Jul 22 2019

Mill Visits in Juniper Country: Levi's Sawmill Services

By Lynn Morgan

Tucked away near the Deschutes National Forest, just south of Bend, Oregon is the sweet little community of La Pine. This is home to Levi’s Sawmill Services.

Levi Littrell owns one of several rural sawmills that we purchase Western Juniper to sell through our Portland lumberyard.  These mills are turning an invasive “weed tree” into beautiful lumber, as part of grassland and watershed restoration work in central-eastern Oregon.  To read about some of the other rural mills we support, check out earlier blogs of mill visits to In the Sticks Juniper Sawmill and Southfork Gardens.  

The Sustainable NW Wood team popped in to visit Levi’s mill on a perfect spring day.  The mill was a lively scene, with saws buzzing,    sawdust flying, sawyers hustling like worker bees in a hive.  Levi stopped production for a bit to greet us warmly and show us around his operation.   He specializes in cutting juniper from the restoration projects and beetle killed blue stained Ponderosa pine salvaged from fire damaged and hazard logs.  We find ourselves surrounded by organized piles of logs, sorted by size and species, along with stacks and stacks of stickered lumber, drying in the afternoon sun.  For a small mill, he has the systems in place of a much larger operation, with eyes on the future. 

With a population of just under 1,900, La Pine is a metropolis compared to towns some of the other juniper mills that we work with are located - like Fossil (population 450) and Dayville (population 150).  Even though it is a somewhat isolated community with sweeping views of the Cascade Mountain Range, it’s a short drive from Bend and much of Levi’s success comes from the proximity to that thriving metropolitan area.  While other mills struggle to find good employees, Levi has been able to pull from the larger community to build a great team of sawyers that operate the mill in two shifts and keeps the sawdust flying 12 hours a day.  
Levi produces consistently high-quality lumber, has a reputation of having a fierce work ethic, provides great customer service, and has an active presence on social media, all of which contribute to his business success.   He sold his first stick of lumber in 2014 and has been going strong ever since. When I asked him how he got started in the lumber cutting business, he said “I really didn’t mean to,” which made me laugh out loud.  He lamented that he had a long list of home improvement projects and hated buying wood at a lumberyard when he had plenty on his own property.  For career options in La Pine, it was either become a lineman or start a sawmill.  We’re glad he chose the latter. 

Like most of the sawyers I’ve spoken with, Levi confirms that cutting juniper is unlike any other lumber.  “With juniper, you have to read every single log.”   It’s a gnarly and twisted tree, and the lumber is very dense with a wild, swirling grain pattern that has frustrated and baffled even the most seasoned sawyer.  Levi changes saw blades at least 5 times a shift.

Harvesting the trees presents a whole different set of problems.  Juniper trees have numerous, large and flexible limbs with very prickly needles.  A considerable amount of time must be spent just delimbing the trees.   The work is slow, dangerous and fatiguing. Traditional logging methods do not work with this tree, so finding loggers who actually want to cut this rebellious timber is becoming increasingly challenging. It takes significantly more time to harvest each tree, compared to other logging, and in this business, time is money. You can geek out on the study OSU did on the harvesting of juniper HERE.   Levi has orders he is struggling to fill because the loggers are not providing logs in the volumes promised.  As the demand for juniper lumber increases, this harvesting issue will need to be addressed if mills like his expect to survive.  Juniper  is still a largely unexplored product and most of the mills we work with are grappling with how to make a successful business from this unruly commodity.  With a mill that is set up and geared toward scalability, Levi Littrell seems to be the closest to finding the sweet spot.