRA Lake States Region Policy Committee.
Erickson Timber Products was recognized as a leader among his peers when it was acknowledged as the Minnesota Sustainable Forestry Initiative Logging Business of the Year in 2012. That same year, FRA crowned Erickson Timber Products as the FRA Lake States Region Outstanding Logger.
Erickson Timber Products has a commitment to the industry and a passion for representing all loggers. In 2011, during the state of Minnesota government shutdown, Erickson Timber Products, along with two other logging companies, challenged the state's position to shut down all harvesting activities on state land, putting the industry in jeopardy. On the eve of the shutdown, a district court judge ruled in Erickson’s favor, effectively allowing all loggers in the state to continue working. This victory was huge for Erickson and his fellow plaintiffs, particularly at a time when the forest products industry and the economy were struggling. This challenge gained statewide attention and was even picked up nationally, including by the Sunday New York Times, as well as several websites.
Since Erickson began in the logging industry, he has seen many changes. One of those changes is the cost of logging. “Logging equipment has become more expensive. This expense has normally been accompanied by an increase in timber production, however. Equipment prices continue to rise, and the production gains to justify the higher costs are just not there anymore. This situation has created a barrier to entry for young people to enter the logging business. It is very challenging to raise capital to purchase new equipment if you are not an established business. At some point, the industry and the loggers will need to resolve this barrier to entry, or we may face logging capacity issues," explained Erickson.
Erickson’s concerns are supported by a recent logger survey conducted in Minnesota. This study showed that, on average, Minnesota’s logging business owner's age was 53 years old, and approximately one-third were 60 years or older, suggesting succession planning will be a factor of importance in the coming decade. Only six percent of the respondents were less than 30. This same survey also showed that only 20 percent of the loggers would encourage a family member or close friend to enter the logging business. Forty percent stated that they would not encourage a family member to enter the logging business.
Dale Erickson is in the minority of logging businesses when it comes to passing on the company to family members. His two sons Cameron and Grant currently work for Erickson Timber Products. Dale hopes to retire soon, but he will not do that until he feels the market and company are stable enough to support his sons, their families, and employees. "It is hard to walk away from a business you have been in for nearly 50 years. I want to make sure everything is in sound condition when my sons take over the business,” said Erickson.
When asked what he will do in retirement, Erickson said his focus would be more on farming and raising beef cattle. I am certain he will be shaping winter roads with that "sand from heaven." As we know, loggers never really retire from logging.
Dale Erickson outside his office located near Baudette, MN.
The next generation. Grant Erickson on a timber sale near Warroad, MN. Dale’s sons Grant and Cameron are the third generation of Erickson’s working at Erickson Timber Products.
Improving forest aesthetics in a state park through a timber harvest. The photo on right is prior to the harvest while the photo on the right is following the timber harvest. The timber harvest not only will improve forest health and productivity, but also will generate revenue for the state of Minnesota that can be used for park improvement.
Maintaining water quality. A bailey bridge is used to cross a creek providing access to a timber sale. Dale Erickson served on the committee that develops forest management guidelines in Minnesota that maintained environmental quality and limited the impacts and costs to logging operations.