Young Limpopo sawmiller on the move

The LT70 Remote ploughing through a 6 m pine log.

Pieter van der Linde, a young entrepreneur from Polokwane in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, bought his first sawmill at age 18 with the savings his parents had earmarked for him to further his studies. Instead he decided to use the money to start his own business.

“I love the outdoors and timber, which made the decision simple,” Pieter says. He ploughed the cash into his first Wood-Mizer LT15, and Duva Timbers was born.

Duva’s initial focus was sawn pallet components that went to pallet manufacturers, but Pieter soon spotted an opportunity to expand his product line to supply structural timber to the lucrative local construction and roofing market. However this required more equipment - and staff.

A straightforward through-and-through cutting pattern with flitches with wane exiting both LT70s and transferred to the EG800 with minimal manual inputs.
Final-size product exiting the EG800 Edger/Multirip.

A Wood-Mizer EG300 Board Edger and a second Wood-Mizer LT15 came first. Then a Wood-Mizer LT70 Remote that boosted output and improved recovery, followed by a second LT70 Remote in 2019.

A Wood-Mizer EG800 Edger/Multirip came next in 2020 to streamline the production process further.

The remote configuration of the LT70 drew Pieter’s attention. The remote operator station makes it easy to control all the functions needed to process the 6 to 6.6 m logs into boards with wane in an efficient, fast and automated way. Minimal labour is needed to move the board to the EG800 edger where final sizes are cut.

The EG800 is a robust manual edging and multirip solution for small and medium-sized sawmills. When configured as a multirip the single arbor EG800 can process flitches up to 900 mm wide and 110 mm high. The sawmilling process allows for a simple and slick through-and-through cutting pattern that sees flitches with wane exiting both LT70s, and the EG800 processing them into accurately sawn boards.

The uptick in production opened markets for Duva Timbers across Limpopo. Duva sells air-dried structural timber in all popular sizes to hardware stores across the province and to walk-in customers and custom orders delivered to clients by Duva’s own trucks.

Duva Timbers product ready for market.
Duva’s own truck fleet hauls roundlogs to the sawmill and finished product to customers.

An improved recovery process has also seen Duva moving back into the pallet component market.

The next step in creating a truly sustainable business was to purchase a timber farm situated on the slopes of the Wolkberg outside timber-rich Tzaneen.

The timing couldn’t have been better. With ongoing timber shortages being experienced in the region, Pieter is able to supplement his log shortfalls at the sawmill from his own farm. This has enabled Duva Timbers to increase market share, and to have more confidence in the future of the business..

Pieter credits his staff for much of his success.

“Their support is my strength,” he says.

Duva Timbers’ own farm provides crucial raw material security.
Pieter van der Linde, CEO of Duva Timbers.


Roadside sawmiller changing lives

David and Rosalina Letsoalo started Roadside Timber Traders from scratch.

A sawmill near Moria in South Africa’s Limpopo Province is the backbone of an extraordinary business success story that is still unfolding …

Roadside Timber Trading Sawmill is located in the sprawling suburb of Mankweng in Limpopo province of South Africa, not far from Mount Moria, home to one of Africa’s largest churches, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC). Moria takes its name from a hill outside Jerusalem where Solomon’s temple once stood.

David and Rosalina Letsoalo, the founders of Roadside Timbers, also seem to be blessed by their close proximity to this holy place. As members of the ZCC, they know where their strength comes from.

This, together with sharp thinking and hard work has already brought this formidable husband and wife team a long way.

Back in 2011, David and Rosalina were pondering their future as they needed to support their growing family. David’s career in hairdressing was slow. Rosalina’s career in furniture retail was solid.

Between these two options, Rosalina’s timber background seemed to be a safer bet.

Wood-Mizer is the backbone of Roadside Timber Trading’s success.

So David started selling poles bought from wholesalers that his customers then used for building. But business was slow. To increase profits, he started buying poles directly from farmers. A pole harvesting team that he started pushed weekly sales to 250 poles.

