Reporting from the Ducerf logging team: the first link in the chain!
Every year between the very end of summer and the beginning of autumn one of the most important timber sales of the year takes place in Beaune (21).It is rather a prestigious affair organised by the National Forestry Office (ONF). With oak occupying a prominent position, the Ducerf group is a regular fixture. And the event is a high point for the forestry team, who travel thousands of kilometres of forest paths all year round to estimate the trees. An opportunity to highlight the know-how which is passed on from generation to generation within the company.
For more than 134 years, it’s always been a member of the Ducerf family at the head of the logging team. So today, Edouard Ducerf is leading the team of buyers: Philippe Ducroux, Grégory Marot, Sébastien Grisard and Arnaud Cognard. He recently succeeded his father, Gilles Ducerf, and fully believes in this continuing the family tradition: “It is still important to me that it be a Ducerf who assumes this responsibility and ensures stability over time, because it's a strategic activity for the business.” To understand the scale of the activity,
you need to look at the figures: more than 40,000 m3 of timber purchased every year and an estimated area of almost 400 km stretching from Orléans to Besançon. Grégory Marot is aware that they are the first link in the chain. “Our primary goal is to make sure that the group’s production tool – the Vendenesse-lès-Charolles sawmill – is supplied with sufficient quantity and quality to ensure that it never stops.” Philippe Ducroux, the eldest team member: “Significant amounts are spent each year to build up the stock, so it’s up to us to be as accurate as possible in our estimates. We don’t really have room for error...”.
A challenging mission
To meet these crucial challenges for the entire group, the team must always choose quality, wood that is best suited to the sawmill’s type of production. We have to select the most appropriate logs to maximise their value. Arnaud Cognard also points out that this is a job that requires patience. “The usable age of oak is approximately 120 - 150 years. But sometimes, we estimate trees that are as old as 250 or 300 years!” Patience is also essential in the purchasing process. For a sale in September, according to Philippe Ducroux, the wood will not arrive at the sawmill before the beginning of the following year. “First of all, there’s one month of administrative formalities. The project is then launched around mid-October. And it’s not until Christmas time that the timber will be at the roadside to then be picked up and taken to the sawmill.” Yet this timber will not be marketed by the sawmill until between 1 to 3 years later. Edouard Ducerf also acknowledges that estimating is sometimes a thankless task. “We are never sure that we’re going to get the batch. In fact, we only buy 20% of the wood that we estimate.” Another non-negligible aspect is that they are committed to a reasoned approach and as such, they adhere to better supervised management plans. It’s the condition for a sustainable resource.
Know-how to be preserved and passed on
For Edouard Ducerf, the mission relies primarily on experience: “Beyond the know-how, it’s the knowledge of each forest range that counts. That way, we can grasp the special features that we wouldn’t notice from the outside. For this knowledge of sectors, of plots, nothing can beat experience.” Suffice to say that for Philippe Ducroux, training in a forestry school is not enough to appreciate all the subtleties of the profession. “It’s in the field that we learn, by walking through the woods every day.” To ensure this knowledge is passed on, the company’s management is careful to prepare successive generations. “It’s important to always have someone experienced who we can trust in the department. Today, that person is Philippe Ducroux. He trained Grégory Marot who’s already been with the company for 15 years.” It is also about ensuring the complementarity of teams. “I want to develop versatility with workers at the sawmill. It’s the case with Arnaud Cognard, who often accompanies us to the forest, but who works at the sawmill ¾ of the time.”
Estimating, a rural setting for technical expertise
In the forest, all year round, often exposed to the whims of the weather or the difficulties of the terrain, the team is impressive in its efficiency and complementarity. With the cries of animals and birds in the background, and the buzzing of insects, nothing escapes these men who analyse every trunk on the plot one by one. Philippe Ducroux spent years acquiring this kind of know-how. “There is a whole series of things to check. When we get to a trunk, first of all, we measure the circumference. Then we go around it to identify any defects. We then check how straight it is and locate where the cut should be.” It is important to recognise a type of wood such as stavewood, intended for cooperage, which will not go to the sawmill but which can be sold to stavewood producers: “It’s all about the bark. It must be a smooth bark with a very fine grain. But it’s only once the tree has been felled that we can confirm our estimate.” Although there are many details to observe, everyone can quickly estimate the trees by making their way through the vegetation and brambles: “You need to count 2 minutes per trunk. For quality wood, you still need to do a complete round, which isn’t always easy!”
