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Tenacity, innovation fuel growth at Schmitt Timber

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SPRING VALLEY--If Wayne Schmitt had his way, every oak, ash or maple board he slices off the log would be top grade; clear-grained, free of knots and blemishes.

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Those cuts are usually kiln-dried, sold to small manufacturers or tradesmen to be transformed into furniture, cabinets, trim, molding and flooring.

But nature isn't perfect.

So Wayne and sons Jeff and Greg have built their wood-processing business around transforming what they call "offal"--a Dutch word usually associated with inedible parts of a butchered animal--into wood products needed by someone in the region.

A large volume of the timber they buy is transformed into components for shipping pallets, crating lumber or cribbing--such as those purchased by Roberts-based County Concrete.

Pallet components, cut to a various dimensions unique to each end-user, are sold to jobbers who do the final assembly. The center cuts of many logs are sold for railroad ties.

Portions of some logs become wood lath, used for fencing, surveying and by contractors. Each spring, the Schmitts find a niche market for sharpened stakes--a task they accomplish with a special machine that can whittle a sharp point onto oak stringers.

Bark from each log, mechanically stripped after each has been run through a metal detector, is sold for landscaping mulch.

Sawdust, collected throughout the mill, is collected and sold for use as a component in manufactured doors or sold for animal bedding.

All remaining cut-offs and trimmings are sold for firewood or chipped for use as bedding, mulch or fuel for large boilers. Chips are also sold to Wisconsin Rapids-based Nekoosa Paper for pulp.

The Schmitts also dabble in overseas markets. They've shipped prime walnut veneer logs to Europe, maple to China and Indonesia, and basswood to Japan and Korea.

Their newest opportunities are linked to the domestic and foreign wine markets. Wayne and Greg fabricated band-sawing equipment to produce cuts of clear, white oak which make their way to Pleasantville, Mo., and California's Napa Valley to be fabricated into wine barrels. Some vintners immerse cured white oak "planks," as they're termed, in casks of wine to impart flavor and color into certain wines.

As far as they know, no other mill in Wisconsin produces staves like theirs.

@bc:Century-old presence

@t:Schmitt Timber Corporation sits off CTH I, less than a mile south of the St. Croix-Pierce County line, about a mile west of Spring Valley.

The firm employs about 40 people between the mill and a small subsidiary, Northern Hardwoods LLC, in downtown Spring Valley. Greg Schmitt said Northern creates custom flooring, crown molding, trim and cabinetry for the "high-end" market. One of their specialties is replicating unique shapes for building restoration projects.

Their location has been home to a saw mill for 116 years, when Nels Madson erected a roof over a circular blade and log carriage. His sons, Ole and Arnold, eventually took over and Wayne, 68, who first worked as a logger, had become familiar with the operation as a supplier. He was employed there for a time in 1991 and, when Arnold died, Wayne decided to buy the business.

Jeff, 45, joined his father several years after completing a degree in electronics at Chippewa Valley Technical College, then working for a time with Ingersoll Corporation in Illinois. Greg, 38, jumped in after high school. Both sons grew up felling trees, operating and repairing their dad's forestry equipment.

Over time, they've found their respective niches in the business.

Wayne does a bit of everything--from overseeing personnel and sales and marketing to operating the joy-stick equipped, computerized band saw or "head saw" and a second newly installed "scragg"--a hybrid saw rig with twin-circular blades that simultaneously makes two cuts as the log is manipulated by hydraulic-powered spindles on either end. Wayne built several components of the new saw assembly himself.

Jeff spends a large portion his time in the field, cruising and purchasing standing timber for the mill. While most timber comes from Pierce, St. Croix, Pepin and Dunn counties, the Schmitts will range out further for certain wood varieties they need.

Many owners of wooded lands have acreage enrolled in the state's Managed Forest Law, a program under which forested property is taxed at a reduced rate if owners agree to the periodic harvest of certain sizes and variety of trees. The state subsequently collects a portion of the sale proceeds and the contracts assure an uninterrupted supply of wood products.

DNR Forester Gary Zielske said there are currently 27,800 acres enrolled in Pierce County. St. Croix has 15,141 acres, according to its DNR forester, Dahn Borh.

Jeff Schmitt helps landowners write forest plans, sets up timber sales and directs select cutting of MFL lands. That outreach also helps the Schmitts make sure they have a ready supply of quality saw logs.

Greg is the chief mechanic of the group. He also works in sales and oversees the Northern Hardwoods shop in town.

While all three men can perform virtually any job at the mill, they readily credit office manager D'anna Webb as a vital partner to help keep the business humming.

The firm suffered a set-back in 2005 when a night-time fire destroyed the main saw mill building, but they rebuilt immediately. Last fall, they doubled the size of the main building to house the scragg saw, used to transform lower quality logs into boards for pallets.

The mill currently operates four days weekly, 10-hour shifts. Most mill tasks are repetitive, tough physical work. Finding employees willing and able to sustain the pace is challenging.

The Schmitts train for most jobs, but there are technical programs that teach lumber-grading and saw operation.

"We're going pretty good, although we struggle on the low-end," said Wayne of finding employees.

Logging and sawing lumber are dangerous trades.

The Schmitts pay 42 cents for each dollar of logging crew wages for Workman's Compensation insurance. The rate is slightly less for mill employees.

"Our safety record is really good," Wayne said. "We deal with issues at the time and we're talking about safety every day."

Electricity to power the dozens of large electric motors on-site can run $10,000 per month. The mill is supplied by St. Croix Electric Cooperative.

All three are passionate about the need for continued innovation and reinvestment in their operation.

"We're going to do it on our own scale, our own time," said Wayne. "You can either move backward or forward; there's no in-between."

"We're always ready for something new," added Jeff.

"It may be something we can manufacture--maybe out of sawdust," said Wayne.

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Steve Dzubay
Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer since 1995. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.
(715) 426-1054
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