But the rapid development of formal housing that was taking place in Mankweng created a big demand for sawn timber, and David and Rosalina knew they needed a new business model to take advantage of this opportunity.

The answer came in the shape of a used Wood-Mizer LT30 that they bought in 2016.

Producing accurately sawn timber that was required by the new home builders around Mankweng was an immediate winner. They also cut on-site which made their sawn timber cheaper than the timber being sold at the local hardware stores, and sales boomed.

The original Wood-Mizer LT30 is still working.

Roadside Timber Trading was no longer a struggling roadside stall. Three months later they bought a second Wood-Mizer, an LT15.

The Wood-Mizer staff guided and supported the Roadside Timbers’ sawmilling team during those early days, and is still helping them to grow their business today.

Roadside’s Wood-Mizer fleet continued to expand, reaching eight Wood-Mizers in 2018 and ten in 2020.

As part of Roadside’s productivity improvement drive, three Wood-Mizer TITAN Multirip / Edgers also came on stream in 2020 to rip cants that are produced on the sawmills into boards.

“We now understand how to work cleverly to produce more,” says David with a smile.

2018 also saw Roadside opening a second sawmill outside Tzaneen, a town near Polokwane in a tree rich area of Limpopo. From there they are now servicing customers in Giyani and Venda.

Offcuts from Roadside’s structural timber production process is made into doors to boost recovery and drive sales.

Current production figures of wet-off-saw structural timber exiting Roadside’s Polokwane division stands at +90m³/day for a weekly average of some 450 cubic meters that includes 38x38, 70x76, 38x114, 38x152 and 338x 228 sizes.

The drymill that kicked off in 2018 processes Roadside’s offcuts into doors and frames, with roughly 200 to 250 units sold per week to local hardware stores. A 4-head moulder produces components for the doors and frames. This, together with shavings and sawdust that are sold to farmers, has driven Roadside’s recovery figures to above 70%.

Roadside’s drive to increase efficiency now also includes a logistics division that adds significantly to the bottom line.

“Our own fleet of nine trucks now ensures a constant flow of between 250 and 450 pine logs into the mill per month. We also do all our own deliveries to customers. All of this builds our profits,” says David.

Roadside Timber Trading now has 45 full-time employees working double shifts to keep up with orders.

The Roadside Timber team uses own transport to collect round logs and deliver sawn timber to customers.

David and Rosalina co-manage the business with Rosalina focusing on marketing, and David on production.

While not trading during the Covid-19 lockdown, David and Rosalina still managed to pay all their employees’ salaries despite the shutdown.

“With good people on our side, and business partners like Wood-Mizer there to assist us, we are blessed,” commented David.


Sawmillers on the ropes

Sawmillers large and small are under pressure as a result of rising input costs, load shedding, round log resource constraints and tough market conditions.

A ‘perfect storm’ of rising input costs, roundlog resource challenges, unreliable electricity supply, declining exchange rates, high prime lending interest rates and shrinking markets has put South Africa’s sawmilling industry under severe pressure. Many sawmilling businesses are operating at break-even or worse, resulting in business closures and mounting job losses.

This is the sad story shared by Sawmilling South Africa’s Chairperson Duncan MacKay and Executive Director Roy Southey at the SSA AGM held in Pretoria recently.

“We have seen a reduction in saw log volume throughput, resulting in sawmill closures and further job losses,” said Duncan, who is a Director at White River Sawmills. The most affected provinces are Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, where unemployment is already running at more than 40%, he said.

As a consequence of the extremely difficult economic conditions, sawmills have been engaged in alternative power supply projects and cost management, devoting less attention to replacing or improving production technology, said Duncan.

He said that SSA has an active relationship with government and participates in a number of government/business initiatives, and has highlighted the plight of sawmillers at these forums, but to no avail.

“It would appear that Government does not understand the urgency of the situation - or has little or no interest in our sector,” said Duncan. “It is therefore becoming increasingly obvious that our industry will have to take the initiative by taking appropriate steps to enhance our own interests. Interaction and input from our members is becoming more critical to ensure prosperity for our companies.”

