By Nick Worth
A wood pellet mill is now in operation at the old Smith Moulding plant west of Snowflake, according to Tracy Wilson, one of three partners in the venture.
Wilson, along with partners Allen Kauffman and Dan Holderman, bought the pellet-making equipment from the owners of the now defunct Precision Pellet business last December. The small operation currently employs five people in one shift, but Wilson said the number should grow to 12 to 15 employees working around the clock by the end of this year.
“We bought the equipment from the previous owners who were employed by Smith Moulding,” Wilson said. “They started creating a very good client base. They made very clean pellets and that’s important.”
Wilson noted that dirty pellets produce “clinkers,” small bits of debris which can end up clogging parts of a wood pellet stove.
“These gentlemen who had the pellet facility we bought did a very good job of creating clean pellets,” Wilson said. “When the logging industry shut down they had to shut down. We bought their equipment, and they trained us and taught us how to operate it, so we’re making a very clean pellet.”
He said they have been busy re-establishing themselves in both the local market place and out of the area.
Wilson added that Southwest Renewable Resources is also busy developing other uses beyond simple wood stove pellets, including making a product for use as fuel in biomass electric co-generation plants.
“We’re getting a lot of interest from overseas,” he said.
Southwest Renewable Resources, which is based in Apache Junction, chose the abandoned Smith site for several reasons.
“We chose Snowflake because it’s close to I-40 so we can truck ship both directions,” Wilson explained. Asked if the Apache Railway might play a part in the company’s shipping strategy, he said the presence of the rail line close by the plant could be a big plus for the company.
“In fact, we are thinking of using the Apache Railway,” Wilson said. “We’ve been approached by some Asian buyers that are interested in the fact that we’re right by that rail spur that goes behind Smith Moulding. They want to know if we can ship by rail to the West Coast to ship to users, businesses and co-generation plants in Asia.
“It would be shipments of tons of product,” he added.
Another reason for locating the business in Snowflake is a growing opportunity for obtaining the raw materials the business needs.
“Logging operations are now underway with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative,” said Wilson. He added his company hopes to make use of some of the biomass from the 4FRI and other thinning operations.
“We’re trying to use the waste and slash from lumber cutting, and sawdust from the mills,” he said. “The source of material is growing because the loggers and the mills are starting to fire back up now. So far it’s been good.”
Plans for the pellet mill have been in place since before the Catalyst Paper Mill shut down and once included the possibility of using a by-product of the paper-making process, according to Wilson.
“We looked at using some of the paper sludge out of that paper mill before it shut down,” he said.
Wilson said there is another compelling reason for locating in the Snowflake area.
“One other thing is we wanted to be in a small community to bring back employment,” he said. “Small communities took a hit and a lot of people are driving a long way for jobs.”
Wilson said he and his partners are continuing to seek out new applications for their products. Southwest Renewable Resources is also busy developing other uses beyond simple wood stove pellets, including making a product for use as fuel in biomass electric co-generation plants.
“Our plans for the Snowflake facility are to expand into a lot of different uses for wood pellets,” Wilson said. “So we’re going to be doing a lot of research and development at the plant.”
He noted that the company will have more news in the near future on a possible new product being developed that could mean “big things for the Snowflake area,” but he declined to elaborate as discussions are still underway.
“We’re excited about being in Snowflake and excited about all the good people there,” Wilson said. “It’s been a very positive experience up in that area.”
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By Nick Worth