CBC NEWS — Five weeks after the largest sawmill west of Halifax said it was on the verge of shutting down, it’s back to business as usual at Freeman Lumber in Greenfield, N.S.

In early April, co-owner Richard Freeman said the multi-generational business that employs 150 people could no longer afford to operate because it had no market for its wood chips. Freeman made a direct link to the closure of Northern Pulp, saying his mill had stopped buying logs and would wrap up operations after it processed the remaining inventory in its yard.

But in a series of emails this week with CBC News, Freeman said things changed early this month thanks to a couple of “solid leads” for chip sales.

“I am unable to discuss the details as these are subject to non-disclosure agreements,” he wrote. “Against this background, we have resumed log purchases. All our contractors are back in the woods and we have returned to our regular shift hours.”

Other than two weeks where scheduled shifts were reduced by one hour to conserve log supply, and some temporary layoffs of “a small number directly involved in log procurement,” Freeman said there was sufficient log inventory to keep everyone working.
Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin says efforts continue to diversify the province’s forestry industry. (CBC)

Finding new chip markets has been a major stumbling block for many mills in the province since the end of January when Northern Pulp, the largest buyer of chips in Nova Scotia, was forced to shut down after failing to secure approval to build a new effluent treatment facility.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said on Thursday that efforts continue to try to find new markets for chips, although he said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is making that, like many other business-related efforts, even more of a challenge.

“That’s an ongoing process,” he said.

The efforts for Freeman Lumber to find new chip markets is further complicated by geography and the added cost it would face moving chips anywhere outside the province from its site in Queens County.

Freeman’s eyes wood pellet operation

Rankin said efforts continue to try to help the industry transition to a more diverse business model, along with ushering in the recommendations of the Lahey Report, which called for less clear cutting and a more ecological approach to working the woods.

“We need to make sure that [businesses] are looking at other opportunities, and some of them are,” said Rankin.

“It is a challenge that will continue to be there, but we need to continue to look at other options and ensuring that we’re diversifying markets, because this is where we are with the loss of [Northern Pulp]. It’s in the interest of all mills to start looking at other opportunities that are out there.”

Richard Freeman declined an interview with CBC News, however in an interview with LighthouseNow, he confirmed the company’s desire to set up a wood pellet operation, something he said would take about 18 months to finance, build and commission.

Rankin said there has been no financial aid provided to Freeman Lumber other than what the company would normally receive for silviculture work.

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