Edouard Ducerf: “After a period of inflation, prices are finally stabilising.”
The majority of timber sales take place from September through to the end of November. National Forestry Office (ONF) sales, for instance, are open to all those who are interested in the proposed batches. Beforehand, these batches are estimated by the Ducerf forestry team as well as by their competitors. On the day of sale, we make a global offer for each batch. At this key moment, a member of the Ducerf family is always present. Edouard Ducerf is a regular at these auctions. “The buyers gather in a hall where all the batches are reviewed. As in Beaune in September, there can be up to 200 batches on offer. For each of the batches, you have 15 seconds to make an offer using an electronic bidding device. And the best offer wins.” Demand determines the price. “If many buyers need wood, they will push up the price and raise rates. But fortunately, after a long period of inflation, prices are tending to stabilise. And we always get quality.”
Private individuals, a primary source of procurement
For Ducerf the question of procurement sources is crucial. The company purchases a lot of timber from private woods. Purchasing from private individuals, greater in number, makes it possible to regulate the average price rates while offering the most equitable price to landowners. As a rule, private individuals are not usually big landowners, with about 2 million people owning less than 1 hectare of forest. Advertisements are placed all year round, but it is often word of mouth that leads to the relationship with the manufacturer. With private owners, who are generally less knowledgeable, it is necessary to play a forestry management role. Philippe Ducroux: “Either they know what they're doing and have already marked the trees they want to fell, or they ask us what they can do on their plot. In this case, we help them with the process because our role is to ensure the sustainability of these plots.” For Edouard Ducerf, the advantage for the individual is the short circuit: “With the owner, we eliminate the need for an intermediary and everyone wins.”
National Forestry Office (ONF) sales, 20% of purchases
For its part, the National Forestry Office, responsible for managing the forests, represents a little less than a quarter of the group's purchases. When it decides to put timber on a plot up for sale, it means that the regeneration of the trees is ensured. The administrator then needs timber merchants such as Ducerf to come and estimate the plots and make an offer in line with this estimate. Everyone is notified of these sales through the publication of a sales brochure. Depending on the quality of the wood and the market requirements, the group attempts to offer a better price than the competition. Estimating the timber and market anticipation are therefore crucial in order to offer Ducerf group customers quality wood at the best price.
Ducerf, an actor who reassures cooperatives
And yet the landscape tends to evolve. Over recent years, Edouard Ducerf has seen the regrouping of many cooperatives. “We are seeing a concentration of cooperatives in France. A few years from now, there will probably only be a handful left. Today, in our area of estimation, there are only 2 or 3 significant cooperatives.” Here again, the group takes care to stand apart from the competition by being a reassuring stakeholder. “We are able to offer solutions because we try to transform everything in the wood: scrap wood goes to the energy-wood sector, small pieces to our secondary processing plant, Les Bois Profilés, where it's reworked. We have multiple uses and make oak boards, which is far from being the case for all applicants. It’s a strong argument.
Opportunities in the sector, the key element of wood purchasing
This ability to estimate wood in terms of its various applications is at the heart of a valuable know-how. “What I'm most proud of is that the members of the team have always been supportive of each other, have a deep respect for the value of wood and pass on to each other the ability to know what a tree will become at the sawmill: a board, a plank, a structural beam, a transom...,” says Gilles Ducerf who remains deeply devoted to this business. A profession and expertise more than a century old, where the human eye still makes all the difference by resisting the all-digital rationale. An invaluable asset for the Ducerf Group.