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Published February 15, 2011, 11:49 AM

North Dakota family makes, sells firewood from shelterbelt trees

REYNOLDS, N.D. — Jeff and Amy Sobolik have four children to put through college.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

REYNOLDS, N.D. — Jeff and Amy Sobolik have four children to put through college.

So in 1994, the Soboliks launched Prairie Forest Products, a family business that cuts up trees, most of them from shelterbelts on area farms, for firewood.

“We knew college was going to be pretty expense. And we knew there are always people who want to buy firewood,” Jeff says.

The thinking was, “We could pay them (the children) decent. And they could learn the work ethic,” he says.

Today, Prairie Forest Products sells firewood, and cuts up trees, in an area from Grafton, N.D., on the north to Hillsboro, N.D., on the south and from Crookston, Minn., on the east to McVille, N.D., on the west.

The entire Sobolik family — Jeff and Amy and their four children, Luke, Ben, Rachel and Katie, who range in age from 21 to 15 — are all involved in the business.

The Soboliks say the idea for the business probably began when Jeff attended graduate school at Washington State University for three years.

“A lot of wood is burned out there. I suppose that sowed the seed” for Prairie Forest Products,” says Jeff, an engineer for Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D.

Jeff and Amy are North Dakota farm kids — Jeff is originally from Pisek, Amy from Minto —and they wanted to come back to the state.

Amy says Jeff hoped to be a farmer, but that circumstances didn’t allow it. However, Prairie Forest Products “gets him on the farm and into the field,” she says.

“It’s not quite the same as farming, but he enjoys it,” she says.

Shelterbelts are key

Most of the trees used by Prairie Forest Products come from shelterbelts. Sometimes the trees are dead or dying; sometimes landowners want still-living trees removed to make farming the land easier.

Ocassionally, the trees come from an old “tree claim.” The term refers to legislation that gave land to people who planted trees.

In rare cases, the trees come from somewhere else. A few years ago, for instance, Prairie Forest Products cut up oak trees in a commercial development along North Dakota’s Stump Lake. The lake, connected to the bigger, better-known Devils Lake, has been rising rapidly.

But shelterbelts are Prairie Forest Products’ bread and butter.

This past summer, “We cut down 3 miles of shelterbelts and a tree claim that was probably 15 acres,” Jeff says.

Farmers don’t pay anything to have the trees removed; the business makes its money selling the wood to customers.

Prairie Forest Products works primarily with ash. It will handle other types of trees, too, if the Soboliks think the wood can make good firewood.

Wood pieces less than 20 inches in diameter are “fair game for us,” Jeff says. “Anything over that is kind of big for our equipment.”

Trees are stripped of their branches, and the branches put into a pile. The trunks — as well as branches of sufficient size that are sufficiently straight — are brought back to Reynolds for processing.

Prairie Forest Products doesn’t do anything with the tree roots.

A typical shelterbelt in eastern North Dakota produces 40 to 50 cords of firewood, Jeff says.

A cord is 128 cubic feet of tightly stacked word.

The Soboliks usually take about two weeks to work through a half-mile of shelterbelt. The quality of the shelterbelt determines how much time is needed.

Jeff says the business is good at minimizing disruption to farmers and fields.

Amy says it’s discouraging to see “shelterbelts that have been knocked down (with the trees no longer suitable for firewood). You wish they would have called us. But I suppose they didn’t want to wait.”

Business has grown

Prairie Forest Products sold 13 cords of firewood in its first year of operation.

“Not a real big year, but it was something to do. As time went on, we did more and more every year,” Jeff says.

The business has added equipment, much of it built by Jeff — more a reflection of his farming background than his engineering training, he says.

Prairie Forest Products sells and delivers a cord of firewood —cut and split into 14½- inch lengths —

for $155, plus sales tax, in Grand Forks, N.D., about 20 miles north of Reynolds. The price can vary depending on how far away the customer lives.

The $155 is for a full cord, not a so-called “fireplace cord,” which is one-third the size of a full cord, Jeff says.

Prairie Forest Products has built up a good base of customers through the years, the Soboliks say.

They have no processed wood left to sell this winter. Some unsold logs remain, but the supply isn’t expected to last long.

The Soboliks say their business has been around long enough that a number of area farmers are familiar with it. Even so, Prairie Forest Products always is looking for new farmers to work with.

Finite supply, finite need

By Jeff’s reckoning, the cost of college tuition has risen about fourfold since he was in college.

“We knew college was going to be expensive, and it is. We’re just happy we have the business to help pay for it,” he says.

Jeff and Amy know the number of area shelterbelts is limited and that it’s only a matter of time until their supply of trees dwindles.

But that’s OK, they say.

“We measure our wood in semesters. Once the kids are done with college, I don’t know how much more of it we’re going to do,” he says.

“But we’ll worry about that when it happens. We still have a few years left,” he says.

Information: 701-847-2334.

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