Pine logs again sailing out of BR-area port

Pine logs are rolling onto ocean-going vessels anchored at Port Allen again.

Amite-based Ralph Stewart Logging LLC this month stuffed 48,055 metric tons of Louisiana and Mississippi logs into The Marouli, a 623-foot-long, Panamanian-flagged, Greek-owned vessel.

Deck hands weighed anchor last week and headed to a destination in China, said Jay Hardman, executive director of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.

All that wood was worth more than $2.5 million, according to an LSU forest economist.

While such shipments were common in the 1960s, Hardman said, it had been more than a decade since the most recent load of logs left the local port.

“I think the timber producers are excited about this,” Hardman said. “It’s been a good project. Ralph Stewart has brought in a lot of Louisiana timber and some from Mississippi.”

Stewart noted that he is a third-generation logger, who had more than 25 years in the business before becoming an exporter.

“I knew the (overseas) demand was there,” Stewart said. “I’ve been dealing with this (export plan) for four years.”

Stewart would not discuss other potential foreign buyers, but said some have expressed interest in his new venture.

“China is in the lead now,” Stewart said. “They’re buying the most.”

As for the impetus behind foreign demand for Louisiana’s logs, Stewart expressed six words: “The strength of the southern pine.”

He said Chinese buyers believe in the durability and hardiness of southern pine.

Stewart said his company can supply sufficient logs for what he believes is demand for about eight vessel loads annually for the next three years. During that span, he can gauge whether demand is increasing sufficiently to justify expansion.

“That’s kind of the plan,” Stewart said.

The logger hasn’t cut state and local ties to landowners and timber buyers.

Stewart said he has logging crews filling contracts for pulp wood needed by paper companies in this country. And he cuts hardwood for stateside furniture companies.

“All that stays at home,” Stewart said. “There’s room for everybody to make a dollar.”

The stumpage price for Louisiana pine logs in the first quarter of this year was about $30 per ton, according to the LSU AgCenter. That was about $4 more than the average for other southern states.

Shaun M. Tanger, forest economist with LSU’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, said those numbers translate into payment of more than $1.59 million to landowners for those logs.

Had those logs been delivered to a Louisiana mill, the mill would have paid about another $910,000 for all that wood, Tanger added.

Those prices, however, do not reflect the additional cost of fumigating logs to eliminate possible pests prior to export to other nations, Tanger said. They also do not reflect any marine shipping costs or any possible premium Chinese buyers may have agreed to pay Stewart’s company.

“That is a tremendous amount of wood,” Tanger said. “That increase in the Chinese market, it’s good to see that we’re getting in on it. Any new markets we are now able to tap into, that’s a really good sign for the future, I think.”

From his office in Amite, Stewart declined to discuss expenses and the price of his logs. He said the business is too competitive to permit such discussions.

Stewart invested heavily in his new export business.

His logging company paid $1.75 million about five months ago for the old Louisiana Scrap Metal yard and warehouse on 12 acres in West Baton Rouge Parish.

That site, at the intersection of La. 1 and Airline Highway, gives Stewart a short route for trucking his logs to vessels docked at the port.