Roots Run Deep

Father and son partner up in the Upper Peninsula

Fathers and sons share a deep-rooted but often complicated relationship. Fathers are their sons’ heroes, but sons test limits and learn boundaries as fathers teach them to become men. “When Paul was young, we kept him busy working, hunting, and fishing to keep him out of trouble,” says logger Tuffy Burton, father of Paul Burton. “I never had to worry about him showing up for work on time, but you know young guys. They think their work is good enough, but it’s not good enough. Even his pickup was a mess (laughs). But not anymore. He does what he needs to do and works so hard. He makes me proud every day.”

“My father kept me in line,” acknowledges Paul, owner of Paul Burton Forestry, Newberry, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. “Kids in small towns can have too much time on their hands, but I was either working or doing outdoor activities. My father taught me how to work. He told me, ‘Yes, you can run my machines, but you can’t just mess around in them. You need to run them right.’ He was hard on me but in a good way. He pushed me hard and made me the operator I am today, which I am grateful for.”

Paul gives his father a sidelong glance. “He can outdo me in the truck, but he doesn’t even know how to start my harvester (laughs). But to be honest, he’s run trucks for 45 years and never had any interest in running the woods machinery. And I’ve never had any interest in driving trucks, so we make good partners.”

SMALL TOWN, BIG ASPIRATIONS

Tuffy grew up in Germfask, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. “The population was maybe 200 at most. Just one little gas station, two bars, and a restaurant. Everybody knew everyone else. Good old-fashioned living.”

At an early age, Tuffy made money mowing lawns and working at a resort. “I’d ride that mower five miles to mow grass.”

After high school, he drove a logging truck for Louisiana Pacific Corporation, transferring to a sawmill in Newberry. When the sawmill shut down, he bought an old John Deere 450 Dozer with an arch and winch, and started cable-skidding saw logs. “Things were tough and I needed a job,” Tuffy remembers. “My wife and I were broke. We literally started from nothing, but God has been good to us.”

Tuffy started his logging business in the early 1980s, with a small John Deere 70 Feller Buncher with a shear head on it and four or five guys running chain saws, adding another 10 hand fellers over the first few years. “We were a tree-length operation, but it causes too much damage to the residual, so we switched to cut-to-length, and we’ve been that way ever since.”

Logging has always been in the son’s blood, but like many young men, Paul had to find his own way. “I think he got tired of being Tuffy Burton’s son,” says Tuffy. “He wanted to try something different.”

After high school and a short stint working for his father’s logging business, Paul attended college, taking courses in business management and criminal justice. He worked for a short time at a local mill before returning to logging full-time in 1995.

“When I got out of high school, one of my father’s operators quit, so I jumped at the chance,” remembers Paul. “Equipment has been a passion ever since. After a year I decided to go to college. I went long enough to know I could never work in an office.”

“I had him write me a letter of the pros and cons of why he wanted to go into logging,” recalls Tuffy. “He wanted to be outside. He wanted to be his own boss. So I had him sign a contract, and it grew from there. We have a very good relationship — I’ve never even looked at that contract.”

It really helped Tuffy when Paul decided that logging was what he wanted to do and he came back to work full-time. “He’s very self-motivated,” says Tuffy. “He gets up in the morning and goes to work. I knew I had someone I could count on, and for the last 20 years, he’s been in charge of production and I manage the trucks. For a long, long time, he’s been the key. We’re more partners than we are father and son.”

Over the years, Paul became an excellent operator. While still in high school, he ran the 70 Feller Buncher with the shear on it. By the time he graduated from high school, he ran a John Deere 290 Harvester. The company also ran a few small Deere forwarders. The march toward mechanization had begun.

“In the late ’80s, early ’90s, we had grown to about 25 hand fellers when we started running a John Deere 294 Harvester,” says Paul. “Then around 2000, we made the jump to a Deere 1270D, which was a great leap forward.”

We do double the production with just two guys over the old days when we had 25.

