April 15, 2015

Young Guns

Andrew Jaroche and his posse of young loggers are changing how it's done

Twenty-two-year-old Jaroche is a fourth-generation logger. His great-grandfather started the business with simply a John Deere MC Crawler and a chainsaw after returning home from World War II. "That crawler dozer got us started using John Deere. And the dependable service we've received in the remote regions of the Upper Peninsula from our Deere dealer, AIS Construction Equipment, has solidified that relationship over the years."

Jaroche was a young boy when his father moved the company to the Upper Peninsula. Over the years they continued to expand, adding a sawmill and maple-syrup operation. "I grew up with that sawmill in my backyard since I was three years old. I would sit and watch the mill run all day. My grandmother says I have sawdust in my veins. I don't have a choice really; it's something I was born into. I really have a passion for this industry."

The young logger brings a lot of energy and fresh ideas to Maples Sawmill. After he graduated from Lake Superior State University with a degree in business, he returned to the woods. He's being groomed to run the company one day, so he is currently on a tour of duty of every aspect of the company's operation. "Right now I'm running a logging crew, I'm procurement manager, and I'm sawyer in the sawmill, along with wearing a lot of other hats. I like the challenge. It's a lot of fun."

Today the sawmill produces up to 120,000 board-feet of rough-saw timber in a week. "The sawmill is a big deal for us because there's a place for our logs to go. The hardwood we harvest is used for flooring, countertops, trim, and cabinetry."

The company's maple-syrup operation has grown significantly in a short amount of time. Last year it produced more than 10,000 gallons of syrup, putting it among Michigan's top producers. "We used to cut maple trees, but now I'm not allowed anywhere near them (laughs). Actually I don't want to go anywhere near there — they work day and night. Thankfully it's only for three months out of the year."

Youth movement

Jaroche hires mainly young loggers. He knows an influx of youth is needed to keep the industry alive. "We're looking to employ younger, fresh minds we can mold to do things the way we want — something my father and I have been talking about for a long time. We got tired of bringing in 40- and 50-year-old guys who do everything a certain way. Sure, these guys were ready to go, but they were not always willing to listen to a 22-year-old about new ways of doing things. So we're trying to instill a different perspective, a more efficient attitude."

Efficiency is the operative word for Jaroche's operation. "It's a challenging industry, to say the least. Demand will increase and prices will creep up. Then demand disappears and prices fall. You just never know. Every day is a new day, so you just attack it with that in mind."

Many new young crew members had never even seen a logging machine before coming to Maples Sawmill. Terry Appleton, age 21, worked as a painter and Seth Purgiel, age 21, painted, installed docks, and worked at a fast-food restaurant. "Both are young and eager and want to get at it. And they are operating very efficiently. The bottom line is that it is a very lucrative and rewarding industry. There's just an immense amount of opportunity for guys willing to go out and work hard every day."

Like one of the family

Jaroche admits it's not easy attracting young workers. "It's a tough job — you have to get up at 4:30 in the morning and it's sometimes 30 below. Your fingers are freezing and you're busting a knuckle fixing a hydraulic hose. So I've pushed hard to find guys my age with the same passions and tried to create a positive work environment for us."

To many, the environment he works hard to create feels like family. "We've become good friends with a lot of our loggers and truckers, and we share a love for the industry. The company is fun, and people really seem to enjoy working together. They can make a comfortable living, though not a glamorous one. It's a hard sell, but many of the guys willing to go out into the woods have really found their niche.

"I tell guys to just give it a shot. They might find they really like the freedom of going out to the woods, of not being bothered all day with someone looking over their shoulder. It doesn't take much. Just a little taste and a lot of guys really enjoy it."

Providing healthcare benefits and retirement plans also helps build loyalty in an industry where many loggers have trouble finding guaranteed work. "Our guys can count on a paycheck every two weeks. Around here, that's a big thing. We're looking to keep our guys around long term, so this is definitely an advantage."

Sustainable future

In addition to attracting young people to the industry, Jaroche believes that loggers must change the hearts and minds of those in their community. "Many people in our area don't understand sustainable logging. There's still this common misconception that logging is bad — that the forest is simply cleared away and no one cares about what happens down the road. We have to convince them that attitude is long gone."

Jaroche has done presentations at local festivals about the benefits of logging. "People need to know this industry is very helpful for the environment. You get a lot healthier growth when forests are logged and managed properly. Because ultimately we're harvesting for future generations, not just for today."

Does that future include another young Jaroche? "As soon as my kids are walking, they'll be sweeping up around the mill, just like I was. I'd like to keep the logging gene going. It's important for the industry."