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Thriving in El Dorado

J&R has grown from a small business to a large-scale California producer. In addition to harvesting and hauling, the company has steered into postharvest site preparation and road building. Robert D’Agostini Jr. and Saul Jimenez walk us through the operations.

— Jorge Victoria

"I remember taking my first ride in a log truck in September of 1979. I was five years old, standing up in the middle, my brother in the passenger seat, and my father driving. That’s my first memory of the industry. I graduated from eighth grade on a Friday and Monday my dad took me to the woods and said, ‘Now you’ve got to go to work.’ I was making two dollars an hour and had a lot of bubblegum money for a freshman in high school. So that’s how I started out."

Meet Robert D’Agostini Jr., president and CEO of Mt. Aukum, California based J&R Logging. The company was founded in 1979 by Robert Sr. and John Jacino. Both had previous experience in the industry. John was an executive at Wetsel Oviatt Lumber Co. “My father went to work driving a log truck when he graduated from high school,” explains Robert. “John and my dad still are best friends. They are both in their eighties now, and they’re like brothers.”

The company started out as a contract log hauler, transitioning into logging operations in 1989. As Robert Jr. got older, he started operating equipment, becoming more valuable to the operation. “My father made it clear that I had to learn everything as a regular job. I had to run all the machines as a job. Not just to get on it for a day. But I liked loading log trucks, so I ended up loading trucks for my dad for about eighteen years.”
In 2003, Robert Jr. bought out John. At that time J&R was working for Wetsel Oviatt Lumber, a small family-owned sawmill in El Dorado County. In 2005, Wetsel Oviatt was purchased by Sierra Pacific. “Before we went to work for Sierra Pacific, it was just a small mom-and-pop logging operation. And once we went to work for Sierra Pacific, there was an opportunity to flourish,” explains Robert.

Since then, J&R has built a strong, long-standing relationship with Sierra Pacific. The company owns and manages more than 2.4 million acres (97 000 ha) of timberland in California, Oregon and Washington, and is one of the largest US lumber manufacturers. J&R numbers among the company’s largest producers. “Sierra Pacific is a great family-owned company,” says Robert. “They treat people well, and they tend to do well.”
Today, J&R operates three mechanical logging crews and a cable logging operation. “We do site prep for Sierra Pacific, which is getting the harvested units ready for planting again. We do that with masticating machines. And we have a road building operation, as well as seven log trucks.” All this is accomplished with around 40 employees. Annual volume is estimated at 50 million board feet of harvested timber, 1,200-1,500 acres (approximately 500-600 ha) of post-harvest site preparation, and 100 miles (160 km) of newly built or reconstructed road.

Robert’s father is still involved with the company as chairman of the board of directors. Robert also credits his mother, Leedy as instrumental to the success of the company. “She’s a banker by trade and has instilled in all of us the business aspects of running a company. She will show up at any given time and ask the hard questions, which is what you need sometimes.”
Robert’s brother, Mike is director and trucking manager. Saul Jimenez, partner and vice president, manages the harvesting operations. “Saul and I kind of grew up in the company together,” says Robert. “He basically runs the day-to-day operations. He’s a genius in time and motion."

“I’ve been with J&R for almost 23 years,” says Saul who started off as a delimber operator. “Later I operated a processor. After a few years I had the opportunity to buy into the company, and it has been great.” Saul plans, organizes and executes the operations, and manages the landowner relationships.

The burning question

The Sierra Nevada region has five important commercial species that are manufactured into diverse products: ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense cedar, white fir and Douglas fir. The fact that contractors and mills are not reliant on a single species makes the region resilient to negative market dynamics.

Ecological resilience is another matter. If there is one issue that looms large over everyone and everything else in the Sierra Nevada, it’s fire. With around two million acres burning every year, there is cause for concern on just how sustainable the resource is. “If you start running that math, it’s not going to be very long before every acre of our cutting circles are going to be burned through,” says Robert. “There are people a lot smarter than me that are saying, ‘No, it’s not going to be a big deal. The product’s going to grow back.’ But I’m afraid that the big landowner which is the federal government is not going to replant and reforest in a timely manner.”
According to Robert, there’s more timber standing in California than Oregon and Washington combined. What is missing is the political will and industry infrastructure to manage it. The forests are overstocked and as a result, they are burning up.

We visited a J&R operation in El Dorado County contracted by US Forest Service partner, the Great Basin Institute. The crew was clearing 500 ft on either side of a series of high-level forest roads. For two months the Caldor Fire burned through this area in 2021, destroying over 1,000 residential and commercial structures. People live here. “We are currently doing an emergency tree removal,” Saul explains. “This is done for safety reasons, so burnt trees don’t fall on the road.” The treatment provides clear egress and ingress without danger due to fire or falling material in case of another catastrophic fire.


— Saul Jimenez

Salvage harvesting, emergency removal, fire breaks and fuel load reduction are adding significant workload to California contractors like J&R in the short term, but what about the long term? “That is a great question for our company,” says Robert. “We have another generation that’s coming into this company who really want to see it for the long term. We’ve been in business for 40-plus years, and I want to see another 40 years. But I’m confident that there’ll be some kind of work being done in the forest, and we will fill that niche.”

Rethinking yarding

Since Bejac picked up the Tigercat line in California in 2020, J&R has purchased two 620H skidders, one LH855E harvester, an LS855E shovel logger and an LX830E feller buncher. So far, operator feedback is positive and Bejac have supported the machines well. According to Saul, “My operators tell me they prefer to operate Tigercat. They say the Tigercats are more controllable and drive better. They get less tired. As an owner, I like to hear that from my employees. If they are happy, I’m happy. If they are happy with the equipment and less tired, they are more productive.”

Another one of J&R’s recent Tigercat purchases is a relatively new model, the 180 swing yarder. Previously working with a conventional yarder and an eight-man crew, J&R could count on six to eight loads per day from the yarding side. The individuals making up that crew were heavily dependent on one other. “If one guy didn’t show up, it all started to fall apart pretty fast,” says Robert.

Since the acquisition of the 180, the company has completely redesigned the operation. The key has been separating, either in time or proximity, the cutting, yarding, and the loading operations. “And the yarding operation sometimes can even be removed from the log manufacturing operation, which is processing, which gets everybody away from one another. It’s so much safer,” says Robert.

With the conventional yarder, the company used to see a lot of minor injuries mostly related to setting chokers. “Wrists, ankles, fingers, things of that sort that all add up,” says Robert. “And then every once in a while, you get a really bad accident, which none of us like to see. Now there is very little opportunity for any bad accidents compared to the old way.”
In addition to the obvious safety benefits, the crew size has been reduced from eight to four men. And to add one more advantage, the company is enjoying a substantial boost in production, which now ranges from ten to twelve loads daily.

There has been a lot of local interest in the 180 and visitors to the site have been impressed with the machine and surprised at how quiet and intuitive it is to operate. “It’s 21st-century technology that we have been needing in this industry for years,” says Robert. “It’s versatile, it’s nimble, it’s powerful. I had a group of guys, industry heads, on tour about a month ago. They were standing in the cab watching a young man stare at a video screen. Nobody’s blowing whistles. The functions are very smooth, which doesn’t happen on a conventional yarder. Being able to move every single drum independently from one another is a game changer for cable logging.”

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