Promoting use of structural timber
In order to boost demand SSA is taking a proactive role in promoting the use of structural timber products with architects and designers, and facilitating access to export markets for value added timber products to boost economic growth and create jobs.

To this end SSA has almost concluded the sampling phase of negotiations with Wespine to have timber originating in South Africa graded to Australian specifications. This will allow South African sawmills to export sawn timber to Australia.

Apprenticeships and learnerships
SSA members have also been engaged in the development of apprenticeships and learnerships that are seen as crucial for the growth and development of the sector. The first of these, a Saw Doctor

Apprenticeship, should be ready for implementation by the end of 2023. Additional funding received from the FP & M Seta will enable work to continue in the development of the kiln drying and wet and dry mill operator programmes.

Executive Director Roy Southey reported that SSA’s individual sawmill membership has remained fairly constant through the year at 47. However Roy said they had lost the membership of Limpopo-based Stevens Lumber Mills which closed temporarily in April citing load shedding challenges and problems with round log procurement as the main reasons. Stevens Lumber Mills is one of the oldest sawmills in South Africa, and has been operating for over 60 years.

Sawmilling SA Chairperson Duncan MacKay (left) and Executive Director Roy Southey.

On a happier note, Roy welcomed back Geelhoutvlei Timbers sawmill in the southern Cape, which has completed a rebuild after it was gutted by fire in 2018.

“2023 has certainly been the toughest year ever for the sawmilling sector in South Africa and one in which we have seen the closure of a number of mills with the resultant devastating effect on rural economies. Sawmilling, which for many years has been a driver of job and wealth creation in many rural areas from the Limpopo to the Cape, is under pressure from a multitude of challenges,” said Roy.

“However, not all is lost. If you consider the groundswell of interest in timber building driven by the green economy, the rapid development of the mass timber movement, the advances in recovery from log mechanisation, the development of export markets, and the move towards additional timber-based products, the future does not look quite so bleak.

“The challenge for us as sawmillers is to rise and grasp these opportunities and gear our businesses to take advantage of this shift away from commodities towards value-added products. Then we will certainly survive,” concluded Roy.

This silver lining of optimism amidst the storm clouds of our troubled land was echoed by Forestry South Africa’s Executive Director, Michael Peter, who presented the keynote address at the SSA AGM. Ever the optimist, Michael is heavily involved in several public/private sector initiatives set up to tackle the energy, rail and ports challenges, and he maintains that real progress is being made on all these fronts and that solutions are achievable.

He also pointed out that the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has recently called for expressions of interest from the private sector to partner with local communities to bring the so-called exit-reversal state plantations located in the Western Cape back into production. That represents 22 000 ha of mainly pine plantations that – once fully operational - will go some way towards alleviating the shortage of round log resources in the Cape region at least.

Sawmill Productivity Improvement Award

The annual Sawmilling Productivity Improvement Award was presented to the Tekwani owned e'Mpuluzi Sawmill in Mpumalanga, during the SSA AGM.

Andrew Crickmay (left) of Crickmay & Associates presents the Sawmilling Productivity Improvement Award to Sean Hoatson of Tekwani Timbers..

Runners up were (in alphabetical order):
• Bracken Timbers
• Eswatini Plantations
• Eswatini Treated Timber
• Dulini (GNG)
• Jessievale (York Timbers)
• Langeni (Merensky)
• George Sawmill (MTO)
• RF Gevers
• Thornville (Tekwani)

The purpose of the Sawmill Productivity Improvement Award is to give recognition to mills that show improvement that serves to make them more competitive. As the focus is on improvement, the winning mill is not necessarily the most profitable mill. The award is based on results from the Intermill Comparison, a quarterly benchmarking report produced by Crickmay & Associates. The floating trophy was first awarded in 1991.

