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A Life in the Woods

Roland Murphy has spent a lifetime in the Virginia woods. His invaluable experience, strong work ethic, and passion for the job enrich his coworkers and contribute to a successful, high quality logging operation.

— Paul Iarocci

Jerry Rose, his son Davis, and daughter Stephanie Blythe, operate two logging businesses and a transport company out of Courtland, Virginia. Jerry started Jerry D. Rose Incorporated in 1983. Davis and Stephanie are third-generation loggers. “Before our father started the company, he was the foreman on our grandfather’s job, Ben E. Babb Logging,” Stephanie tells me. The siblings founded a second company, Southeast Fiber Supply, in 2013. “We started Southeast Fiber Supply to handle the chips going to Enviva. Dad also started a trucking business, Chip Transit Inc., that does all of the hauling for our logging operations,” Stephanie explains.

Today, two Jerry D. Rose Incorporated crews supply International Paper in Franklin, Virginia, with clean pine pulp chips. The third crew, working under Southeast Fiber Supply, markets fuel chips to an Enviva pellet manufacturing plant, as well as a Dominion Power facility. The main differences between the pulpwood crews and the fuel chip crew are in the tract type, and of course, the type of chip produced.

“The Southeast Fiber Supply crew cuts more mixed tracts with smaller hardwood,” Davis explains. “We try to target tracts with a lot of pulpwood but sometimes we will run into hardwood logs.” The company merchandises the saw timber, “It’s maybe about 5% of our weekly quota. We cut private tracts that we buy, and we cut a fair amount for the big timber holding companies, like Westervelt, John Hancock and Roseburg. A lot of the work we do for them is thinning work.”

Between the two companies, five Tigercat 724G feller bunchers equipped with 5600 bunching heads are working full time, with three spares available. The machines were purchased from Bullock Brothers Equipment. There will usually be two feller bunchers deployed for a thinning crew and just one machine for a clear fell job. “For us, the 724G is perfect for thinning,” says Davis. “In a lot of the clearcut operations, we will run a 44-inch tire because it is best for our ground conditions. When we move to thinning, we will put a 30.5 tire on that same machine. It makes the machine more versatile.”

The company is meticulous on maintenance. A full-time mechanic cycles through the three crews, compiling service notes on every machine. The Roses tend to hang on to their Tigercat bunchers, trading them with up to 13,000 hours.

Jerry, Stephanie, and Davis have established strong relationships with their employees. “We employ 40 full time people across the board at all three companies,” says Stephanie. “We run sixteen of our own trucks and anywhere between five to seven contract trucks daily. We are producing in the neighbourhood of 275 to 300 loads per week. Our record is 356 loads.”

We were invited to have a look at this first-class logging operation and to meet one particular employee, a man who stands out in many ways. Roland Murphy, who goes by Peter, is a feller buncher operator.

Lives and breathes it

Peter is 81 years old and has worked in the logging industry all his life. “Peter worked for Ben E. Babb Logging in the seventies,” says Stephanie. “At some point after that, around 1983, Peter came to work for our father at Jerry D. Rose Inc. Since then, he has worked with all three of our crews.”

Peter has driven a log truck and operated a chipper, and he is a highly accomplished feller buncher operator. “He is remarkable,” says
Stephanie. “At times, there is one cutter here and sometimes it should possibly be two, but Peter can do what two men can do, any day, at 81 years old.”

Davis adds, “I would say he has probably cut down more trees than anybody in the world. I mean, he has been doing this since he was fifteen years old. He has been working for high-production logging crews his whole life.”

Last year, Peter was forced to take time off work to recover from surgery. In his absence, the company made do, but Peter was sorely missed. “Everybody was happy the day he came back. Very happy,” says Stephanie. Peter, who is not one to miss even a single day of work, was happy too. “He doesn’t miss any time,” adds Stephanie. “He just lives and breathes it.”

In some ways his wealth of experience is difficult to quantify. For example, he knows how sites should be laid out and where to build the deck. He has an intuition on how to log a tract. Stephanie recalls occasions when they would move into a new tract and the conditions were quite wet. “Davis and Dad would bring Peter to the

If you don't love it, you'll never do a good job. I keep working because I love my job and I love the people that I work with."

— Roland (Peter) Murphy

site, like ‘tell me right now, is this going to work or is it not going to work’ because Peter just knows, immediately.”

Just as often, the benefits that his experience brings to the table are easy to measure. Peter’s steady, unrushed style, and the efficiency of movement that characterizes his work keeps his production high. An added benefit is that he is easier on the machine.

A day in the life

The crew loads the first chip van at 5:00 am, and the chipper generally runs eleven hours per day. Peter also starts around 5:00 am, and he will cut until he feels he’s got enough wood on the ground, usually around seven hours. Then he parks the machine and goes home.

C.W. Jones is the site supervisor out here. “He and the rest of the crew take the best care of Peter,” says Stephanie. “If he pulls up, it is like a full-service fuel station. I mean, they hop out and fuel his machine. They just really cater to him.” I have a picture in my head of an F1 pitstop crew working in a forest. Peter is the driver. It leaves him to focus on what he does best – running the machine.

“If he pulls up here and it’s got mud on the windshield, these guys know what to look for because they take care of him. They know what he is doing when he is on the way. They are so used to tending to him. They respect him,” says Davis.

