SpruceRoots Magazine - April 2002

Jim Abbott’s desk is littered with opportunities. They’re usually in the form of emails from foreign and domestic companies looking for a steady supply of wood products, the very thing his company, Abfam Enterprises, is in the business of supplying from it’s mill in Port Clements.

“There’s all kinds of these,” Abbott says, waving a small stack of printouts which arrived today.” “This one from Korea would keep us working 20 days a month. Here’s another from a Vancouver construction company which builds’a thousand homes a year — they’re looking for radius decking, kiln-dried four-by-sixes, four-by-eights, and four-by-tens in a continuous supply.”

And for the past few months, Abbott’s had the kiln to fill these kinds of orders. The catch is the continuous supply part.

“We can’t guarantee any more than three or four months because I don’t have the logs,” he says.

If there’s a hint of frustration in his voice when he relays this information, it’s understandable. After all, it’s the same problem he had before he bought and installed the kiln, the same problem he’s had for years now.

Abfam got started with a ten-year logging licence which provided the company with 40,000 cubic metres of timber a year. That reliable supply of logs built the Abfam mill which until very recently only produced green, dimension lumber. The licence expired in 1994, and since then the company has managed to stay afloat on small-business timber sales and logs purchased from Weyerhaeuser and others. The inconsistent supply has meant that the mill, which in its heyday employed up to 50 people, is sometimes idle or staffed by only a handful of workers.

Abbott lays some of the blame for his supply problems on a lack of support from Island communities, support he says would go a long way towards securing logs for the mill and jobs for locals. And while community politicians have been quick to promote value-added wood products as the means to arrive at a sustainable economy on Haida Gwaii, they haven’t exactly been pounding desks in Victoria demanding logs for a mill which would contribute to one.

“The support for business and manufacturing on the Islands is just about zero.”

There are suggestions the reason Abbott has trouble drumming up support is that his mill doesn’t employ union workers, meaning they get paid less with fewer benefits. Abbott counters by arguing the communities always seem willing to support tourism, a sector which typically pays less than manufacturing — union or non-union — “When I hear people wanting to support tourism and not industry I always ask why would you want to work for seven bucks an hour when you can work in manufacturing for fifteen or twenty?”

Politics aside, Abbott is delighted with the new kiln. Or kilns, to be precise, since there are two of them. Each one can dry approximately 50,000 board feet of lumber at a time, in anywhere from 5 to 17 days depending on the species and dimensions.

Construction of the kilns was born of necessity, Abfam was in danger of folding unless it could provide dried lumber because demand for green wood was slipping.

“Two years ago we realized we wouldn’t be able to compete in the marketplace; the Japanese changed their specifications and started demanding kiln-dried,” he says. “If we wanted to stay in the business we had to sell dry hemlock.”

The company eventually installed two high-end, well insulated and controlled kilns, heated by a boiler which burns wood waste leftover from the mill and planer.

“These are not shake-and-bake kilns. We built them ourselves to spec with manufactured kiln controls, fans, and heat exchange,” he says. “The boiler was bought in England — the only one that would meet environmental standards. It produces less emissions than your car.”

The boiler may prove to be the best investment of all. Similar kilns are heated by boilers which run on natural gas or other high-cost energy sources while Abfam’s churns out dry lumber for next to nothing.

“We always lost on hemlock,” Abbott says. “The kilns have already proven that we can make money on the hemlock we cut and dry.”

An added bonus is that the dry wood can be shipped off-island economically by truck instead of the barge required for the heavier green lumber. And if Abfam can begin making regular shipments, Abbott suspects it might pay dividends for everyone on Haida Gwaii.

“People are always complaining about the high cost of freight here,” he says.
“That’s because we’re sending empty boxes back. If we were shipping on a regular basis those costs might come down because the freight companies wouldn’t be paying ferry fare for empty boxes.”

And for once, the wood isn’t only headed off-island. Abfam is now in the process of building a warehouse where it can keep an inventory of dry, planed pine, hemlock, and cedar for local customers, providing Islanders with the long-overdue opportunity to buy dry lumber produced entirely on Haida Gwaii.
Jim Abbott in front of one of the kilns recently built at Abfam Enterprises.

SpruceRoots Magazine - April 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002