Business as Unusual

A Wisconsin wood pellet producer takes precautions against COVID-19 to protect its team and the opportunity for a strong year.
By Tim Portz | August 27, 2020

Spring arrives late in Rusk County, Wisconsin. Situated in the northwestern part of the state, Rusk County is rural, heavily wooded and home to Indeck Energy Wood Pellets, an important Upper Midwest producer of home heating, and increasingly, barbeque grilling and smoking pellets. This spring, as temperatures began to rise and the ground thawed, Darren Winchester, plant manager at Indeck Energy Wood Pellets, was optimistic. Typically, March slows operations significantly, as inbound orders wind down and retailers are happy to sell down their pellet inventories as the heating season draws to a close. Additionally, road restrictions significantly limit logging activity, and in years past, it hasn’t been uncommon for Indeck Energy Wood Pellets to reduce shifts and slow production in March.

In the earliest days of 2020, Winchester knew this spring would be different for his plant. After years of hard work, his team’s effort to establish their plant as not only a reliable contributor to heating pellet inventory in the region, but also as a source for BBQ pellets, had paid off. The lull in inbound orders the plant normally experienced in February and March was instead replaced by strong activity and production, and spring proceeded full-steam ahead.

As Winchester and his team managed a busier spring, the most disruptive public health crisis in a century was building momentum. Wisconsin had its first coronavirus case as early as Feb. 5, when a resident of Dane County became just the country’s 12th confirmed case of COVID-19. Positive cases came sparingly in Wisconsin for the rest of February and early March, but the coronavirus had everyone’s attention, including Winchester’s. “In early March, you could see it building,” Winchester recalls. He began dialing into informational sessions organized by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce, and largest business trade association. “The WMC delivered real value as we were trying to understand what the pandemic might mean for our business,” Winchester says. The weekly calls became the chief means of communicating with the state’s manufacturing sector, attracting thousands of participants every week.”

By the middle of March, Winchester and his team had heard enough, deciding to close the plant to outside visitors. “We locked the door,” Winchester says. Meawhile, production inside at the plant continues without interruption and procedures have been put in place to facilitate contact-free fiber delivery, significantly increase plant cleaning practices and limit the congregation of team members in common areas like the lunch room and control room.

“We set up an inexpensive pop-up canopy with a cart underneath it for package delivery,” Winchester says. “Honestly, the package drop area was as much about making it clear that we weren’t allowing nonessential visitors into the building. The only reason anyone would be allowed into our facility is if they were a contractor performing maintenance vital to keeping the plant in operation. Everything else has to wait.”

As March progressed, confirmed cases began to accelerate in the state, with Milwaukee emerging as an early cluster of cases in the Upper Midwest. On March 24, after watching confirmed cases double from 206 to 416 in just 72 hours, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued the state’s “Safer at Home Order,” closing all but essential businesses and the state’s schools, and prohibiting social gatherings of any kind. Manufacturers across the state scrambled to better understand where Wisconsin would draw the boundaries of essential versus nonessential businesses. “When the governor issued the order, the inbound calls from businesses immediately overwhelmed the state,” Winchester says. “In a lot of ways, the onus was on businesses to sort out for themselves if they were deemed essential.”

Fortunately, the federal government had established something of a precedent just days earlier. On May 19, the Department of Homeland Security issued the “Memorandum On Identification Of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During Covid-19 Response,” outlining in broad strokes the industries that should be allowed to remain in operation, regardless of what individual states chose to do in regard to shutdown provisions. This included “workers who support the manufacture and distribution of forest products, including, but not limited to timber, paper and other wood products.” Forest product manufacturers across Wisconsin lobbied the governor’s office to align its policies with those outlined by Homeland Security.

 “We actually printed up essential worker letters for all of our employees,” Winchester says. “Maybe that was an overreaction, but I wanted to assure everyone working here that they weren’t doing anything unlawful simply by coming to work.”

Immediately, sanitizing protocols were increased at the plant, with cleaning crews giving the plant a thorough wipe down daily. Forklift and frontend loader operators folded machine wipe-downs into their normal shift-start procedures, and office staff added doorknob wipe-downs into their normal routine. “Before COVID-19, our control room wasn’t an area of our plant that our cleaning contractor was expected to clean,” Winchester says. “Now, it gets daily attention, and I don’t get any complaints about how clean it is.”

For Winchester, the challenge has been finding the right balance between an abundance of caution and overreaction. “We’ve drawn the line at taking temperatures at the plant,” he says. “Some manufacturing sites in the state have done that, but I feel like there’s a bit of a line there. Also, with small crews, we couldn’t arrive at a commonsense approach to getting that accomplished—getting someone’s temperature taken at seven in the morning or seven at night.”

To a first-time visitor, the changes deployed at Indeck Energy Wood Pellets might be difficult to notice. Winchester recognizes that apart from a package delivery kiosk next to a locked front door, things at the plant appear to be normal. “It’s difficult to see,” he says. “But really, it’s the interpersonal interactions that are different. Some of these delivery folks have been coming here for years, and its just natural for our team to want to open the door for them and welcome them in. That’s been one of the bigger challenges, honestly.”

Additionally, the plant’s weekly tradition of pellet grilling has been paused. “That’s been another challenge,” Winchester says. “Grilling served as a nice way to mark the end of the week and celebrate with our team.” Grilling has been replaced with takeout, and Winchester feels good about supporting the restaurants in town.

Now, Winchester and his team look to preserving morale and maintaining vigilance. Like other rural places, COVID-19 was late to show up in Rusk County. It took months for the county to record its first positive test, and as of mid-August, the county has only had 21 positive cases and one death. “We’re a small team, maybe 30 or so people who are here on a regular basis,” Winchester says. “But we don’t know where all of those people have been or who they might have come into contact with outside of work, and it only takes one interaction to have a real problem at the plant.”

As summer grinds on, Winchester’s team is doing what it can to preserve normalcy and capture the opportunity in front of them. Winchester describes the business at Indeck Energy Wood Pellets as “unprecedented,” and is hopeful that 2020 will see the plant achieve near-record production levels. “All of this is about preserving our livelihood,” he says. “This is how we make our living, and if all of this is what it takes to protect that, then that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Director, Pellet Fuels Institute
[email protected]