JRM's journey to success

JRM’s team is headed up by Klaas Ramalema, Jason Mohle and Henry de Beer, who, together with the 93 mill employees, drive its success.

Hectorspruit-based JRM Pallets is investing in continued growth to improve productivity and unlock business opportunities in the region …

The commissioning of JRM Pallets’ new Wood-Mizer WB2000 line in April 2022 underscores the business’ evolution from a farm start-up 10 years ago to a highly productive, sawn timber producer and manufacturer.

Based in Hectorspruit, Mpumalanga, near South Africa's border with Mozambique and just south of the Kruger National Park, the sawmill is located in one of Southern Africa's fastest-growing economic hubs. It is South Africa's second-largest citrus producing region, and the burgeoning agribusinesses here are some of JRM's biggest customers.

JRM was established on a farm in nearby Louw’s Creek in 2008 by CEO, Jason Mohle, with the aim of manufacturing pallets for farms in the area. He started with just one Wood-Mizer that has subsequently grown into a full fleet which has allowed the part-time operation to expand into the success story it is today.

JRM’s Wood-Mizer WB2000 primary breakdown sawmill processing 6m pine logs into slabs for resawing.

"It was tough at first,” says Jason. “We started the sawmill during the 2008 recession with no bank financing. I had to cash in everything and even borrowed from my Dad.”

From these humble beginnings, JRM Pallets has grown into an integrated timber business. Its main focus is sawmilling with the output from its sawn pine and gum divisions providing the feedstock for its manufacturing and sales operations.

"Our competitive advantage lies in our ability to supply exceptional quality consistently," Jason says.

"Value addition, precision, and recovery are important parts of this. So too tight control of energy and logistics costs and safer, and better-paying employment opportunities through automation."

The proof is in the cutting

JRM's sawmilling operation is split into a gum and pine division. 

The gum line takes in 80m³ with the output going to JRM's pallet factory and for resale. 

The smaller diameters are broken into two-sided cants on a Wood-Mizer twin vertical saw, with resawing and recovery done on three Wood-Mizer resaws after ripping.

On diameters above 300 mm, a Wood-Mizer LT70 Remote and LX450 breaks the logs into sawn timber, with the remainder flowing back to recovery. 

Three flitches produced from one cant on a Wood-Mizer HR2000 Double Head Resaw

"On the pine side, JRM has always been a structural timber producer. The larger margins that we get on structural timber, and the recovered material from there going to pallets, made structural timber a natural fit for us from the start,” said Jason. “But we knew we could do it better."

Efficiency, precision, productivity

And then JRM did do it better by commissioning its new Wood-Mizer pine line in April 2022.  

"The new line stripped all the redundancies out of our previous set-up and left us with a clean and simple process geared for future growth," says Jason.

A Wood-Mizer WB2000 PRO breaks B, C and D class logs (180mm to 340mm plus) into slabs and cants. These are then split into multiple flitches on the HR2000-2 Wide Resaw. With a width capacity of 600mm, most logs can simply be sawn through and through.

This approach allows for the least possible amount of work to be done on the primary saw, the WB2000, which means less cuts and turns to be made per log and improved productivity.

The flitches produced are then edged on a Wood-Mizer EG800. A Wood-Mizer LX450 that forms part of the line also breaks D-Class logs (+340 mm) down into boards that feed into the EG800 to supplement the total production throughput.

A second Wood-Mizer EG800 and resaws take care of recovering smaller dimensions as needed. 

The line takes in 100m³/day and cuts out 50-60 m³/day with recovery bringing it to roughly 60%.

"JRM is now geared for steady growth into the future depending on available log volumes. The line design was intentional, and we aimed for a clean and highly productive process where the processing units and material transfers gel together seamlessly for an automated system geared for productivity." 

The resaw infeed system illustrates the level of automation achieved. 

Automation drives productivity. As one cant enters the resaw, the next one is automatically lined up against a set of hook-stops, ready and waiting to be fed in automatically.
Ready sawn boards exits the Wood-Mizer EG800. Recovered material is cut into pallet components and waste is chipped.

