With more than 40 years in the forestry industry, Kenneth Scruggs has watched forests grow, removed the planted trees at the right time and planted another forest of fast-growing trees to replace them.
A timberland manager with the Reidsville, North Carolina-based Gregory Pallet Co., Scruggs serves as a liaison between landowners, loggers and mills throughout North Carolina and Virginia. He manages thousands of acres, ensuring the trees grow properly so they yield a profit for those involved.
With last week’s announcement that Canadian company Teal-Jones Group will invest $21 million in Pine Products Inc. in Henry County, creating 67 new jobs, Scruggs said the action will also benefit the industry in neighboring Pittsylvania County.
Although not a direct investment into the county, the expansion will contribute to additional jobs up and down the supply chain for forestry products and increase the market for timber in the region, especially since company officials said they will source 100% of their wood from the commonwealth.
“[The expansion] is benefiting across the board. … You’re providing a market for landowners, you’re providing land for loggers so that they can continue their operation,” Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring said. “It’s supporting that whole forestry community.”
Drew Arnn, the senior area forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry, said this scheduled expansion of Pine Products likely won’t result in any significant production increases or new planters, but it will improve returns for the landowners and farmers who already have growing trees.
“It makes timber as an agricultural commodity more valuable,” he said.
Of the many counties that send wood to the Pine Products mill in Henry County, Pittsylvania sends the most, said Ben Kendig, the procurement forester for Pine Products.
“[This investment] would allow us to buy even more from Pittsylvania County than we already are,” said Neil Tatum, general manager.
Scruggs said the area has too few pine saw mills to meet the demand of the timber produced, so this expansion is a step in the right direction. Gregory Timber Inc., a saw mill in Hurt, also expanded its operations this year.
Earlier this year Dominion closed its Pittsylvania Power Station in Hurt, which was using 1 million tons of wood chips annually, said extension agent Jason Fisher.
“That took away a market for landowners, and now we have an expanded market to offset some of that,” he said.
For landowners, production of loblolly pine, the primary species grown in the region, involves years of waiting. The trees are typically planted from a nursery at about a year old. The first phase of harvesting, which thins out the inferior trees, doesn’t begin for another 15 or 16 years, Scruggs said.
The thinning process usually increases wildlife populations and eliminates competition among the trees, allowing more nutrients to flow into the remaining trees.
“They grow quicker, they grow more money, and they have less problems with disease and insects,” Scruggs said.
Then around eight years after the first thinning, the loggers come in for the second thinning, leaving plenty of growing room and nutrients for 100 or so of the best trees per acre.
After another eight or so years, the loggers completely clear the rest of trees, which have the highest value. Once a growing season passes, they will then plant another collection of 1-year-old trees, essentially planting a new forest.
Arnn said factors such as the general economy, construction trends and the weather can affect the market for timber products. Excess rain throughout last year prevented loggers from working, driving prices up since the mills were in short supply. This year, the drought has discouraged the mills from buying product, which decreases prices.
Gov. Ralph Northam came to Henry County on Sept. 25 to announce the Pine Products expansion.
“Wood products companies across all parts of the world continue to deepen their roots in Virginia, and we are thrilled to see this momentum continue with Teal-Jones Group’s decision to expand in the Commonwealth,” the governor said.
“Together, these projects will bring new jobs and economic vitality to our rural communities and help create the markets needed for sustainable forest management.”
The company also announced a similar investment and job promise in Westmoreland County.
Data from the Weldon Cooper Center, which is part of the University of Virginia, shows the forestry industry provides 108,000 jobs in the commonwealth and contributes $21 billion annually to the Virginia economy.
Ring said that the Teal-Jones Group’s investment in the saw mill will be felt throughout the commonwealth.
“That’s going to make a huge difference in that community, but what’s really nice is that it’s also creating jobs for loggers and providing markets for those landowners,” she said.
Several landowners growing timber on their property would not speak for this story.
Standing among one of the forests that he’s managing, Scruggs explained that the growing of timber and trees is a completely future-focused process.
“This forest is being managed for the saw mills of the future,” he said. “Mistakes that are made now can turn into 30-year mistakes,” he said.