It’s a clear, crisp morning in mid-January, and the mill that has served as an economic driver in Maple Ridge for more than a century stirred awake with the rising sun.
The machinery, the heart of the operation, seemed to speak: groaning, creaking, whirring, thudding, and slapping.
As darkness lifted, painting the sky and world under it pale blue, a layer of fog clung to the Fraser River that works as the feeder system for Interfor Hammond Mill.
High above the water, perched on a catwalk, mill manager Scott Bax peered down at the boom, surveying huge logs as they ascended into the mill, to be stripped and cut into building material.
Yes, it’s a typical day at the mill commonly known as Hammond Cedar, but it’s a vital day for the community’s economy. That’s because each day Hammond Cedar operates, it provides employment for 165 workers.
“We have lots of employees who are second generation, and we have third-generation employees, where it’s been in their family for years,” Bax said.
“They work here because their parents or their grandparents worked here, and they love forestry… this is where they wanted to go.”
The mill has been an integral part of the life of Hammond since 1910.
First called the Bailey Lumber Company, by 1912 it was the Port Hammond Lumber Company, by 1916 its name changed to the Hammond Cedar Mill, and in 1946 was taken over by B.C. Forest Products, according to the District of Maple Ridge’s The Heritage Resources of Maple Ridge.
Today, Hammond Cedar is the world’s largest western red cedar mill by capacity.
The mill accounts for 15 per cent of the production of cedar on the planet and 80 per cent of the sales are generated in North America, with 20 per cent of output exported around the world.
Hammond Cedar has an annual payroll of more than $12 million and between 55 and 60 per cent of its employees live in either Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows.
It is also one of the largest taxpayers in Maple Ridge, generating more than $700,000 in property and school taxes.
At a recent presentation to Maple Ridge council members, Interfor’s Ric Slaco, vice president and chief forester, and Doug Clitheroe, general manager, cedar sales and marketing, spoke about the cyclical nature of the industry, and how challenges with tariffs, exchange rates, competition from new products and how the overall operating costs, including property and school taxes, have impacted their business.
“The latest down period that we went through has probably been the toughest in the last half century,” Bax noted.
That said, Bax remains optimistic about the future of the industry. He believes the cedar industry has a tremendous amount of potential going forward.
“Cedar is no different than any other dimension product,” he said, “in that we’re heavily dependent on the health of the U.S. economy.”
Bax noted that as the U.S. tries to move forward from an economic crisis, economic indicators continue to predict an increase in housing starts south of the border.
If this happens, Bax said it will have a very positive impact on the forest industry, including Hammond.
“I really think that the forest industry as a whole is positioned well,” he added.
According to Bax, western red cedar continues to be viable because, as a green building product, it competes against plastic, cement, and treated products that use chemicals.
“Here, you’ve got a 100 per cent natural product that can be completely re-grown, so from an environmental perspective, it’s getting more and more positive press,” Bax said. “We produce a good product from a very unique fibre and it has worldwide appeal.”
During the presentation, Slaco said the company is laying the foundation for the future, having planted 1.6 million trees in 2012 alone.
The one constant in the mill’s history has been its employees, ranging in age from their early-20s to 70, whom Bax describes as the “backbone” of the company.