Nechako Lumber CEO Alan Fitzpatrick tours a cross-laminated timber test house at Building Research Institute

Small is beautiful for northern mill owners

#BCForestFuture series: Nechako Lumber was B.C.'s first to sell lumber to Japan, and has led the way in dealing with mountain pine beetle

One of a series of articles on the future of the B.C. forest industry. You can find the rest of the series in the links below or by searching for the hashtag #BCForestFuture on Facebook or Twitter.

TOKYO – Which B.C. forest products company was first to sell two-by-fours to the picky buyers of Japan? How about high-grade wood pellets for home heating in Italy?

It was Nechako Lumber, a privately owned forest products company in the northwestern B.C. community of Vanderhoof, says CEO Alan Fitzpatrick. And he has other examples of where his small company with a timber supply of small trees blazed a trail for bigger producers to compete on the world stage.

Skinny pine trees turned out to have an advantage, Fitzpatrick said in an interview during the recent B.C. forest industry trade mission to Japan and China. Japanese builders have insisted on only the finest wood for centuries, and Nechako has long been a brand of choice.

“Even though the pine is a small profile, it’s literally old growth pine,” he said. “The rings are very close together. They could be 120-year-old trees but only six inches wide, so they make a very good product with very little twist or bow, for the Japanese market.”

Milling small logs had its own challenges, leading the company to refine its sawmill and planer operations. But the results were good enough that every piece of prime lumber they produced was selling to Japan.

When the B.C. Interior was hit with the biggest mountain pine beetle epidemic on record, Nechako improved its optical log scanning to cut dry wood while avoiding the cracks that weaken dimensional lumber. A planer that pulls dry lumber through rather than pushing it and causing breakage also helped the operation’s efficiency.

“As far as we know, and we check once a year or so, it’s the fastest planer in the world,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve had visits from New Zealand, Japan, China, taking a look at our technology.”

Nechako dispensed with its beehive burner two decades ago, using bark as fuel for its dry kiln and chips and sawdust for pellets. Its subsidiary Premium Pellet was one of the first biofuel pellet producers in North America, and recently won certification to supply home heating pellets for Italy.

They must be bark and dust-free, for consistent feeding and clean burning in pellet stoves. Lower-grade pellets are sold to European industry to reduce their coal consumption.

It’s been one shock after the other for the B.C. forest industry, from pine beetle to the U.S. housing market collapse to the latest round of American trade action. Sales to China carried B.C. producers through the financial crisis that hit in 2009, mostly lower-grade lumber to use for concrete forms. Now China is beginning infill wall construction for large buildings to cut concrete use, and building resorts with the western look of engineered wood.

“That’s why these trade missions are so important,” Fitzpatrick said. “In Japan, it’s important for industry to lead and the [forests] ministry to support. But in the China markets it’s the exact opposite. The government leads and we support them. It’s just a difference in culture.”

B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson (left), deputy minister Tim Sheldan, Nechako Lumber CEO Alan Fitzpatrick and B.C. Asia trade representative Ben Stewart tour a wood infill wall project at Nanjing Tech University, China, Dec. 4, 2016.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Surrey City Hall. (File photo)
Surrey buying 16 properties in Newton for parkland, civic amenities

Mayor Doug McCallum says project will be ‘fast-tracked’

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
White Rock dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

Dancers perform at the Museum of Surrey during the opening of “Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story” exhibit in October 2019. (File photo: Malin Jordan)
NDP says it will build a South Asian museum in Surrey

Media event held Tuesday at park in Newton

Highway 99 traffic flows under 24 Avenue in South Surrey Monday afternoon. (Aaron Hinks photo)
A cyclist crosses above Highway 99 on 24 Avenue Monday afternoon, Oct. 19. (Aaron Hinks photo)
Liberals promise new freeway interchanges for South Surrey

NDP candidate taking pre-election announcement ‘with heavy grain of salt’

A past extreme weather response shelter set up for women inside Surrey’s Nightshift Street Ministries. (Photo: Chris Paul/nightshiftministries.org)
Homeless people in Surrey face ‘shocking and scary’ scenario this winter

Last winter there were nine Extreme Weather Response shelters in all of Surrey and White Rock. So far, during this pandemic, there are only five lined up for the coming winter

Working smoothly together on May 11, 2020, health minister Adrian Dix, B.C. Liberal health critic Norm Letnick, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and sign language interpreter Nigel Howard. (B.C. government video)
COVID-19 co-operation a casualty of B.C.’s pandemic election

NDP’s Horgan weaponizes senior care, B.C. Liberal Wilkinson calls for ‘wartime economy’

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island residents warned to watch livestock, pets after bear kills llama

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
RCMP cleared in fatal shooting of armed Lytton man in distress, police watchdog finds

IIO spoke to seven civillian witnesses and 11 police officers in coming to its decision

A 34-year-old man was treated for a gunshot wound in Williams Lake Monday, Oct 19, 2020. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake man treated for gunshot wound after accidental shooting: RCMP

Police are reminding residents to ensure firearms are not loaded when handling them

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A injection kit is seen inside the newly opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday, June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. records 127 fatal overdoses in September, roughly 4 each day

Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria continued to see the highest numbers of overdoses

A Rick Hansen Secondary School student died in hospital after suffering a medical incident in class on Monday. (File photo)
Abbotsford student dies after medical incident in class

Rick Hansen Secondary School offering additional counselling for students who require it

Investigators work at the Sagmoen farm in Silver Creek. - Image credit: Observer file photo.
Sex workers allegedly called to farm of Okanagan man convicted of assault, RCMP investigating

Curtis Sagmoen, convicted in relation to assault of sex trade workers, is prohibited from soliciting escorts

Most Read