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 The Following article was published in "The Telegram & Gazette":

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Turning trees into poles



Hans Frankhouser of E & F Wood LLC cuts the ends off peeled trees that will become utility poles. (T&G Staff / TOM RETTIG)



When you leave the forest alone, you're reducing biodiversity in Massachusetts.



External links
• VIDEO: Turning trees into poles

WOODSTOCK —  Four years ago, Trowbridge Forest Products in Hampton, Conn., began phasing out its business of peeling trees, from which it made utility poles. Hans Frankhouser and Mike Ernst, two employees, saw that as a startup opportunity.

The two, who between them had worked a combined three decades at Trowbridge, bought the equipment from John E. Trowbridge, their former boss, and started E & F Wood LLC, off Route 198.

Their venture has since grown and is now making about 15,000 utility poles annually, compared to the 3,000 Trowbridge made per year, said Mr. Frankhouser.

E & F Wood focuses on the forestry and manufacturing phases of pole-making. It buys the trees from loggers, shapes them and sells the poles to another company in Canada, which dries and chemically pressure-treats them for sale to utility companies. None of the wood is treated in Woodstock.

The Woodstock company buys trees from loggers in Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. The poles are run through machines that strip their bark and shape them into utility poles before being sent to Canada.

The flatbed trucks carrying the poles are seen throughout Southbridge and Sturbridge en route to the Massachusetts Turnpike.

E & F Wood uses red pine trees, a dying species in Connecticut. In Massachusetts, there are many of these trees in watershed areas such as the Quabbin Reservoir, Mr. Frankhouser said.

The Canadian customers send the finished poles to utility companies in northern Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, he said.

The poles are typically 30 to 60 feet long, but E & F Wood primarily does up to 55 feet. Longer lengths carry stricter Department of Transportation requirements.

E & F Wood doesn't have any local competition. Its closest competitor is in Boonville, N.Y., and a periodic tree-peeler in Keeseville, N.Y., Mr. Frankhouser said.

Ironically, utility poles used in this region are primarily Southern yellow pines found from the Carolinas to Florida, Mr. Frankhouser said. Those trees get peeled and pressure-treated in the South and are shipped here by railroad. Southern yellow pines are easier to pressure-treat, he said.

“It's funny. The material we have here goes up north and the material they have down South comes here,” Mr. Frankhouser said.

In addition to utility poles, E & F Wood makes materials for log cabin homes. “Not necessarily the complete (log home) kits themselves, but we sell to a few places that actually take our peeled material and add them into their kits,” he said.

The company also takes raw bark and fiber from the pole-making process and grinds it to make landscape mulch in March, the kickoff for mulch season. All of its mulch is from managed forest, and none from wood waste such as stumps and ground-up pallets that can contain chemicals or nails, he said. E & F Wood produces about 12,000 yards to 15,000 yards of mulch annually.

E & F Wood makes foundation pilings for boat docks. These are made of hickory and oak and don't need chemical treatment after the company peels them.

The company is able to do the work with three employees; it intermittently adds others, depending on the season.

“It looks like we do quite a bit, especially when you see it coming through Southbridge. It's actually a fairly easy operation for just a few of us,” Mr. Frankhouser said.

The company tries to work year-round, but business slows during inclement weather. This year was particularly bad. “When it's raining for 40 days, like it was a month or so ago, it makes it hard,” he said.

E & F Wood can also be adversely affected when companies from which it buys materials choose not to do business in poles because other markets such as logs are doing poorly, he said.

“That's what we were going through, and that's what creates these highs and lows.”

Its gross sales are $1 million to $1.5 million, but it has a large overhead for shipping and contractors, he said.

Massachusetts is important to E & F Wood because it can just as easily do business here, and red pine trees are essentially nonexistent in Connecticut, Mr. Frankhouser said.

He admits he fears a Massachusetts initiative petition that has cleared a first hurdle in the attorney general's office for a ballot question. The petition aims to prohibit commercial harvesting of wood products on all forested land owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. Its rationale is to ensure that DCR lands are used to benefit public use and enjoyment and to protect biodiversity.

An attorney listed as the contact for the petition did not return a phone message. The DCR had no comment on the initiative at its early stage, a spokesman said.

Joseph Smith, supervisor with the Worcester County Conservation District, said he is against the petition because it isn't soundly grounded and casts forestry in an untrue light.

“When you leave the forest alone, you're reducing biodiversity in Massachusetts,” Mr. Smith said. “You get the impression they're trying to say people are exploiting the forest for economic reasons, when the state has a sound scientific forestry program that's being applied by professional foresters, and harvested by professional loggers and nobody is getting rich off of it.”

“If they go through and try to restrict logging and forest activities on state land, oh, my goodness, what a hazard, I'll tell you,” Mr. Frankhouser said. “It's one of those things we're constantly looking over our shoulder.”

Other recent worries for the company were the Asian longhorned beetle and the December ice storm that damaged trees in the area.

“Like in Holden and Sterling, we've been working with contractors that have gone in and kind of salvaged all that material that has been broken and destroyed,” Mr. Frankhouser said. “We've been taking it in the best that we can and utilizing it, trying to salvage as much as possible before it died.”


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