Top logger has deep roots in Clay County

Rodney Johnson (left) accepts the Logger of the Year award from Tedrick Ratliff, executive vice president of the Mississippi Forestry Association
Staff Writer

Imagine a lumberjack, an ax slung across one shoulder and a chain saw in the other hand.

While the image is endearing, that was your father's or grandfather's logger.

"We don't even have a chain-saw on any of our crews. Not an ax either. The insurance companies don't want it. The timber industry has changed ... it's all about safety and conservation and efficiency," says Pheba’s Rodney Johnson, whose Johnson Timber Co. has been named Logger of the Year by the Mississippi Forestry Association.

Johnson should know. He's a third-generation logger, picking up the business from his grandfather and father. And he is passing the ax, so to speak.

His two sons -- Joseph Johnson and Michael Patterson -- work with the company, which employs about 30 people.

His grandson and granddaughter, although young, obviously have timber and logging in their blood.

"My 7-year-old grandson doesn't play with anything but logging equipment and toys. And ask the 4-year-old granddaughter her name and she'll say McKinley Grace Johnson Timber Company. "And don't try to tell her anything different," he says, the pride oozing out with every word.

Since he's been in the woods almost all his life, Johnson has seen the industry change from the days his dad would hand cut and load a railroad car to today's modern machinery.

"In 1976 and 1977 when I was a senior in high school, I had a 1966 Chevrolet one-ton truck. After school every day I'd cut a load by hand and load it in the truck by hand," he recalls. "Not today. We haul 500 to 600 truck loads a week now. The machines have made a big difference. Even in just the last 10 years, they are bigger and more efficient. The productivity is so advanced. It's not the labor intensive industry everyone remembers," he explained, noting a pole saw is the closest thing to a chain-saw or ax his crews carry.

Located on Highway 389 in the middle of Pheba -- "We pretty much are Pheba," he says -- Johnson Timber runs seven crews, buying and cutting timber across Northeast Mississippi and Northwest Alabama. He actually has a crew in Texas now as well.

They buy their own timber, from the pine that spreads almost everywhere across rural Mississippi and Alabama, to hardwoods.

"We are very diversified. We even have a crew that helps thin out and manage pine forests," he noted.

Much of the Southeast has been hit hard the last three years by drought, which encourages pine beetles. Property owners have reported losses of as much as 40 or 50 percent. Even the state's national forests have taken a serious hit.

"They've lost tons and tons of timber. Some folks have been cutting it for salvage. They've been lucky to get $1.10 a ton for it," he stated.

It's all led to a "pretty stable price market" during the last six years, even as some of that weakened timber has been sold to paper and wood mills across the region. And like many things, timber runs in cycles.

From a timber price standpoint, some analysts say the combination of drought damage and rebuilding from hurricanes in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas could increase demand enough to match supply, meaning higher prices for the grower and the seller.

Either way, the industry remains a big part of the landscape and the economy.

"We've got a huge supply of timber. We've got a big demand, too, but an even bigger supply. You know what that means to prices," he noted, referring to the laws of supply and demand which are the economic basis of most commodity and consumer prices.

Even with the cycles, timber remains one of the state's largest commodities. Forests cover about 19.5 million acres, roughly 65 percent of the state. The harvest totals more than $1 billion a year and the industry is responsible for 150,000 direct and indirect jobs each year, according to Mississippi State University. That reaches a $4.4 billion payroll.

Johnson now will compete for the Logger of the Year for the South-Central region. Representing the industry is all the more special since Johnson and the homegrown company were nominated by Justin Dewberry and Bryant Millsaps, members of the Clay County Forestry Association, and Norbord, the Guntown, company for which Johnson's company is a big supplier.

The award's mission -- promoting good forestry, good citizenship and good service -- tops it all off.

"Once you are nominated, they check your safety records, they call the companies you do business with, they call people you buy timber from, they check you out," he says proudly. "He truly enjoys being able to help people get the most out of their timber while preserving the beauty of the land for future generations," Millsaps, president of the Clay County Timber Association last year, said in nominating Johnson.

Safety and conservation have become watchwords as the industry realizes the wide range of benefits.

"We've got a registered forester who has been with us more than 11 years. We want to help the land owner manage their property the best we can, to be good for the forest, good for recreation and good for income," Johnson says, stressing the conservation aspects, especially when dealing with streams and natural habitats.

Safety is another big factor. The company's trucks all have scales on them so drivers don't load overweight. Machinery is equipped with computers that send out alerts for everything from overheating to faulty blades.

Every employee is trained on at least two jobs so they can watch out for each other, better understand safety and efficiency on timber sites, and fill in for their co-workers.

But safety also is important for another reason -- the small company was built by a family and is a family.

"This award goes to our employees. They are the ones who carry on the standard," he said, referring not just to his wife and two sons but also to his truck shop manager, wood-yard employees, 14 truck drivers, six logging crew members, logging crew supervisor and registered forester.