The system synchronises the movement of the slab exiting the WB2000 with that of the slab entering the HR2000. Completely automated, it ensures the uninterrupted flow of material from breakdown to resawing, and all the way to the board edger.

"The total automation achieved by Wood-Mizer's Systems team has boosted our productivity, and our line operators now have safer and better-paying jobs," Jason says. 

Slashing the mill's electricity bill was another objective of the mill upgrade. The energy savings from the new line is now driving two recently installed kilns.

The first dries pallets to the required phytosanitary levels to boost JRM's export pallet sales.
 
Kiln two drives JRM's margins further, with kiln-dried structural timber adding to profits. A new timber treatment plant on the cards will open further agribusiness opportunities. 
 
Jason acknowledges that Wood-Mizer's support during the design and commissioning phases and maintaining the mill at optimum productivity has been a cornerstone of the mill’s success.

A final take

It remains a pleasure to walk into a sawmill where the entire process is carefully bisected and then tweaked for maximum returns. JRM’s focus on automation with the new line unlocks efficiency and productivity levels that weren’t previously available. Higher recovery rates, reduced energy costs and a workplace where manual labour has been replaced with safer and better paying jobs, has laid the foundation for a future growth path.

Watch the mill in action in the video below:

Premium quality sawn structural timber ready for dispatch.
JRM’s smaller diameter gum line. Logs are broken into two-sided cants on a Wood-Mizer TVS with resawing and recovery done on Wood-Mizer resaws after ripping.
Large diameter gum processed on a Wood-Mizer LT70 Remote and LX450 into pallet components.

Visit www.woodmizer.co.za for more info.

Drying timber in-field improves logistics

An innovative project by the Weatherboard timber sawmill in Creighton, KwaZulu-Natal has boosted efficiencies, saved fuel and reduced environmental impact for the sawmill and its parent company – global supply-chain giant CHEP.

Known as the ‘Raw Material Air Drying Project’, the initiative reduces the moisture content of cut timber to minimise the weight of sawn logs, thereby increasing the volume of timber that can be loaded per truck. Instead of the timber being delivered wet off saw to local CHEP service centres, the timber will be air dried for six weeks before it is transported. This reduces the moisture content of the wood from 55% to less than 30%, making it lighter, and allows trucks to accommodate more timber per load.

“The project is about maximising the volume of repair timber that can be loaded onto every truck,” says Jeanne Hugo, Senior Supply Chain Director for CHEP. “Timber is delivered to our service centres to repair damaged pallets returned from our customers, but the amount of repair timber on each delivery is limited by the maximum weight a truck can carry.”

“Wet off saw timber has a high moisture content, which makes it heavier, and trucks reach their maximum weight limit when there is still additional loading capacity available,” added Erica Stewart, Transport Manager for CHEP. “With air-drying, we can optimise truck capacity by reducing that moisture content before transporting the timber.”

The project, launched in July 2021, has meant around 20% fewer trips, fewer trucks on the road, lower transport costs and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. It has also improved efficiencies for customers by reducing the number of trucks arriving at busy CHEP service centres, shortening queues and reducing waiting times.

In partnership with the 18 timber plantations that CHEP owns, Weatherboard sawmill produces timber for the repair of CHEP pallets for the company’s pool of supply-chain platforms in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The timber backward integration strategy in South Africa was initiated in 2006,” says Hugo. “We can now supply our own sawmill with enough logs to meet up to 60% of CHEP’s current annual requirements.”

CHEP’s pallets underpin many of the world’s supply chains, including in South Africa. Due to the efficient, circular nature of the business model, in which pallets are not sold but rented out to customers, then collected, repaired and re-used again and again, they have an extremely low environmental impact.

New look Sawmilling SA

To celebrate the International Day of Forests on March 21, Sawmilling South Africa (SSA) has come up with a new logo and visual identity that focuses on the role that responsibly sourced and processed wood can play in providing solutions fit for a future sustainable world.

