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Residents take Farm City Tour

LANETT — Attendees on this year’s Farm-City Tour had the opportunity to see some high-tech industrial production, a local Christmas tree farm that’s on the verge of its busy season, and a presentation from West Point Project park rangers on West Point Dam and Lake’s multiple benefits of flood control, hydropower, wildlife and habitat management and recreation.

Arranged by Carrie Royster and her staff at the Greater Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, the tour had stops at the Norbord Alabama plant, Gilbert’s Christmas Tree Farm and a visit to the Project Management Office. Approximately two dozen people took part in this year’s tour, and the Chambers County Board of Education provide a school bus for transportation.

This year’s Chambers County Farm-City observance wraps up with an awards banquet to be held at the ALFA Building in LaFayette at 6 p.m. CST next Tuesday.

Norbord was the first stop on the tour. As the bus pulled up alongside the 500,000-square-foot plant, the visitors couldn’t help but notice a large sign on the side of the building with the plant’s “Stronger Together” theme. “We believe everyone gets home safely,” it reads. “We believe all incidents are preventable when we work together. We believe in making it better. We believe in our company, our team and each other. We are stronger together.”

In a conference room just inside the plant, Norbord team members, including Caleb Walls, Mike Hinkle, Scott Smith and Kevin Brooks, showed them a video and gave each person safety glasses, a safety vest, hearing protection and a communications device for the tour.

Headquartered in Toronto, Canada, Norbord is the world’s largest producer of Oriented Strand Board, or OSB, a plywood substitute that’s used in a wide variety of construction. The company generates more than $2 billion in revenue each year and employs an estimated 2,700 people in 17 mills in North America, seven of which are in the U.S. The local plant employs 132 people with the average salary being $65,000 a year.

The local plant was in production from 2001-09 before closing as a result of the U.S. housing crisis. Following a substantial investment on the part of the company to make it Norbord’s most technologically advanced plant, Barton Mill reopened in 2017. Among its top customers are Home Depot, Lowe’s and Ashley Furniture.
“We are diversifying, so we won’t have the problems we had in 2009,” Walls said.

Over 500,000 four-foot by eight-foot OSB panels are turned out every year. More than 20,000 fully loaded log trucks come to the plant each year.

“The wood is 50 percent water when it comes in,” Walls said. “We let it dry out for four weeks. That gets it down to 28 percent water. That’s why we have such big woodpiles.
The local mill purchases an estimated $17 million of wood each year. That’s a big economic impact in the east Alabama-west Georgia region.”
Annual payroll is in the $16.6 million range. A major benefit of working for the company is that everyone gets the same annual profit share.

The one thing people see when they pass Norbord on nearby Interstate 85 are the huge plumes of steam, or water vapor. It’s coming from the timber, and the more of that can be removed from the wood, the better. When the pine logs are sent into the production process, they are first debarked and then sawed into flakes. Those flakes are heated as they are sent through ducts toward the press. Wax and resins are added to help form a mat.
“The magic starts to happen at the press,” Walls said. “This is where OSB is made.”

The press has four orienteers, each one pushing the mat to a level that’s much more compact and with more tensile strength. The most fantastic piece of equipment in the Chattahoochee Valley is at the end of the press. It’s a $1.5 million double diagonal saw that’s carefully engineered to cut 5,000 times a shift and never stops. The saw blades have to be changed once a week or every other week. The brain center of the plant is the press control area. This is where the entire plan is run. There’s a bank of computers and monitors and a crew that knows how to operate them. The monitors show every part of the plant and anything out of the ordinary that might be going on. The main task here is to see that the press is correctly running and stays that way. One thing they watch for is for moisture in the flakes to be down to around five percent. That makes it better for binding.

When everything is running smoothly, more than 130 four-by-eight panels can be made every minute.

While making OSB is a fast-paced process, technical mastery of many working parts, a visit to a Christmas tree farm is much more laid back. Located on Fredonia’s southeast side, the Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm is heading to its 31st year of operation. This year’s season starts on Saturday, Nov. 23. It will be open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Sundays from noon until 6 p.m. and on Thursdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

While most people celebrate Christmas every December, for Ray Gilbert and family, it’s a year-long thing. In January, there’s purchasing to start getting ready for the next season. Young trees are also planted that month. In June and July, there’s work to be done to get the trees prepared for the coming season. Trimming needs to be done in July and August, and every couple of weeks or so during the growing season, the grass has to be cut.

Gilbert wasn’t a tree grower by profession. He spent much of his career as a controller for companies such as Industrial Service & Supply. He’s retired now from that 9 to 5 job and has much more time to spend on the Christmas tree farm.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s fun to me, and I enjoy doing it. You see some of the same people every year. I’m now selling Christmas tree to their kids. I’ve tried a lot of different stuff over the years. Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t. You learn by doing.”

Gilbert got started growing Christmas trees in 1983. He had some land in Fredonia and asked someone from the extension service for advice on how to make it productive.

“He suggested having a Christmas tree farm,” he said. “There was a lot of people into that at the time. There must have been 20 tree farms in the Chambers, Lee, Russell county area at that time.”

Gilbert is the only one still active in that area today and one of only 12 Alabama Christmas tree farmers active in the state association.

