Just over a month after the sawmill company announced it would be suspending operations and expected to lay employees off, Harry Freeman & Son Ltd. of Greenfield, Queens County, is hiring workers.
"Two weeks ago we reduced our scheduled shifts by one hour to conserve our log supply. We now have a couple solid leads for chip sales," Richard Freeman, the company's vice president, told LighthouseNOW in an email May 13.
Freeman, who is in charge of the company's legal and corporate affairs, said he wasn't at liberty to discuss details as they are subject to non-disclosure agreements. However, he added that the company has resumed log purchases. "All our contractors are back in the woods and we have returned to our regular shift hours."
The company recently began advertising on internet job sites for sawmill workers.
On April 9, Harry Freeman & Son Ltd. had issued a press release advising it was suspending operations "indefinitely."
"Freeman Lumber has stopped accepting deliveries of logs indefinitely due to a lack of markets for sawmill chips. This is a direct result of the closure of Northern Pulp, our largest and most critical customer. It is not COVID-19 related," said the release.
Shortly afterward, Freeman told LighthouseNOW, "It should take us about five or six weeks to process our current log inventory."
Freeman Lumber is one of the oldest and largest integrated sawmills in Nova Scotia,. It has been producing more than 100 million board feet annually and employs more than 150 direct employees, while supporting a network of other businesses including truckers, contractors and suppliers in Queens and Lunenburg counties.
Concern for the sixth-generation family-owned business has been evident for some time. Last April, Richard Freeman warned about the impact of what was then the potential closing of Northern Pulp, at a luncheon organized by the Bridgewater and Area Chamber of Commerce. Freeman told the guest speaker, PC Leader Tim Houston, that, for many local lumber companies, Northern Pulp was their "Plan B" following the closure of the Bowater and Oakhill mills.
The province forced Northern Pulp to close in January after it failed to meet a deadline of environmental conditions. Some of Northern Pulp's central and northern suppliers are now sending their product to the mill in Port Hawkesbury,
But Freeman Lumber President Charlie Freeman explained in the release that the distance from "other potential customers is challenging." He said the company is continuing to look for "viable alternatives" and currently "stockpiling wood chips as we process our remaining log inventory.
"Last week's pay to private landowners and woods contractors was just under $1.1 million. Our heart goes out to our suppliers. These hardworking Nova Scotians stand to lose their jobs, homes, businesses and savings. Yet we simply cannot afford to buy their wood while piling chips on the ground, " said Freeman's president.
Meanwhile, in a letter to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil dated March 23, the mayor of the Region of Queens Municipality, David Dagley, warned that Freeman Lumber had no market for sawmill chips past the end of March, "and after processing their remaining inventory, will lay off workers and cease operations."
Dagley advised the premier the lumber mill had notified its contractors, truckers and wood suppliers on March 20 that the last day for log and stud wood deliveries was slated to be April 3.
Taking into account ancillary businesses, the mayor warned that 200 workers could be affected, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is also taking its toll.
Richard Freeman subsequently confirmed to LighthouseNOW the company is also looking into setting up a wood pellet business.
"We continue to work hard on a potential wood pellet operation. These efforts are still at a relatively early stage. It will take about 18 months to finance, build and commission a pellet facility," he advised.