"Getting people to recognise the value of timber in the built environment will be set in motion by our modernised visual identity and corporate logo, and will be directed by our new positioning statement: 'We saw the future'," explains Roy Southey, SSA’s executive director.

"We saw the future - demonstrates that we use renewable and responsibly sourced timber to saw products that are aimed at the future of sustainable, low-carbon design, architecture and construction. It fundamentally embodies our vision for the timber industry in South Africa and globally," says Southey.

"There is a unique climate case for wood as it is deemed as the only structural material that can naturally and significantly decarbonise our planet, both through the growing of trees (which sequester carbon dioxide and release oxygen) and by harvesting them at the right time, which locks up the carbon in sustainable quantities for many years to come. In fact, trees absorb about two tonnes of carbon dioxide to create one tonne of their own (dry) mass[i]," he points out.

SSA is an industry association that represents around 50 sawmilling companies, collectively employing approximately 12,000 people, predominantly in the rural areas of South Africa.

Sawmills transform roundwood – in other words, logs – into a variety of sawn timber products, including structural lumber for the building and construction industry and industrial lumber for the furniture, joinery and packaging sectors.

Globally, urban populations are growing, requiring cities to become more dense, often by building upwards. At the same time, we are facing a climate crisis. The global built environment is currently responsible for approximately 40% of global energy related CO2 emissions[ii], with emissions stemming from two main sources: the energy consumed within buildings for heating, cooling and power (operational emissions) and the emissions associated with the extraction, processing and manufacture of building materials like concrete, bricks and steel (embodied emissions).

Harvested wood products, which store carbon, can be a substitute for carbon intensive materials such as steel and concrete in construction. However, in South Africa where mass timber buildings are not commonplace, people tend to think only of log cabins, or conventional roof trusses. Recent technologies, however, are harnessing the natural strength of timber and improving it, engineering a new range of timber that can be used for mass timber buildings and high-rise construction.

"South Africa is ripe for scaling up the use of timber in construction, however many people perceive wood as rudimentary or weak. But for engineering professionals and architects of mass timber structures, there is significant opportunity for innovation, localisation and employment creation," says Southey.

Cape Town-based agency Creative Caterpillar was given the task to visually reflect SSA's renewed focus and vision, resulting in the association's brand transformation. "The team adopted a contemporary, future-minded approach when re-imagining the SSA logo, which made it possible to step away from our previous, more literal logo and embrace a more inclusive and relatable design for all stakeholders in the industry," says Southey.

The evolution of the corporate logo with its refreshed colour palette of orange (representing creativity and innovation) and olive green (representing nature and growth) has given the sector a renewed focus on the role that wood can play in building a sustainable future.

The Cape sawlog PINCH!

The scramble for scarce roundlog resources in the Southern Cape has stakeholders on edge while government takes tentative steps to begin the process of bringing 22 000 ha back into timber production…

The timber industry in the Southern Cape has a long history that goes back to the 19th Century. We’ve all seen those grainy black and white photos of woodcutters felling and sawing huge indigenous hardwood trees in the natural forests around Knysna, George and the Tsitsikamma. The giant logs were hauled to the mills by teams of oxen where they were sawed up for use as building material, furniture, tools and implements, wagons and railway sleepers.

When the authorities eventually realised that the natural forests could not sustain the scale of the logging, they mercifully introduced management controls and then stopped it completely, placing the remaining natural forests in the region under conservation management.

To fill the void the government of the day as well as private entrepreneurs started planting pine to provide the raw sawlogs needed by the sawmills and countless downstream manufacturers and processors engaged in the timber industry, which by this stage underpinned the entire regional economy. The area under pine expanded from the Boland to Plettenberg Bay, and was concentrated around George, Knysna and the Tsitsikamma.