“We started growing them in 1983 and started selling them in 1987,” he said. “We started with Virginia pines. We still plant some of them every year but are more predominantly into Leyland cypresses and Carolina sapphires.”

The Leyland cypresses are planted as seedlings. One of the tricks Gilbert has learned over the years is to water his young trees the right way, not too much and not too little. For the most part, rainfall is sufficient for the older trees. It takes a good-sized work crew when Gilbert plants the Leyland cypresses. He marks off the site and digs holes with a Bobcat. The hard part is getting the people you need to help you.

“This time of year, everyone wants to work at a Christmas tree farm, but it’s not that way when Christmas is past, and work needs to be done,” he said. “The big trees are a challenge to shape. We have to do that in a bucket truck. You shape the top of the tree, and the rest of the tree is set. It’s very labor-intensive.”

Among the customers for the big trees are the City of Valley and St. Francis Hospital in Columbus.

“The big trees are around 15 years old,” Gilbert said. “We will work with them until they get around 25 feet in height.”

Gilbert said he’s tinkered around with coloring trees, but that’s a lot of work without much of a payoff. One popular place is Louisiana, especially this year when there’s a demand for purple trees because of LSU. When Gilbert started in the 1980s, most people expected him to cut the tree for them. Younger couples today want to cut it themselves and to have a Christmas experience for their children. This includes a trip to the on-site gift shop and a hayride.

“We’ve even had photographers out here doing photoshoots,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s wife Joan, their daughter Jennifer and daughter-in-law, stay busy in the gift shop. It takes them around a half hour to make s wreath. A favorite item people like to get each year is a Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm ornament for their tree.

Cutting down the tree is just the start. The tree then is taken to a location just outside the gift shop where a machine shakes it to remove brown needles. It’s then placed in a netting machine where a net is placed over it for the trip back home. It’s up to the customer to tie it down to their car. Gilbert encourages them to do it the right way.

With fewer people into tree farming than there used to be, Gilbert has seen growth in his customer base.

“We are now getting more people from Opelika and Auburn than we are from Lanett and Valley,” he said. “We usually sell around 800 trees every year.”
Gilbert usually has some Fraser firs to sell.

“They don’t grow in Alabama or Georgia,” he said. “They grow at an elevation of at least 2,500 feet. We buy ours from a farm in North Carolina that’s been in business since 1947.”

At the Farm-City tour’s final stop at the West Point Project Management Office, park rangers David Barr and Ben Williams talked to them about West Point Lake. Barr is the chief ranger over recreation, and Williams is the chief ranger for natural resources. In a PowerPoint presentation, Barr said that West Point Dam’s primary purposes are flood control, hydropower, water quality and water supply, fishing, wildlife and recreation.

West Point Lake drew over 1.8 million visitors in 2018 and those numbers could be higher this year. The West Point Project made over $1 million last year in its campgrounds and day-use areas. The lake’s tourism boom generates millions of dollars in business and sales tax revenue. Somewhere between $3 million to $6 million goes back to the U.S. Treasury every year in the form of power sales.

In the 1960s and 1970s, West Point Lake was a test project for public recreation. It was an ambitious idea, and the federal government probably overdid it with construction projects around the lake.

“Some parks closed due to lack of use and tighter budgets,” Barr said. “We have gone from 10 to four campgrounds. We need $3 million a year to run this place, but the budget has been cut below that. What’s really helping us through this is our volunteers. We have around 600 every year. The West Point Lake Coalition, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Publix and other groups have really helped us out. Volunteer programs free us up to do other things we need to be doing.”

Williams said he liked being on the natural resources side of managing the lake.

“It’s 35 river miles long,” he said. “This natural river habitat was destroyed when the dam was built, but we are building it back. We maintain habitat structures and have more bluebirds on the Project lands than you can shake a stick at. The Piedmont Birding Trail is a nice feature.”

Williams said that prescribed burning is something that needs to be done every year on a rotating schedule.

“We have over 20,000 acres for hunting and 10,000 acres that are managed by the state of Georgia,” Williams said. “We have two hunts every year for people with disabilities.”

The West Point Project is proactive in improving forest lands.

“We do around 600 acres a year with timber stand improvements,” Williams said. “We have planted 150 acres in longleaf pine trees and plan to do 75 acres more next year. We partner with the forestry commissions in Alabama and Georgia. They help us with our prescribed burning and putting in fire breaks.”

A total of 105 people have drowned in West Point Lake since it opened in 1975.

“We urge people to be safe and to stay safe,” Williams said. “We talk about water safety when we go to schools, and we also talk about the importance of environmental stewardship.”

“We stay busy 12 months out of the year,” Barr said. “We spoke to over 19,000 people last year. One thing I really like to talk about is our lighted buoy program. We partner with the West Point Lake Coalition on this. It’s a unique thing. I don’t know of any other project that does this. We have over 100 of them on the main river channel and 100 on the major creeks flowing in. The Tour de Lake biking event helps raise money for it. The triathlon we host every year is a popular event. It usually draws between 200 and 300 athletes. Special Day is special, too. It usually draws between 800 and 1,000 attendees at Rocky Point Park.”