All Heart: Big B Stumping

published in Southern Loggin’ Times, September 2015, as Jessica Nelson 

FRUITDALE, Ala.

Russell Brown, owner of Big B Stumping based here, says there are only 32 stump harvesting crews still in operation in the United States, all operating in the Southeast. For stumpers, it’s all about heart—the rosin-filled heart of longleaf pine stumps, called lighter wood.

The key to being a good stump man, Brown says, is knowing how to get the wood. “Every stump you come up on digs different,” he says. The terrain, kind of soil, and weather conditions all dictate how to finesse the stump out, and a good stumper needs a database of knowledge about the terrain and soil.

“The ground is different in every county,” Brown says. “And knowing the situation you’re in makes the difference between getting the load of wood and not getting the load of wood.”

While stumpers face a lot of the same challenges and rewards as loggers, Brown says one of the biggest differences is just the availability of the product. After a tree is cut, the stump needs to sit in the ground, ideally five or more years, as the unusable bark and sap rot away from the rich heart. In earlier days, forests were full of lighter stumps left behind from logging the virgin longleaf stands that carpeted the region. These stumps are more than kindling—the rosin is used in a variety of products from chewing gum to an ingredient in citrus flavored soft drinks.

Those number one stumps are few and far between now, and the stumps that are available are from trees cut younger and left in the ground for a shorter time. This is made possible, Russell says, by the stump shear head on their excavator. The shear head is equipped with a feature called the active thumb, a heavy blade that shears off the bottom of the taproot.

There have been a lot of changes in the industry since family patriarch Edgar Brown first started hauling stumps with his own father. In those days, Edgar says, they used dynamite to blow the stump into manageable bits and loaded the trucks by hand. “It wasn’t like it is now,” he says with a chuckle, “sitting up there in an air conditioned cab. It was hard work, hard work.”

From dynamite and muscle, stump harvesting equipment evolved to bulldozers equipped with a stump yoke to push the stump out of the ground, taproot and all. Though the best heartwood is in the above-ground stump, the taproot was good enough in the older stumps to take in. If they haven’t had the time in the ground, taking the whole taproot isn’t economically viable. In the late 1980s, bulldozers began to be phased out in favor of excavators with traditional buckets, and the shear heads showed up a few years later in the early 2000s.

Background

Edgar Brown got his first contract from Hercules, Inc. in 1962. He’d been helping his dad haul paperwood and occasionally stumps after he left the Air Force in 1960, but they hadn’t been getting ahead as far as he could tell. When John Henderson, an area supervisor with Hercules (now Pinova, Inc.), asked if the two of them would go into business harvesting stumps for Hercules, he pushed his dad to accept.

“He said if you’ll move over to Repton, Ala., work where I ask you to work, and take care of business like you ought to, he said I believe this job is going to last 10 years. That was in 1962, and we’ve been stumping ever since.”

Edgar is 76 now, with 50 plus years of experience and a retirement under his belt. He officially retired at age 69, but Edgar still doesn’t miss a day. He primarily runs the track hoe, which he says is about all he can do these days. But he’ll keep coming out to help as long as he can.

Edgar says stumping was just a job to him, and he kept at it because he never could find anything else that suited him and made as good a living. But it meant something more to Russell. Edgar’s oldest two sons went off to college like he wanted them to, but Russell, he says, “was bound and determined he was going to stump wood, and would hear nothing else.” Edgar recalls leaving for work before daylight some mornings and looking back to see Russell peeking out a window to watch him go.

For his part, Russell loved stumping from childhood. He loved being outdoors, the machines, the satisfaction of getting the load of wood. But it was more than that, he says.

“It sounds a little crazy, but for me, it was about being somebody. You’re one of a few people, and when you go places, everybody’s like ‘Oh, you’re the stump man.’ I love that everybody doesn’t do this.”

Three generations of Browns worked together this summer, including Russell’s younger son, Matthew. Matthew loves it too, and is campaigning to follow in his dad’s footsteps and go right into stumping after he graduates next year.

“I’ve been coming out here since I was old enough, about 12 or 13,” Matthew says. His main job is to run the prehauler, and do small maintenance and repairs, and he helps move the other equipment around as needed. Russell declares Matthew won’t follow him into stumping, but Matthew declares that he will. It’s a familiar tune. Edger once said the same thing about Russell and Russell said otherwise.

Russell has followed in his father’s footsteps in another way, as pastor of the same church in Beaumont, Miss. that Edgar pastored for 32 years. And Matthew looks poised to follow them on that path as well, Russell says with pride.

