Image by Jerzy Morkis from Pixabay

Saw mills and wood pellets may hearken back to when there was more timber industry in the state.

Earlier this month, Gov. John Bel Edwards and a gaggle of other officials trekked to the tiny town of Plain Dealing in northern Bossier Parish, where they announced the construction of a new, $110 million sawmill by British Columbia-based Teal Jones. The groundbreaking, where Edwards held a shovel and wore a cowboy hat as he stood under giant American and Canadian flags, highlighted the rapid expansion of lumber production in Louisiana in the past 14 months. Between May 2021 and April of this year, six new projects were announced, adding up to nearly $700 million in new investment. Several of those projects, such as the one from Teal Jones, are new sawmills that reflect what companies believe is the potential of Louisiana’s lumber industry. The moves are driven in part by the housing and lumber price spike during the pandemic, according to Jinggang Guo, an assistant professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at LSU’s AgCenter. who noted that lumber prices were driven into “red hot” territory of more than $1,500 per 1,000 board feet. More recently, prices have fallen to around $600 per 1,000 board feet, but that’s still nearly double from the $350 per 1,000 board feet seen before the pandemic.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and other officials pose at the groundbreaking of Teal Jones’ new sawmill in Plain Dealing on July 11. 
Photo from Gov. John Bel Edwards

With a lot of timber and low operating costs, we are cheaper than the west.

Like several deep south states, Louisiana has abundant timber and relatively low operating costs, which has prompted mills to move from western states where production is more expensive, Guo said. “There’s a lot of timber in the forest,” Guo said, referencing the high level of supplies currently in place. While crops like sugar and rice are often seen as the behemoths of Louisiana agriculture, trees are the state’s biggest ag business by revenue and have been a critical crop for more than a century. The state’s 14 million acres of forests cover nearly half of the state. Louisiana’s timber production gradually increased through the second half of the 20th century until the state was producing about 1.5 billion board feet of sawtimber per year in the 1990s. The housing crisis in 2007-2008 put the brakes on the industry as fewer homes were built, and by 2009 the amount of board feet produced in the state had nearly halved. Since then, the state’s overall production has slowly been inching up again until a brief pause brought on by the pandemic, and now, several projects are in the works.

This mill joins a number of both new and refurbished and expanded operations in the state.

Teal Jones’ Plain Dealing mill joins a planned $240 million sawmill in Bienville Parish, a $160 million mill in DeRidder, $157-million in upgrades to a mill in Holden, and a smaller investment in Avoyelles Parish. Canada-based Interfor is planning to invest $8 million to restart a shuttered DeQuincy mill. State economic development officials have estimated that the new projects could add more than 2,000 new jobs in total. And two new projects that use wood pellets for biofuel have been announced, adding to the market for lumber by-products. Arbor Renewable Gas said in June it plans to put a plant in West Baton Rouge and Origin Materials in February announced plans to put a plant in Ascension Parish. Both will use wood pellets. Drax, a United Kingdom-based company, already has three plants in Louisiana where they produce wood pellets that are used for fuel, including shipping some to England for use in electricity generation. In a statement issued late last year, Teal Jones acknowledged the versatility of timber products . “The lumber will provide the materials needed to support more jobs at downstream operations — homebuilders, transport, companies turning lumber into finished products such as furniture, and a lot more,” the company said. “The sawdust and chips left over from milling will go to local pulp, paper and pellet plants.”

More renewables and more ways than oil to heat and generate electricity. The state is changing.

Sawmills pop up so is timber coming back?
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