After 1992 government had a re-think about forestry and established Safcol to manage the state plantations on a commercial basis. A decision was made to lease out the 85 000 ha of Cape plantations via a tender process. MTO won the tender and took over management of the plantations in 2001 under a 75 year lease. Prior to this Cabinet made a decision to convert some 45 000 ha of the Cape plantations out of forestry into conservation and other land uses as these plantations were considered marginal and not commercially viable. In terms of the lease MTO was to hand back the exit areas as they were clearfelled at full rotation.

When a fire in the Tsitsikamma in 2005 destroyed some 16 000 ha of plantations, the volume of timber available for sawmillers and other processors in the region began to shrink as the gap between supply and demand became evident. This was the first of many blows that would erode the timber resources over the next 15 years or so. The roundlog shortage was exacerbated by the closure of plantations in terms of government’s exit strategy.

This prompted MTO and other stakeholders to start lobbying government to reassess its exit strategy, which they maintained had not taken into account the full socio-economic impacts that the exit would have on the regional economy.

Exit reversal
As a result Government appointed the Vecon Consortium in 2006 to re-assess the viability of the exit areas, which recommended that half of the exit areas – 22 000 ha – be restored to commercial forestry. Cabinet approved the exit reversal of the 22 000 ha in 2008.

Meanwhile the roundlog shortage began to impact on local timber processors with the smaller, informal mills going out of business first. Between 2005 and 2006 11 sawmills closed in the Cape. At the same time there were fears that the land being handed back to SANParks and other authorities was becoming a fire risk.

As the years rolled by, MTO as the incumbent managers of the state plantations tried various approaches to persuade government to allow it to re-establish and/or manage the re-growth of the exit reversal areas after clearfelling. At the same time community leaders and other stakeholders started applying pressure to stake their claims to the land. Bold decision-making and dynamic action was needed, but was not forthcoming.

In 2014 (six years after the Cabinet decision) a feasibility study for the re-commissioning of the VECON forestry areas was presented to the IDC. In May 2017 a land rights enquiry for the Western Cape re-commissioning areas for DAFF was presented to the Western Cape Forestry Forum.

In November 2019 DAFF and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development put out a tender for a transaction advisor to assist with the development of a sustainable forestry business model in the Western Cape recommissioning areas.

In the meanwhile the 2017 and 2018 wildfires delivered a hammer blow to the region and put a huge hole in the sawlog resource, and skewed the age class distribution.

The urgent need to re-commission the 22 000 ha was identified as a priority deliverable in the Forestry Sector Masterplan, a part of the Public Private Growth Initiative backed by the president himself.

By this stage the shortage of sawlogs – especially the large B,C & D class logs required by the sawmills producing structural lumber – is reaching critical levels, raising tensions among stakeholders even further.

Some of these mills, like AC Whitcher and Boskor, are partially or wholly dependent upon MTO for suitable roundlogs to keep their mills operating at capacity. MTO has its own mills in George and Longmore to keep supplied with logs as well, so there is a conflict of interests at play.

Both Whitcher and Boskor (owned by Swartland Investments) are old, established family-owned Cape businesses. Their supply contracts with MTO have long since been curtailed and they are reduced to haggling over roadside auctions. Job losses are on the cards. Many smaller mills and pole manufacturers in the region are in the same boat.

Survival mode
“We are surviving for now … we are simply outbidding all the competition because we still can, but this is not sustainable,” commented Hans Hanekom, CEO of Swartland which owns and operates the Boskor sawmill in the Tsitsikamma. Swartland manufactures doors and windows in their factory in Cape Town.

“For now we are taking everything into the mill that we can - even rejects. We need mainly B, C & D class logs but can use the upper end of A class logs as well. Half of our pine business is for export. The commodity boom due to COVID helped us as prices climbed, but it is getting over now … we are hanging on for dear life. Sooner or later we will lose the export business because our raw log prices are too high – we are competing in this market with Brazil, Chile and Poland.

“There were 300 000 cubes of roundwood a year available in the Tsitsikamma … now its 200 000 cubes, and 100 000 cubes is being taken to George by MTO. We are buying the lion’s share of timber sold at roadside here in Tsitsikamma,” said Hans.