Paul Burton smiles for the camera in an orange hard hat in front of a stack of logs
Paul Burton
Owner, Paul Burton Forestry

A FATHER’S DREAM FULFILLED

Five years ago, Paul bought his father out. Tuffy still drives a truck and loads logs for Paul’s company. “That was my goal, and it was great for me,” says Tuffy. “I just want to haul wood. I have two trucks now and a really good driver who works for me — it’s just me and him. We haul all of Paul’s wood and do some contracting. Most of the time it’s 100 to 150 miles one way, so it’s a long day. I’ve been a ‘two o’clock in the morning guy’ for as long as I can remember.”

Today Paul Burton Forestry runs an eight-wheeled John Deere 1270G Harvester and a 1210G Forwarder. “Technology has come so far,” says Paul. “We do double the production with just two guys over the old days when we had 25. We hardly ever start up a chain saw anymore.”

Paul is impressed with the power and speed of the 1270G Harvester, which is equipped with a H415 head. “It can easily handle 30-inch pine now, where 10 or 15 years ago, that was a handful. It’s considerably faster than anything I’ve ever owned. Plus the cab on the harvester is pressurized, so it’s quiet and keeps dust out. You used to get covered in sawdust, but now you can practically wear your dress clothes in the woods. And with the rotating, leveling cab, you have a lot less stress from looking over your shoulder. The work zone is right in front of you.”

Intelligent Boom Control (IBC) on the 1210G Forwarder helps improve productivity by providing simple, precise control. “IBC is far and away the best feature on the forwarder,” says Paul. “You just steer the grapple, and IBC takes over. It handles all the functions for you, which means the machine is always running at full capacity. On older machines, if you started to run two functions, the boom would bog down. Now you never run out of hydraulic power.” 

Today the company typically harvests 100 to 125 cords in a day. Ninety percent of the pine is used to make studs, with the rest used for pulp. Most of the land is state managed. Tracts of land are large and hauling distances are long. “To keep fuel and other costs down, we have to be very efficient,” says Paul. “That’s why I run the harvester. I have a lot of experience, so there is very little waste. I have 40,000 hours of seat time, and it takes six months to really train someone. The hard part is finding young operators, because we can’t compete with what the local prison and mill will pay. It’s hard to find the time and money to train them.”

The reliability of John Deere machines also helps improve efficiency and uptime. “John Deere machines rarely break down,” says Paul. “Just fuel it, grease it, and do scheduled maintenance, and it just runs.”

If the machines do have any issues, the company’s local John Deere dealer, McCoy Construction & Forestry, provides support. “They’ve been great. They’re right here in Newberry, so that’s pretty convenient. Their technicians are very knowledgeable and quick to answer. They can sometimes help us resolve a problem over the phone. Or with JDLink™ telematics, they can diagnose the problem remotely and bring out the right part the first time. McCoy has done a great job keeping me up and running, even when we are in remote locations.”

PARTNERS INTO THE FUTURE

Loggers often get a bad rap for harming the landscape, but residents of the Upper Peninsula understand that loggers are stewards of the forest. “Logging is a big part of our community — people up here are great and really supportive. Loggers don’t want to run out of wood, so we’re mindful of how we care for and leave the land. I love the way the land looks, and I’m very proud of the quality of work I do.”

Paul is optimistic about the future. “Everybody needs two-by-fours, whether they are remodeling or building homes, a business, or a treehouse in the backyard. State and federal foresters do a great job of managing the forests. We actually have more cords per acre than when my dad started.”

Tuffy isn’t ready to leave his partner any time soon. “I’ve got another new truck on order,” he says. “I’ll wear that out before I decide to retire. Paul will have to put up with me for a long time.”

Paul doesn’t seem to mind. “My father and I have been a very good team for a lot of years and hopefully many more to come.”

 

Paul Burton Forestry is serviced by McCoy Construction & Forestry, Escanaba, Michigan.

Upper Peninsula logger Paul Burton is fulfilling his father’s dream of taking the reins of the family company.