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Gippsland Times, 12 December 2023

Victoria’s native forest industry officially closes at the end of the month, but Radial Timber in Yarram is going nowhere.

The company, which has been building its own plantation estate for about 18 years, was relying on timber from VicForests for another six years until its own supply was ready to harvest.

Now, it’s in survival mode. “We’re looking to source what local plantation material we can get – we’ve got two signed up at the moment and one should be starting to harvest,” Radial’s managing director, Chris McEvoy, said in an interview with the Gippsland Times.

“These are managed blue gum plantations planted in the late 1990s – almost 25-plus years old. They have sawlogs 40-45cm in diameter – small end- so that will be the first material that will go through our Radial mill for over 14 months, so that’s one thing.

“We are also sourcing a few plantations in southern NSW – not the land but the timber. They are not quite ready yet, but they will be ready before our own plantations.”

Mr McEvoy said Radial was making plans due to the shut down six years earlier than planned. “We have to try to get bye and survive for the next six years. Our Radial mill will be running at 25 per cent capacity. We can run it that way for the next six years; our own timber will come on board by 2030,” he said.

“That is enough to keep the doors open, but it has given us the ability to look at a lot more innovation. We have been pushing hard.”

Radial began establishing hardwood plantations on planned 30-year rotations in 2004. The plan is still to make the business self-sufficient in the long term. The new plant, which uses radial cutting technology, has now been operating for more than five years. Radial sawing cuts a log like a cake, which creates less waste and processes smaller logs than conventional sawing.

In the interim, in the absence of larger logs, Radial will concentrate on its new peeling plant and its bioenergy plant, which operates by pyrolysis.

“That’s burning timber waste in zero oxygen; it produces biochar, but also heat and energy. That plant is being installed now and should be commissioned this year,” he said.

“We are also looking at, beside heat, energy and biochar, a thing called ‘wood vinegar’. It’s interesting – an extract from pyrolysis oils used as an organic herbicide replacement for Roundup. This is the new bioeconomy – refining wood fibre products into other products.”

A small log line is part of the peeler plant, which can peel a small log down to a 20-30 millimetre core – basically down to a broomstick. This process has a 60 per cent recovery rate, unlike traditional sawlogs at 30-35 per cent. The round log is peeled into veneer sheets, dried, glued and pressed. This engineered timber can theoretically be used to make mass panels.

Mr McEvoy picked up a piece of timber a metre or so long with a moulded groove down one side.

“That is the future of Radial. It’s nice and solid, yellow stringy bark, plantation grown, 12 years old. It’s potentially manufactured from a tree in the forest, to a round logs, to a peeled log to dried veneer, to pressed veneer to moulded product within 24 hours,” he said.

“We peeled it, dried it and sent it to Queensland; they pressed it, sent it back here; and we moulded it. It does not look like manufactured timber.”

This technology enables Radial to make laminated veneer lumber (LVL).

“I’ve always been interested in LVL, but LVL is still a commodity product from overseas that is generally softwood. Could we value add more? We already have a cladding market; people want long cladding, and we can’t supply it. But we have lot of ‘thinnings’ from our plantations. If you can get a product out of 12-15-year-old plantations and turn it into this,” he said, indicating the timber).

“Our lathe is 3.2m wide; what we are thinking is, we could do an end-matched cladding in set-length packs. In a one-storey place, use the three-metre pack; if two storeys, use two together and that’s six metres. We already have the customers, we don’t have solid wood anymore, we have engineered timber.”

Mr McEvoy said Radial would not be competing with pine LVL, which would need to be treated to become a cladding product. “We have access to a lot of timber. We thin at six and 12 years – our final thinning is at 12. If that can go into a product – we might decide –  why grow trees for 30 years? Why not do three rotations over 36 years?” he said.

“There are still durability issues, weather issues, to test. However, it’s exciting from the point of view; we could grow trees as a crop and turn them into engineered product in a third of the time it takes to grow saw logs for solid timber. The beauty of engineered wood and veneers is, they are a lot more stable. They are also easier to dry; the LVL board does have glue in there, but there’s a lot of timber in there, not like plastic wood, which is 80pc plastic and some wood fibre; this is 90pc wood and 10pc glue.

“All at the mill are excited by the potential. To have the veneers working with our moulding profile, physically it will look no different from our solid wood product. If that can weather like our solid wood product and maintain its durability, it’s great – we don’t have to start a new market, just convert people over.”

Financially, the company is relying on the compensation money that VicForests is paying because it cannot provide timber to fulfill its contract. Radial’s licence is for timber supply until 2024 but was extended by VicForests until 2030 under the original closure deadline.

Radial still produces its long, well-known ‘wavey’ boards.

“Again, it’s harder to get that resource – it’s generally a big bigger, native forest log. We have got some logs from interstate that will produce that,’’ he said.

The Radial group has 1600 hectares of plantations in total across 32 properties, all in South Gippsland and the Strzelecki Ranges. “The ultimate aim is 2000ha, which gives us a sustainable yield over 30 years repeatable. We have not got the whole 1600 planted yet – we still have some blue gums being harvested by others on land we own – and we need to buy a bit more land. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, with rural land being so expensive,” he said.

Mr McEvoy said land prices since COVID had doubled. “We were paying per ha $5000-6000 pre-COVID; now it’s $10,000-$12,000, and that’s in the Strzeleckis. Around Warragul, rich dairy country, it’s more like $20,000-25,000 per ha. We’re talking marginal farmland at $10,000 per hectare,” he said.

The Radial mill has a capacity to process about 10,000 cubic metres of timber a year. Mr McEvoy calculated that at a conservative average, the sustainable yield at the final harvest was about 150 stems per ha, with each stem about one cubic metre or one tonne. That’s based on a 40cm-diameter tree that is six metres long. With 150 stems over 2000 ha, that means 300,000 tonnes over 30 years, or 10,000 tonnes per year over 30 years.

“That’s a final harvest; it does not take into account peeling, LVL plant or biofuel,” he said.

With experience, Radial has changed its plantation model; the emphasis is still on durable hardwoods, but the species mix has grown from four to about six or seven – yellow stringybark, silver top, spotted gum, coastal grey box (class one), red iron bark, (“another class one from Gippsland”) and southern mahogany.

“We also do a lot more random establishment – still planting in rows but mixing up the species. We do internal R and D, to determine which species grow best with each other’. We try different permutations and combinations, and improve genetics, get seed, pick the best of the seed from trees, that’s important,” he said.

Nature had provided interesting lessons. “What we found – Darwin’s natural section showed us how forests work. The stronger survive and the weakest don’t. Also, it’s really good for biodiversity; there is no sterile monoculture forest. It’s similar to a mixed species native forest.”

Mr McEvoy said he did not have a one-dimensional focus on plantations. “We need both plantation and native forest for fire, biodiversity, management and disturbance in our native forest. If nothing is done in the native forest, we are going to end up with a disaster. Plantation helps provide resource and wood fibre, but we must do something with native forest as well,” he said.

Mr McEvoy acknowledged that Radial was a micro-scale business, but it was a working model that could scale up based around a resource to create more regional employment and production.

“There is currently a movement against scale. I’ve always been small business person. Small business can get scale if done in the right way. Smart decisions and implementation sometimes get lost in large-scale industrial; they are not as not involved in local communities or landscapes, but I believe you can get scale from cooperatives, models that link together to create scale – that’s a more sustainable process,” he said.

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