AC Whitcher is slightly better off as they have 1 200 ha of their own plantations in the Titsikamma, which supplies some 10-15% of the mill’s roundlog requirements. Another 25% of their timber intake is supplied in terms of a long term contract with MTO. For the rest they must compete with the open market for roadside sales.

According to Gene Ritchie who manages the AC Whitcher sawmill, they are over-harvesting their own plantations to keep their mill busy.

AC Whitcher sawmill employs 300 people and Boskor around 150 people.

PG Bison, which operates the large Thesens sawmill in George, is better off as they have their own plantations, although they also suffered losses during the recent fires.

Kareedow Kreosoot Werke (KKW) in E Cape is also feeling the pinch. They employ 76 people and produce 12 000 cubes to 16 000 cubes of SABS approved poles a year for domestic and international markets. According to branch manager Lelani van der Walt they are running short of poles for processing – especially the species that they need i.e. P. radiata. She said they were getting the bulk of their poles from MTO but no longer … the supply dried up around December last year. They also source poles from private growers. E. grandis is also scarce, she says, and they are trucking in raw poles from KZN.

“We knew there was a shortage looming, but the crunch has actually arrived – not just for us but for everybody including the small sawmillers. We have hope that we will continue to be able to source the right raw poles we need, if they plant up unplanted and burnt areas etc … I pray that something will come up, otherwise it is inevitable that jobs will be lost.”

Avocados
The news that MTO is planning to convert 4300ha of forestry land to avocados has not gone down well with the sawmill lobby. Neither has the fact that, as at January 2020, 8.7% of MTO’s sustainable plantation area was temporarily unplanted – presumably mainly areas burnt in the 2017/18 fires.

According to the MTO Management Plan TUP will increase to 14% by 2024, whereafter it will reduce to 1.5% by 2029.

“It’s a dire state of affairs, and there are no easy answers,” commented Roy Southey, Executive Director of the Sawmilling Association of SA. “The small independent millers are really battling. Everybody has known the timber shortage has been coming for a long time, but now it’s critical.”

The pressure on the Department to get a move on and put the 22 000 ha out to tender is ratcheting up, and all of the stakeholders are positioning themselves to pitch hard for these plantations, which are expected to be offered in three or four packages.

Albi Modise, Chief Director of Communications for DFFE told SA Forestry that the process would begin during the 2021/2022 financial year.

He said that the preferred model will be for investors to partner with neighbouring communities, and that the leases would be for a maximum of two rotations.

MTO response
MTO CEO Greg Woodbridge welcomed the news that DFFE plans to move on returning the Vecon areas into timber production.

“We believe revitalizing the forestry cultivation on the Vecon areas is long overdue and will go a long way in enhancing the round log supply to the market. MTO attempted over an extended period of time to have the decision around exit plantations reversed, however we were not successful. Through ongoing engagements with DFFE we are in support of their plans of returning the 22 000 ha back to forestry. It is our opinion that this could have been done several years ago and the impending volume cliff could have been avoided. MTO stands ready to assist in whichever manner this initiative takes to restore the forestry industry in the area to previous levels that will benefit the local community and the industry,” said Greg.

“MTO’s operations in the Southern Cape have been significantly affected by fires over an extended period of time, however we continue to invest in our forestry assets to ensure we get the plantations into full rotation. The average growth cycle for our trees is between 18-22 years which gives us the clear runway for getting our plantations into full rotation and the timing to realize the maximum volume possible.”

The exit reversal areas are currently being managed for fire protection and alien clearing by the Forestry Support Programme and Working on Fire.

According to Braam du Preez of the Forestry Support Programme, there are pockets of trees in some of these exit reversal areas that have regenerated naturally and are growing well. This will give the new lessees a bit of a running start when they take over management of these areas, some of which have been lying fallow and unproductive for years.

In any event there is going to be a lot of investment required and a lot of work for local people when these areas eventually come back on stream!

*First published in SA Forestry Annual 2021