It is easily apparent that C.W. highly values the time he spends with Peter, describing the start to a typical early morning. “Normally he will stand around for fifteen minutes, talking,” says C.W. “We will talk about our day, what our plans are. He’ll tell me some cool stories now and then. They did a lot of felling manually with chainsaws. But they were cutting bigger timber. He said that a lot of the tracts that we have cut, he has cut before. When he first cut it, it was virgin timber. He said they left a lot of stuff. A lot of the stuff we are cutting now, they had left that.”

It is remarkable that Peter has cut the same sites two and even three times before, but even more noteworthy is that he remembers the details. “We have a map of the timber harvest area that we give to the operator, and a lot of the time Peter will tell us that he doesn’t need the map because he had cut it before,” says Stephanie.

I get the feeling from C.W. that it is the old stories that he appreciates most. The recounting gives clues and insights into the man. “Growing up in the depression instilled a work ethic in Peter that is difficult to replicate in younger workers. They don’t have that same drive and determination that comes with the struggles of his lifetime. And it shows in his work ethic.”

Technique and experience

Peter can cut. In good clear fell timber, he can cut three-and-a-half loads per hour, putting down 100 loads each week. He always has a very good idea as to how much wood is on the ground at any given time. He knows exactly when to park the machine and go home, calculating that there is enough wood to feed the chipper for the remainder of the day and the start of the following day. Peter doesn’t count bunches and doesn’t have any apparent system to back up his estimating accuracy. He can’t tell me how he knows; he just does.

Peter also ran a Tigercat track feller buncher for ten years. He says the track cutter is easier to operate because there is less travel and he doesn’t get bounced around nearly
as much. “They are good machines. A whole lot easier to work in the woods with them too.” However, Peter has refined his operating techniques over many years. “If you cut the stump down, you won’t have to run over it. I cut them as low as I possibly can. It makes it easier on you. It won’t throw you around and bounce you up. If you don’t do it, it will wear you down,” he explains.

“Another thing, you’ve got to cut the wood and put it down so it’s not in the way. Because you can’t drive over top of it. You’ve got to learn how to cut the wood, back up, and throw the wood down where you have already cut.” Peter never looks at the rear camera view when clear felling and rarely turns to look. Instead, he maintains a spatial awareness. “When I back up, I know there isn’t anything left behind me. In thinning, the camera will help you a whole lot, but in clear cutting, I don’t pay it no matter, I don’t even look at the camera. I don’t want to lose any time.”

Peter says that he doesn’t have to move quickly to achieve high production. The important thing is to operate at a steady pace. “You go one speed, and you go all day at that speed. If you stop for fifteen or twenty minutes, look at what you don’t log,” he explains. “Another thing, by going steady and not so fast, you won’t break anything because you have more chance to see what you are doing.

If you get going too fast, you can’t see what you are doing.” C.W. explains it this way. “I could get into a feller buncher right beside him and I could probably keep up with him for about two days and after that, he is going to be pulling away from me. It’s just amazing.” Peter doesn’t partake in any of the daily distractions that have become so prevalent in modern society. He is not checking his cell phone or scrolling social media. He is focused and completely immersed in the present until he decides he has put enough wood on the ground for the day. “He doesn’t even listen to the radio,” says C.W. “I asked him once if he wanted to turn the radio on. He said, ‘I don’t listen to the radio. I just want to hear the trees fall.’”

Having seen a lot of people come and go in the industry, Peter offers this advice to younger workers. “Someone new will come in and start doing the same work I do, and they get tired and broken down, because they break themselves down.” Peter stresses that pace is key. “If you move yourself at the right pace, it won’t make you tired; you can go all day and you won’t be tired. I learned that years ago. Don’t let the machine beat you, because it will beat you if you let it.” Passion is another critical element for Peter. “You’ve got to want to do it. If you don’t love it, you’ll never do a good job. I keep working because I love my job and I love the people that I work with. I love them.”

A life in the woods

Peter has been working in the woods since he was a teenager. He has seen a lot of change in the industry over those sixty-five years. In his earliest days in the logging industry, horses or mules, and later, rudimentary tractors were used to transport topped and limbed treelength logs to an infield sawmill. When they packed everything up and left the site, great piles of sawdust remained. He started off felling with a two-man crosscut saw and witnessed firsthand the technical advances that brought the early two-man power saws, and the advancements that led to lighter weight saws that one man could operate.

When the southern United States began to mechanize the felling function in the eighties, and people climbed into wheel feller bunchers for the first time, Peter was there. He says he has probably run every rubber tire feller buncher brand ever made and acknowledges a steady improvement in comfort and reliability over the years. The current 724G “is the best machine that I have been on. There is nothing better than this.”

He stresses that the performance and reliability of the 5600 bunching saw has been outstanding over the years. “You don’t have any trouble with cracks and breaks and all that. I have been running them about twenty years or more. I have never had a crack in one; never had an arm break or anything.”

Peter climbs up into his machine like a man half his age. He can focus on a physically and mentally challenging task day after day. He is still at the top of his game. For now, Jerry, Davis, and Stephanie will take a page from Peter’s playbook and take each day as it comes. “We know that it’s not going to last forever,” says Stephanie. “He said he will tell us when he is ready. I said don’t you worry, when it is time for you to retire or whatever, I want you to tell us and be honest. He said, ‘I am not ready,’ so I said, OK.”

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