Silent sawmill reflects housing market conditions

May 06, 2009
MILAN — The sawmill at the state-of-the-art Milan Lumber Company, formerly the Paul Vallee Lumber Co., on Route 16, was silent on Tuesday, April 28, when 100 or more foresters, loggers, and forest industry specialists toured the facility. The field trip was part of the 19th annual Mud Breakfast, organized by county forester Sam Stoddard of UNH Cooperative Extension. None of the conveyor belts were operating, and none of the circular saws were whirring.

The sawmill shut down six or seven weeks ago, and some two million board feet of round logs — 43 percent fir and the remainder spruce — are stacked high in the yard that borders the Androscoggin River, north of Berlin.

"We have no plans to stop taking logs," said company spokesman Steve Hallee, who manages the Shelburne chip yard, also a Carrier family-owned business. Both Richard Carrier, who was on hand for the tour, and Jack Carrier, who was not, represent the family's senior generation. Jack has three adult children, and Richard, four, many of whom are involved in the family business, which operates its several enterprises as separate freestanding entities.

Jack's son, Dennis, manages the Milan Lumber Company; he was on the road the day of the tour.

The Carrier family holdings include 100,000 acres of woodlands in Maine, five chip plants, two hardwood sawmills, a softwood sawmill (Milan Lumber Company), a flooring plant, a pallet plant, and trucking companies, most of which are in New Hampshire.

When the sawmill is running, it can saw 300,000 board feet in a nine-hour shift.

Twelve to 14 people, plus support staff, can process 6,300 logs a day.

Although the de-barker was also silent, Mr. Hallee pointed out that it is designed to remove all the bark from the logs that it processes, this because bark is a saleable byproduct purchased by paper mills.

The planing equipment was in operation on Tuesday, however.

When the economy is humming, Milan Lumber ships 50 million board feet a year.

New housing starts are almost non-existent under today's economic conditions, Mr. Halle explained.

"It's all market-related," he said.

Asked when the mill might be back up in full operation, Richard Carrier replied that it could be tomorrow or it could be in July — or it could be even later.

Right now Milan Lumber has close to 10 million board feet of softwood on hand, of which some seven million is processed and wrapped, ready to go.

The bad economic conditions not only affect direct sales, Mr. Carrier explained, but the downturn appears to be reaching into every corner of the industry. A bank unexpectedly shut down the timber broker that his family has dealt with for many years, Mr. Carrier lamented, and now Milan Lumber is owed well over $100,000, which it may not be able to collect.

The forest products industry is facing unprecedented conditions, said Sarah Smith, UNH Cooperative Extension forest industry specialist.

The lumber and pulp-and-paper industries are in the doldrums.

"These are the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930s," she said.

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