Operations

Big B Stumping relies on three main pieces of equipment. Edgar runs a 2013 Komatsu PC-LC track hoe with a CBI stump shear head. It’s narrower than the smallest excavator bucket for a track hoe that size, and half the weight of the earlier shear heads, which were so heavy they wore out the machines too quickly to be practical. The narrow width means a great deal less soil disturbance and resulting erosion. The agility of the active thumb increases yield and lets the operator knock off more dirt, which is a huge problem in processing and cost. Another helpful feature of the shear head is the flat lip on the back side that is used to efficiently push dirt back over the hole. Stump harvesting crews can remove stumps from a managed longleaf pine forest without damage to surrounding trees or the land.

Less disruption of the land makes for happier landowners, too. Russell says one of the earliest lessons he learned from his father was to get along with the people whose land you’re working. If not, you’ll never get the next load of wood, because your bad reputation will get there first, he says.

They are working year round, though winter months pose the same difficulties for stumpers as for loggers. For the Browns, being a small operation and their own boss ensures flexibility. They can work 6-day weeks, and do at times, or take a week off when needed.

On days when he doesn’t have football practice, Matthew runs a 1994 Timberjack 230A prehauler. He loads up a flatbed trailer that has extra standards to hold in the smaller stump wood, though DOT mandates will require all stump trailers to use enclosed walls soon. It also has a solid steel bed to stand up to the unloading equipment at the mill, which would poke holes in a regular bed.

This trailer gets hauled to the Pinova, Inc. plant in Brunswick, Ga., about 500 miles away. Though they’ve used contract haulers for the past few years, they used to haul the wood themselves. The long distance to the Brunswick plant amplified the hit they took when fuel prices started skyrocketing in 2007.

They’ve also had to buy their own wood during times when Pinova, which was previously Hercules, Inc., didn’t have a wood buyer available for their area. This meant the Browns had to find the stumps, get the land leased, and try to keep the next place lined up in between getting the load and hauling it to Brunswick.

Now Big B Stumping works with Pinova procurement forester Ed Nelson, who does the leg work of locating good tracts, negotiating with landowners, and keeping up with lease numbers and stumpage paid. He lines everything up so the Browns just have to find out where to go next. “Finding and hunting and contracting, that’s a full time job,” Russell says. Having someone to take care of that part makes a big difference for them.

Nelson says the key to having work lined up for the Browns and other crews he works with is knowing the area. With his forty years of experience buying stumps first for Hercules, and now Pinova, he knows what kind of land is likely to have stumps and where to look for that kind of terrain. Extensive networking with loggers, foresters, and land managers is also part of the picture, but sometimes he gets a lead by looking out for signs of recent logging during his daily traveling. “I try to find new routes to get places when I can,” he says.

Stumps are most commonly harvested from land that has been clear cut, though not exclusively. With the track hoe and shear head, crews can also harvest stumps from well managed longleaf stands, but those jobs are not as common.

There are typically 4-6 stumps per ton, but there can be a lot of variability, Nelson says. One clear cut tract might have stumps of varying maturity and size from past thinnings. The size of tracts that Pinova leases also varies widely, depending on how heavily timbered it was. They might find one ton per acre or up to ten, he says. So although they like to work with more than 20 acres, if the tract has enough stumps for a load, they’ll try to get it regardless of size. Likewise, the size of the log isn’t always the whole story. There are lower quality big stumps are high quality small stumps – it’s all about the heart, he says.

Russell says that he’s heard of other pine species in the region, mainly slash, occasionally leaving stumps that can be harvested for rosin. “But these slash and loblolly, they’re made to grow fast, so they don’t have any heart.  It takes the long, slow growth on the longleaf. That’s what makes them so good, so rich.”

The limitations on stump availability and the trouble it takes to get one out of the ground means that a day’s work is one load of stump wood, compared to the eight or 10 loads a logger can expect. Russell says stumps earn more per ton than logs, but it all evens out, especially with the mill so far away. Their monthly production ranges between 450-650 tons, depending on availability and conditions.

Russell says his mother, Elizabeth, has kept the books for the company since it began, which was about the same time his parents married. The most hectic part for her is trucking, he says. Because they live in Mississippi, work out of Alabama, and haul to Georgia, they are required to track their mileage in each state and be IFTA (International Fuel Tax Agreement) compliant, something loggers who don’t cross state lines don’t have to worry about. Contract hauling eases that burden, but she still takes care of everything else on old-fashioned paper.

“Mama’s not a computer person,” Russell says. “Mama will send a check in the mail, and you get it when it gets there.” When she gets ready to retire, Russell’s wife, Michelle, will move into that role, and she’ll ring in the computer age.

Both Edgar and Russell are hesitant to speculate about the future of stumping. “How can I know?” Edgar asks. He tells the story again of the Hercules wood buyer who gave his dad an estimate of 10 years of work for a career that has now spanned more than 50.

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