VCC lands grant for logging program

by Tom Coombe

A federal grant will help Vermilion Community College get a new program off the ground.<BR><BR>The school will launch an 11-month diploma program in cut-to-length logging, thanks to a $496,750 training earmark from the U.S. Department of Labor.<BR><BR>The award, a culmination of nearly four years of effort by school officials, will allow Vermilion to train loggers in cut-to-length practices, a technique used almost exclusively in Scandinavia and deemed by many in the industry to be a cleaner, more efficient practice of logging. Equipment picks up logs and cuts them to predetermined lengths.<BR><BR>Industry officials, looking to step up cut-to-length practices in the United States and in need of trained employees, approached Vermilion in 2000 about establishing a course and training workers to use complex and expensive logging equipment.<BR><BR>“We were approached by Jerry Birchem (of Birchem Logging in Britt) and he told us it costs $100,000 to train someone who’s never been in one of these things to get them up to speed,” said Mary Klein, VCC’s director of community service and outreach. “Loggers entering a cut-to-length venture need trained operators, and he said ‘what can you do for us?”<BR><BR>The college teamed with Birchem and several other firms, including Valmet/Partek Forest and Timberjack, borrowing equipment and securing start-up grant funds for a pilot program.<BR><BR>The school has run 10-week programs to train loggers and heavy equipment operators in cut-to-length techniques, and Vermilion will target newcomers to the industry with an 11-month diploma program in professional forest harvesting.<BR><BR>“It will train cut-to-length operators in harvesters and forwarders,” said Klein. “More of the target audience for the diploma program is high school graduates. For the 10-week program, you have to have someone who knows the forest a bit.”<BR><BR>Students will have hands-on training and use both equipment they’ll find in the forest, as well as machinery that simulates forest conditions.<BR><BR>Grants and donations have allowed Vermilion to purchase a $200,000 Valmet simulator, a virtual reality tool that allows students to get the feel of operating a harvester in a test-like setting.<BR><BR>The simulator puts a student in the actual seat of a harvester, with all of the controls they’d find in the actual piece of equipment. A computer screen then simulates conditions a logger may find in the forest, even taking into account weather considerations such as the wind.<BR><BR>Industry officials say the simulator provides valuable training before students are seated on forest machinery that costs as much as $500,000.<BR><BR>Vermilion had nearly $1 million in borrowed and donated equipment when it ran the pilot program.<BR><BR>The grant won’t allow for the purchase of equipment, but the school will have funding available for rental and again hopes to partner with the timber industry.<BR><BR>Klein said VCC will need industry cooperation if the school is to operate the program after the two-year, nearly $500,000 federal appropriation runs out.<BR><BR>“Our goal is to make it self-sustaining,” said Klein. “It will take a lot of work to make that happen. We hope to pull all of the vendors aside and say this is going, it’s successful and how can we partner. They’ve been very generous, very supportive in the past.”<BR><BR>Because of the timing of the grant, it may be too late to kick off the diploma program in time for the start of the 2004-2005 school year.<BR><BR>“The biggest amount of the college recruiting program has passed and we want to make sure we have ample time to recruit students,” said Klein.<BR><BR>The diploma program could begin at the semester break next year, or perhaps wait until the fall of 2005.<BR><BR>Vermilion hopes to attract as many as 24 new students.<BR><BR>Since initial talks began in 2000, use of cut-to-length technology in the United States has increased from seven percent to 15 percent.<BR><BR>In addition to support from the industry, use of the new technology has also gained backing from government agencies.<BR><BR>VCC received a $10,000 grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board for a feasibility study, and the federal appropriation was advanced by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D) and U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton (D).<BR><BR>“We’re very grateful to both of them,” said Klein.<BR><BR>