Gagnon Lumber: Former dairy farm still making the cut after 60 years

Joe Gagnon, left, started Gagnon Lumber in 1958 and now runs it with his son Ken.

In 1880, Prosper Gagnon bought a plot of land that would eventually become the Gagnon family dairy farm. Joe Gagnon’s father, Wilford, was born on that farm in 1881 and by the time Joe came around, the farm was fairly successful.

Joe was interested in more than working on the farm and in 1958 he had some logs he was looking to sell.

“Rodney Swift had a mill near where the Pittsford Town Office is now,” Gagnon recalled. “He said if you come down and cut the logs, I’ll help you and we’ll sell them.”

After successfully selling the cut logs, Gagnon thought it might be a trade he could pursue. He heard of a mill that was for sale in Whiting and went to have a look.

“I took my neighbor, who had some logging experience,” Gagnon explained. “It wasn’t the full deal, but he thought it would work and that sounded good to me. For $250, I got enough to get started.”

Joe set up his new mill equipment next to the family farm and started cutting wood in late 1958. But not everyone was thrilled.

“My dad wasn’t real happy about it,” Gagnon recalled. “Dad said, ‘We never had a sawmill on the farm and I don’t think we need one.’”

At that time, almost every small town in the area had a sawmill cutting logs. There were 12 sawmills operating in a 40-mile radius from Gagnon’s farm and in 1960 he was working the sawmill and still farming. By the late ’60s he decided to scale back the operation and only ran the sawmill on the weekends. He would volunteer his son Ken to help on Saturday, despite any of Ken’s other plans.

“Pop likes to talk,” Ken said. “So anytime someone would come in to buy some boards that also liked to talk, we knew we were going to be getting a break, for a little while at least.”

In 1979, when Ken returned from college, the Gagnons decided to go full-time at the mill, which was still located up by the house. A decade later, they moved the mill to the 160-acre site where it is now located — about 1,000 feet from the old site — and they added some automated equipment. They’ve been sawing there for the past 28 years.

“Fifty years ago, all you needed was a chainsaw and a pickup truck and you’d be in business.”

Joe Gagnon

Ken works with his dad, mom, and wife as well as about seven other full-time employees. Ken is the general manager of the mill and his dad takes care of the trucking side of the business. His wife, Sandra, and mother, Betty, split the bookkeeping duties.

“The timber business is like a roller coaster,” Joe said of the industry. “Like farmers, we also need the weather to cooperate. We had a wet fall and sometimes we have to wait for the ground to freeze so we can get in there and get some trees out.”

But it’s no walk in the park. Log prices, like dairy, fluctuate. They are also competing on a global scale, and see a fair bit of competition for logs that get exported to China.

In an area that once supported a dozen mills, only the Gagnon’s and a mill in Mill River are still operating. The Gagnon crews cut two log-truck loads of lumber a day.

The hardwoods are mostly sent out as wholesale around New England. One company they sell to makes canoe gunnels and they send ash to another company that makes baskets. They also send wood to Maple Landmark Woodcraft in Middlebury, which crafts the wood into wooden toys.

The softwoods are all sold locally and are used for barns, garages and homes, and every bit of the tree is used. They cut the quality lumber into boards to ship, the bark gets ground up for mulch, and nearly a tractor-trailer load of sawdust a week gets sold to farmers for livestock bedding.

Workers at Gagnon Lumber take whole logs and turn them into rough planks in a matter of minutes.

The small pieces and low-quality wood, which Joe said they used to just burn, is now chipped and sold. For six months of the year, they send the chips out to be made into paper. In the winter there is a significant demand for wood chips to be used for heating, and a semi-truck load of chips is sent out to schools to be used as fuel. They sell wood chips to Middlebury College, Green Mountain College, and Mt. Anthony in Bennington.

The Gagnons contract out the logging to the independent loggers that are still operating and buy standing trees from landowners.

“About 95 percent of all the wood we buy is from within 40 miles of here,” Ken said. “It’s about two-thirds hardwoods and one-third softwood.”

They also own about 1,200 acres of forest land under the current use program, which allows the valuation and taxation of forest land based its use as a product instead of the land value in the marketplace. “The Current Use program mitigates development pressure,” Ken said. “It’s going to allow much of the forest to remain forest in Vermont.”

Though Joe shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, the Gagnon family faces one of the same problems that many Vermont businesses face. The workforce they rely on is getting older and starting to retire. Independent loggers are becoming fewer and fewer.

“It’s hard work and it’s also fairly dangerous work; it’s expensive to start up now too,” Joe said. “Fifty years ago, all you needed was a chainsaw and a pickup truck and you’d be in business. Now you need skid loaders and saws and other equipment, which are expensive.”

Still, the Gagnons feel the model they have built at the sawmill has worked for them and they don’t plan to alter their path anytime soon.“Our model is to just be sustainable,” Ken said. “It’s been working quite well for 60 years and we’re just going to stay on a similar plan and not change too much.”

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