From: Paul Marks, The Hartford Courant, Conn.
Published November 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Price of Oil Cuts Both Ways for Firewood Producers

Nov. 9—Karl Riendeau tilts the dump truck's bed and pulls forward a few feet. With a rumble, 2 1/2 cords of firewoodspill out, forming a waist-high pile on the asphalt bordering a neat, suburban lawn.


"We'll get calls from that," Riendeau says with a knowing smile as he leaves the quiet South Windsor side street and steers toward I-84, heading back to Tolland for another load.


He knows from experience that neighbors are apt to notice the pile and ask for a referral. But Riendeau says he and his brother, Brian, are overwhelmed at this time of year.


"We could do 600 or 700 cords if we wanted to," Karl Riendeau says — twice their yearly production. "Every day I refuse people who want wood because I don't want to deliver it there. I can't go that far."


Like so much — including the high demand for cordwood this year — the Riendeau brothers' fortunes are tied to the soaring price of oil. Split and seasoned cordwood is popular as a supplement to oil, gas or electric heat.


Deliveries are limited, though, by the rising cost of diesel fuel, which hit a state record average cost of $2.39 a gallon on Nov. 1.


Already, Karl Riendeau said, the profit margin has sagged to about $10 to $15 a cord. The brothers said they earn most of their living from timber sales to sawmills making lumber for furniture and other products. Once a woodlot is cut, smaller logs are sold off as a byproduct.


"You wouldn't believe the demand for this stuff. You can't cut it and deliver it fast enough," Karl Riendeau said in late October. "I'm four days behind right now, and they were talking about 1/8the price of3/8 oil on TV again. I guarantee you tonight I'll have 20 to 30 calls. The most calls I ever got in one day was 57."


Cut to the standard 16- to 18-inch length, a cord of firewood — a 4-by-4-by-8-foot stack — from the Riendeaus sells for $150. For two cords, delivered, the rate is $140; for three, $135.


Special orders cost more. Karl Riendeau said he felt a little bad quoting one woman $200 a cord for wood cut in 12-inch lengths for a small stove. Shorter means more cuts, which means more time spent, more sawdust and less usable wood, he explained. She scoffed. A day later, he said, she called back and placed the order.


Back at the 17-acre property surrounding the house where the Riendeaus grew up stands a $35,000 apparatus that cuts, splits and conveys the wood up into the truck bed. Brian and an assistant are waiting when Karl wheels the now empty 13-ton truck to a stop.


Their late father, Jacques Riendeau, harvested timber for 30 years and raised both boys in the business known as Riendeau & Sons Logging. In 1998, he died of a heart attack in his mid-50s.


For a time thereafter, Karl, now 37, and Brian, now 38, went separate ways in the timber business. They said there is a steady market for trees larger than 10 inches in diameter at sawmills throughout New England and eastern Canada. The most select hardwoods go for furniture veneers.


In some cases, though, they found themselves competing on job bids. "That made no sense," Brian said. About a year ago, they agreed to become partners.


Sounding like an oversize lawn mower, the diesel-powered processor begins taking in logs lifted into place by a forklift. With Brian Riendeau working levers and a control pedal, steel jaws clamp a foot-thick log. A 3-foot chain saw on a swivel arm cuts through in about a second. With a crunch, 15 tons of pressure forces the cut section through a six-way splitter.


Cordwood begins flowing up the conveyor to the truck bed.


The Riendeau brothers are among 544 commercial loggers and foresters certified by the state Department of Environmental Protection.


Under the 1991 Connecticut Forest Practices Act, anyone harvesting and selling more than 50 cords or 25,000 board-feet of wood annually must be certified by the Department of Environmental Protection. Each brother is certified as a "supervising forest products harvester" — qualified to buy, sell and harvest timber, hire subcontractors and advise landowners on how to control erosion and build haul roads.


The Riendeaus said they sell about a million board-feet of timber annually. Like any small business, they encounter costly pitfalls.


Karl said he moved to rural Ashford, expecting to be able to run the wood processor there. He had his teenage son doing so last year as an after-school job — until a neighbor complained to town officials. He wound up in court arguing that cutting wood and preparing it for market is an agricultural use, like harvesting corn. He lost.


"I made no money that year" on cordwood sales, Karl Riendeau said. "I paid $8,000 in attorney's fees."


The brothers lost some profit, too, because a big timber-cutting job they began near Mono Pond in northern Columbia was halted by the state. The Riendeaus had gained approval to use a right-of-way for the state-owned Airline Trail to access the remote 75-acre forest tract. By Sept. 30, the contract they signed called for them to be out so that hiking trail improvements could begin, DEP spokesman Matthew Fritz said.


Now the Riendeaus are grumbling because they ran out of time and state recreation officials refused them an extension. Fritz said his agency heard complaints this summer from a number of hikers. So when Sept. 30 arrived, he said, that was it.


Brian Riendeau said that about a fourth of the timber, for which they paid $100,000, remains standing. That means lost profit, he said. The brothers are seeking other means of access now, so far without success.


"After all was said and done, we might come out of there with $5,000 profit," Karl Riendeau said.


Capital costs in the business are high. Karl said he could use a second truck, but doesn't have $25,000 to spend just yet. They have more than $500,000 invested in a harvester that cuts down trees and a "forwarder" vehicle that carries them out of the woods. Loan payments amount to about $15,000 a month, he said.


But Karl Riendeau said nothing compares with being self-employed and carrying on the family tradition. He recalled the excitement he felt at age 13, when his dad first let him pilot a bulldozer.


His own son, who is now 14, already is splitting wood and running heavy equipment part time.


"Once the snow flies, I can take a weekend off and go snowmobiling with my son," Karl said. "If I don't want to work, I don't have to. Of course, I don't make any money. Then if we need to, we work seven days a week."


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